How To Practice Personal Leadership

Personal or individual leadership is at the heart of every successful team. It is not only question of management, but everyone on the team needs to be able to show individual leadership and ownership. As Jocko Willink and Leif Babin wrote in their book Extreme Ownership, leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame for your misfortunes or lack of progress. It is all on you.

Most of the points I will be making here target people in managerial positions but they are often transferrable to leaders in wider sense of the word. Each of us should act as a leader irrespective of our formal position within the company.

Ego is the archenemy

Ownership starts with getting rid of your ego. Ego, and taking things personally, is the most likely culprit in blaming others and not taking ownership of your own work, mistakes, and life. Getting to a place where you stop equating how your environment reacts to your actions with who you are is the most important thing to do for any leader. Have you got some negative feedback? Don’t take it personally, just listen, think if there is some lesson learned for you, and implement if it makes sense. Don’t worry that negative feedback makes you a bad person. Have you failed in your project? Do a retrospective, consider what went fine and what went wrong, and learn from it. Again, failing of the project doesn’t mean you are a failure. Getting to this ego-less mindset may not be easy thing to do, especially for people who tend to overthink everything. It requires a certain level of confidence in your own skills and abilities that takes time to build.

In my early days as a manager, I struggled many times with failures of leading my team, with receiving surprising negative feedback, and I asked often whether I’m any good at leading others. Over time, as I built skills and went through numerous difficult situations I became more and more confident in my abilities. I had some successes under my belt. Being an introvert, I read tons of books to study different management approaches, I found a mentor, I went through some training, and most importantly I’ve got years and years of situations I could tap into when dealing with new problems.

I was pretty ego-less person with good amount of humility to start with but over time I was able to take things less and less personally. Business is business and it has nothing to do with who I’m as a person. Do I get stressed out when dealing with unknown or with people who make me uncomfortable? Of course I do. But that is fine. It is the price I pay for the learning opportunities these stressful situations present. The one thing you need to watch for is managing your own expectations of others. If you push your ego to the background you may expect others to be like that too and forget that we are all just human beings and not robots.

It is your fault

Remember, you need to own your whole world and that means you are to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Only by adopting this mindset that you are the one who messed up and thus can fix things you can be a true leader. This is incredibly powerful, sometimes scary and humiliating, but also an empowering mindset.

Let’s say you asked someone on your team to do a task and they failed to deliver. Your fault! You probably didn’t explain well what needed to be done, or you picked the wrong person, or you didn’t provide good enough training, or you asked for something unrealistic and didn’t build a culture where people are free to say “no”. Ultimately, there was something you have not done that you could do to achieve successful income. So try better next time.

Or think about this example. You spent a lot of time working on a proposal for a new initiative and when presented to your boss he said “no”. Again, your fault! You shouldn’t blame your boss that he didn’t understand your brilliant idea. You probably didn’t provide the right level of details, or your arguments were not good enough, or you didn’t understand your boss’s priorities, or you came up with something that isn’t aligned with company mission. Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t your boss. You could have done something different to get the approval. Again, try better next time.

“Not blaming your team or your boss for you not being able to get things done is the first step to personal leadership.”

It may sound counterintuitive but not blaming your team or your boss for you not being able to get things done is the first step to personal leadership. With this mindset and with iterative learning you can make your next presentation to your boss more and more likely to succeed and the same goes to your leadership of your team.

Managing yourself

Discipline is a key to high performing teams. And discipline starts with you. Even though it demands control and asceticism, at the end it results in lots of opportunities and freedom. Just consider the discipline of waking up early and not sleeping for ten hours a day. It gives you a lot of free time that you can use whichever way you want. Or consider a discipline of continuous education and what that can give you in terms of increased potential, efficiency and even ultimately time savings.

For example, when I realized early in my life that I will spend most of my waking hours in front of a computer screen writing stuff (being it software programming, preparation of presentations, emailing, or book writing) I had the discipline to carve substantial portion of my time for couple of months to learn typing. No one asked me to do that. No one offered a training. It was me taking ownership of my own future. Since then I can write with all ten fingers without looking at the keyboard and it made me significantly more efficient and effective for the rest of my life. If you have a personal discipline, and if everyone on your team has it, then it is much easier to make the whole team a disciplined unit that follows agreed processes and thus being effective at getting the job done.

Believing in the mission comes next. Leader who doesn’t believe in the mission of the company or the team can hardly lead. Leading means that you are able to show the path to others and persuade them to follow. That is very difficult, if not impossible, unless you believe that it is the right path to follow. If you are not the guy on the top and the mission is being dictated to you it is your responsibility to ask questions and understand it. You don’t necessarily need to agree on every single point, but you need to understand what and why needs to be done and you need to accept it internally, “yes, even though I would do it differently, I’m with you and fully support the plan.” When you then get in front of the team you can present the mission not as something that “the big boss” asked us to do, but as something what “we have decided to do.”

Next aspect of managing yourself is the ability of staying cool under pressure and making the best decision under the circumstances with data that are known at this moment. It is so seductive to keep asking for more and more data before making a decision but it is hardly ever needed. Leaders should be able to make decisions without having all the data available. The danger of waiting for more data is that you postpone decisions to the point that they don’t matter anymore. Even not making a decision is a decision.

Second danger is that getting more data often leads to data overload and decision paralysis as often the different options look more and more similar, each has some advantages and you are getting more and more lost. Being decisive and a bit aggressive in decision making will mark you as a strong leader who is willing to make decisions, take risks, and move things forward.

Leading down

What is the primary responsibility of any leader when it comes to his team? I’m sure you can come up with a long list but in it’s core it is your responsibility as a leader to influence and get commitment from your team. It is your responsibility to make sure they listen, support, and then execute the plan and the vision of the company. So how do you get your team to support and execute the plan?

You need to get your priorities straight and focus on one priority at the time otherwise you risk the team running in thousands different directions and accomplishing nothing. There is nothing more damaging to the mission than co-equal priorities. When someone asks you what the top priority is there need to be one thing and not a list of five or ten “top priorities”. It is the ambiguity in what is important that dampers efficiency of the team

You need to build simple plans and communicate them in a simple language to remove any ambiguity and create clarity for everyone on the team. It is very easy to create complex plans that have tons of variables, require bunch of lucky coincidences, and assume everything to go right. It is very seductive to build these plans and communicate them in a way that almost no one understands since it shows how smart you are, how much effort you put into it, and that the project is a big deal. Unfortunately, the more complicated the plan the higher likelihood it will fail. And the more complicated language you use when explaining the plan the bigger chance not everyone on the team will understand what you are trying to achieve. When you build your plan, give it a several rounds of review and simplify, simplify, and simplify some more.

“Teams that are great at executing are disciplined and have rituals in place that create operational readiness.”

Teams that are great at executing are disciplined and have rituals in place that create operational readiness. The more you can simplify the processes, have rituals in place to automate behavior of the team, the more you are ready for when things go wrong or when there is an unexpected situation. Just consider something as simple as a fire drill. What is the purpose? The purpose is to have a simple process that is repeatable and easy to follow when the unexpected fire springs up. By doing regular drills you build the discipline in the team to react the right way when the need arises. So even though discipline and rituals feel like they are creating too many boundaries and may squash creativity, they can in fact give the team the ability and confidence to deal with whatever unknown may come.

To be ready for the unexpected you not only need to have a discipline, you also need to build contingency plans for the most likely scenarios. Having a “Plan B” is important if you want to keep moving fast in environment that is changing. If you don’t have a backup plan and you know that there are likely risks that can stop you in your tracks then you run into a potential of significant slow-down and panic when the risks materialize. If you have a backup plan and every one understand what it is then when an obstacle gets in the way of the team everyone is ready, no one panics, and the new plan is being implemented without a big impact on the project.

Lastly, when it comes to managing performance it is not about what you say, but what you tolerate that sets the standard. You can say thousands times that you expect everyone to perform at their best, but when the team sees that there is an underperformer in their midst and you are not doing anything about it they may decide that underperforming is the new standard. By tolerating a behavior that is not acceptable or not aligned with the culture you are trying to build, you are setting a new standard that others may decide to follow.

Managing up

I talked about managing up extensively in How To Manage Your Manager so for the need of this article when talking about personal leadership and owning your own future let me focus just on couple of key points when it comes to managing up.

You need to keep your boss informed with the right level of details. If you don’t get approval for your project or idea it is your fault. You didn’t provide the right arguments to convince your boss or the right level of details. This is especially critical when working across cultures. Each culture may have different expectations about how you present your idea. For example, in the US, you may want to start with the executive summary of the plan and only then get into details as of why you are proposing this. In some European countries, you may need to build your recommendation from bottom up and start with how you collected the data and what they show before talking about the plan. Understanding of how your audience, in this case your boss, processes information is a key.

“You need to lead your leaders. You are on the ground with more data and with better understanding of the real needs of the customers or the employees.”

You need to learn to lead your leaders. At the end of the day, you are on the ground most likely with more data and with better understanding of the real needs of the customers or your employees. You need to push this awareness up the organizational structure and lead your managers. If you don’t share what’s going on it is only you to be blamed when they make wrong decisions or no decisions at all.

One of my bosses once told me, “I gave the team a week to make a decision, they didn’t, so now it is my call. We need to move forward.” Funnily enough, on the next meeting with the team in question, I had to listen to them complaining about how he just made a wrong decision and that they believe things should be done differently. Well, if the team members exhibited personal leadership they would make the decision on their own and communicated to the boss on what they are doing and why. Knowing him, he would be completely fine with their approach.

You may disagree with your boss about a point and even argue about it, but in front of the team you need to stand as unified front. If you are a leader who acts with integrity you may and in fact you should argue with your boss when you have a different view of what needs to be done. You should present your arguments in a way your boss can absorb. If at the end you are not convincing enough and the agreement is to go with your boss’s plan, then it has became your plan too. You need to get in front of the team with a message of, “this is what we decided” and not, “I know it is wrong, but my boss wants us to do this.”

Ultimately, personal leadership is about being honest, showing integrity, taking ownership, being humble, listening, respecting people up and down the organization, being decisive, giving credit, and staying cool under pressure of modern business.


What is your take on personal leadership? Do you believe that it is you and only you who owns your world? Are there situations when this doesn’t apply and it is someone else who needs to take the blame and fix things?

Photo: skeeze /

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