The festive season provided me with a perfect opportunity to think and reflect of my leadership journey so far. As for most people, 2020 was a strange year for me and I found myself leading a major organisation during a global pandemic. Additionally, this year marks a new phase in my leadership journey as my formal District leadership roles in Toastmasters came to an end.
If you were to ask me one thing I would do differently if I could do it all over again my answer would be “I would focus on self-leadership a lot earlier.”
Self-leadership or how we lead ourselves
Famous Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu once said:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Knowing yourself and leading ourselves is what self-leadership is all about. While it lacks the grandeur of strategic leadership or the insights derived from leveraging data in support of leadership. It is something that will define whether you can become a good leader, a great leader or not a leader altogether.
To me, self-leadership includes things like our openness to feedback and one’s awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. It also includes how good we are at prioritisation and time-management. Finally, self-leadership encompasses other dimensions like courage, being able to stand up for ourselves and being able to say no.
Looking back on my leadership journey, I’ve grown in most of these dimensions but in some of them, I didn’t do so well.
My time-management paradox
I have a confession to make, I could do with being much better at time-management and organising my own time.
It may seem paradoxical because over the last few years I’ve learnt to love my calendar and started to add all my meetings and events into it. Recently, I’ve completely embraced tools like calendly and doodle to efficiently organise meetings with others. Over the past few years, I read books on the topic and experimented with tools like the Pomodoro technique to better manage my time. Finally, I don’t watch TV, don’t subscribe to Netflix and avoid phone gaming apps like the plague. Yet in spite all of this, I am not that great at time management.
So, what went wrong?
To put it simply I am my own worst enemy and I don’t apply the tools and techniques I’ve learnt. In the past few years, I’ve on occasions found myself preparing for meetings at the last minute, running to get trains with seconds to spare and not completing my intended “to do” lists of tasks for the day, week or month. I admit that I’ve improved somewhat over the last year but the move to lockdown and permanent home-working threw my progress back somewhat. But I am a long way from having sound habits for time management, not procrastinating and consistently focusing on one thing at a time.
Becoming better at managing one’s time means less stress and being able to achieve far more. Time is the only finite resource that leaders must carefully husband and manage. Had I been better at managing my time, I would have achieved far more as a leader and tackled more projects concurrently.
Self-leadership means learning to say “no”
Saying “yes” to opportunities as they arise can boost one’s leadership journey and it certainly boosted mine. By saying “yes” to offers to attend events, meetings and proposals I was able to learn a lot quickly and to expand my network faster than would otherwise have been the case. However, looking back on my journey I’ve on occasions said “yes” too often.
I am a big believer in leading from the front and making oneself visible as a leader. Becoming visible and raising one’s profile by being present however has a significant cost in terms of time and energy.
Nearly three years ago I agreed to attend an event in the evening in central London. It was a chance to get acquainted with one of the 180+ groups I was leading, learn more about their challenges and potentially meet some new people too. A few weeks before this evening engagement, the launch meeting of a new group was planned for that same day in Reading. Later on, I additionally scheduled a meeting with the representative of another group mid-afternoon.
I ended up spending the entire day in trains and various office locations in and around London. Being on time for my mid-afternoon meeting meant skipping lunch and I was rather tired when evening came and with it my final event for the day. Lastly, I didn’t have a chance to speak at this event and so I had fewer opportunities to make an impact there. Most importantly I wasn’t needed at this event as the task required of me could be performed by anybody else in the organisation.
On this occasion, saying “yes” meant a lost day of work and arriving home tired and hungry. Oh, and it was really poor time management on my part too.
If you want to make an impact as a leader you need to carefully decide which event requires your energy and time. Saying “yes” to too many things can distract you from pursuing mission-critical goals like delivering on a vision, working on strategic tasks or even time that needs to be spent communicating with team members. Good leaders say “yes” but great leaders learn to say “no”.
Feedback matters for leaders
I love feedback and learning more about myself and what I could do better that way. However, very few organisations have mechanisms in place to provide feedback to their leaders. This is also the case in my organisation as we don’t typically provide feedback to our leaders as a matter of course, despite having the tools to do so.
I did receive feedback on my leadership performance from various sources at key points of my leadership journey. In fact, my interest in self-leadership started as a result of feedback I received in late 2018 regarding my prioritisation and time management. I also took the step of conducting a 360° feedback exercise at the end of my year as District Director.
Nevertheless, I often observe that seeking feedback and ways to improve is often lacking in leaders at all levels of my organisation. I could have done a better job of seeking feedback from others earlier in my leadership journey. The reason I didn’t do so is that we overlooked this aspect of leadership in the teams I worked with. Our team meetings focused on our goals, vision and actions but sometimes omitted the personal dimension of leadership and how we were doing as leaders. Creating an environment where everybody feels comfortable in giving feedback to others isn’t easy but it is necessary for good leaders to become greater leaders. This requires having the humility to recognise that we can always improve and a willingness to accept potentially difficult feedback.
With the benefit of hindsight, not paying attention to this “human” side of leadership and incorporating leadership feedback in what my team did. Was perhaps my biggest missed opportunity as a leader.
Leadership begins with oneself
We must remember that in many ways we are our own worst enemies as leaders. External factors can have a dramatic impact, but despite of being in the middle of a pandemic, life carries on albeit in a different form for most. It took me nearly three years to truly understand the importance of self-leadership and how internal factors affected my capability to lead. Don’t make the same mistake and remember that leadership begins with yourself!