Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a new “fish” in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets was I would never be a leader until I learned to follow first. Believe me, an Aggie Cadet follows like hell their first year. In addition to the academic demands of our coursework, we were required to join a club, and attend various sporting and University events. Our upperclassmen also led us in volunteer work and intramural sports.
What my upperclassmen were trying to give us the space and example to do, was to discover who we are as individuals, and to develop in us the desire for continuous self improvement. For people to grow into maturity, these skills are important–for leaders, they’re vital. You can’t lead anyone if you don’t know who you are or where you want to go.
Getting to know yourself is a lifelong pursuit, and there are no shortcuts to the journey. You can go to seminars and read books, and those are helpful aids to discovery, but the only sure way to learn who you are is to step out and live life. As I told my Airmen many times, “Don’t be a cave dweller. You can’t live your life coming home to XBox and energy drinks–get outside and do something!” Experiencing life is the only sure way to learn who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Obviously, this approach involves risk–you might fail–but even those failures can illuminate our character and our aptitude. I’m not talking about living recklessly or violating your conscience. What I am talking about is living deliberately instead of allowing life to happen to you. Set goals, take (reasonable) chances, and be prepared to make mistakes. Thomas Edison famously spoke about the number of times he failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded.
Learning about yourself means knowing what you want and setting about getting to that destination. That means you do have to do some introspection, but once you’ve settled on a direction: move out. If you allow life to just happen instead of living each day deliberately, you’ll never get to the next step: seeking self improvement.
Continuous Self Improvement
One of the hallmarks of every great leader is each continued to seek to improve themselves. To do that, we need to understand the ways we see ourselves and can improve ourselves. I like to think of the human person in three facets: Mind, Body, and Spirit. In approaching your life as seeking balance between these three sides or facets of your person, you can take deliberate steps to improve yourself. I was privileged to attend several in-residence professional military education colleges, and I remember being awed by the very high quality of the guest speakers we heard. Each of them, man and woman, military and civilian, were high achievers: generals, military heroes, C-suite executives, statesmen, and professional athletes. All of them had a couple of things in common: they were early risers and they continued to improve themselves in each facet of their person. They were widely read and continued to keep up with current literature; they found time to exercise regularly, and they spent time attending to their human spirit.
As leaders, our commitment to continuous self improvement not makes us better people, it also increases our effectiveness. The sort of leader who is a life-long learner and always seeking to better himself is the same sort of person who sees opportunity when others see disaster. Indeed, a commitment to continuous self improvement usually translates to a leader whose eyes are on the horizon. Those men and women are people others want to follow, and better yet, they are leaders who know where to take their teams.
Leaders who know themselves and seek to improve themselves are exactly the sorts of people we love to follow.