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Leadership and all that baggage

6 min read


As leaders, we are taught to reflect, learn, and act. In other words, we have a bias for action, so our thoughts often flow in one of two directions:

  • Forward: What can we do differently that will more effectively motivate others, achieve goals, reduce costs, and increase earnings.
  • Backward: Quickly review the results of the last action, learn from our mistakes, and refocus on tomorrow.

Effective leadership involves collecting and strengthening new knowledge, which leads to attitudinal and behavioral change.  We grow, we move onward, we conquer new heights.

…  But what should we not bring with us?

What about our baggage?

Most leadership experts probably agree that self-awareness is an essential trait for true leadership development. Part of self-awareness is identifying the “baggage” of our professional and personal lives that we have to let go.

Some quick caveats

I am not talking about the performance improvement planning axiom of “Start, Stop, Continue.”  This is important, but usually applies to work processes, systems, and initiatives. This is also not just about “Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn,” where we unlearn some behaviors in order to replace those behaviors with more appropriate ones.

Digging deeper

I am asking us to dig a bit deeper, into our souls, our history, and our unstated beliefs.

Below are some examples where I have had to confront some of my “leadership” behaviors and beliefs so I can grow in my ability to influence and serve others. I have often done this by working with a trusted other, who reflects my thinking, asks questions about my motives and goals, and provides objective feedback to me. Here’s some things I have learned to leave behind:

… the negative parts of my ego

Everyone has an ego. What differs from one person to the next is how our ego affects our behaviors and beliefs.

Those who say “She has quite an ego there” really mean her ego is motivating her to act in ways that affect others negatively. People with oversized egos feel invincible, and facts or differing perceptions will not always sway them toward dealing with others more effectively. I also occasionally interact with those whose egos do not adequately support their abilities and potential. They question their own value and often stall out in their careers.  Neither way works well.

A world of difference exists between the over-confident leader and the timid leader — the sweet spot is somewhere between the two.

A healthy ego provides strength to deal with what actually is. Our healthy and balanced ego will help us dust ourselves off and try again, rather than either ignore obvious failures and needed fixes or crushing our spirit.

How do you respond to victory, defeat and stalemate?

If you can talk honestly regarding these three situations, you start to see how you need to change. The challenge is whether you have the ability to realistically evaluate your own ego, identify what holds you back, and change it.

… old wounds, failures and vendettas

Much wisdom has been shared over the years about the futility of living with old scars, which turn into hardened shells and may protect us from further pain, but also insulate us from growth.

I once worked with two people who chose not to interact with each other at their shared workplace for decades. Not during the workday, not even when business processes broke down, not even when everyone was shoving birthday cake down in the break room. This was one of my classic management failures because I did little or nothing to address this dysfunctional workplace behavior.

When questioned as to why they would not work together, the responses were along these lines: “I just don’t like her” and “She ain’t my cup of tea.” Not much to work with, but the impact on the workplace should have forced me to try harder.

Old negative emotions are like cancer, as I am sure someone has already observed. They fester, grow and, ultimately, affect much more than the initial area or relationship.

Handled early, negative emotions are often easily addressed. Handled later, they become a leader’s nightmare.

Of course, a leader has no credibility or ability to handle the negative emotions of others, if they have not first handled their own. Reflect on these questions:

What emotions arise when I think of people I work with?  What do those emotions stem from?  What resemblance to the current situation do my emotional responses bear?  What is my role in changing my negative emotions to more positive ones?

Hint: the answer to the last question is always “All the responsibility is mine.”

… myths about leadership

Here’s a few that I have noticed over the years:

  • Leaders are always right about themselves, about others, and about the work.
  • Leaders always possess titles and authority.
  • Leaders are different from the rest of us.
  • Leaders do not doubt themselves or their actions.

I am sure you can list more. I wasted years of my work life trying to live up to some of these myths, because I did not recognize them as idealizations, generalizations, over-simplifications, and just plain wrong. Let’s just cut to the chase regarding these myths:

Brief debunking: Leaders are not perfect, all-knowing or all that different from others. Leaders do not need or depend on titles, hierarchy, or visible signs of holding power.

Rather than continue to accept and act based on these myths, I suggest the following, which will be familiar ground to those who take leadership seriously:

  • A leader can be you or me. Leaders are anyone who believes in themselves and others, and acts on this belief.
  • Leaders are human beings with faults and shortcomings.
  • Leaders exist at all levels of your organization, no matter its size or focus.

Bonus point: If you are still a little hazy about what you need to leave behind, here’s a thought:

If you have developed some sense of trust with those you service, ask them to tell you honestly what you need to leave behind.

If you have that trust, you will learn much. If you do not have that trust, you will learn little. Either way, you have learned something about where you are starting. You may not yet know what to dump, but you will know that you need to do something.

So the questions to leave you pondering are deceptively simple:

  • What attitudes and beliefs do you need to leave behind?
  • What do you need in place to determine this?
  • How will you actually change?

Notes: Inspired by a message entitled “Whom Do You Follow? What Will You Leave Behind?” based on Mark 1: 14–20 from Senior Pastor Jeff Moore on Sunday, Jan. 25, at Webster Groves Christian Church in St. Louis.

John E. Smith is The Strategic Learner. His work has him facilitate, coach, teach, train, organize, manage, write, speak, design, and lead in the areas of leadership development, transformational learning, and human behavior. Find Smith on FacebookLinkedIn, Twitter, and Tumblr.

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