Loving the Toughest to Lead

Loving the Toughest to Lead by Jamie Hansen

Effective leadership arguably involves a certain amount of love. Not of the romantic variety so much, but certainly the type that involves showing respect, affirmation, and positive regard for others. Like the love of a coach for her players or the dedication of a staff sergeant to his squad. As Joel Manby, author of Love Works so aptly stated, "Treating someone with love regardless of how you feel about that person is a very powerful principle. It can make us great spouses, great parents, and great friends. Great leaders too." 

To his point, the more we separate our temporary feelings for someone (the noun version of love) from our decision to treat them with value and respect (the verb version of love), the more effective we can be in any of our relationships and roles, leadership included. And to be fair, many of us have experienced a relationship or two that has required an extra dose of intentionality for us to lean into the verb side of love. Does anyone come to mind? Yeah, me too, but fortunately we're not naming names today. In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren referred to those individuals that may come to mind as "EGR's," meaning, "Extra Grace Required." In my case, many of those EGR relationships have helped me to become a stronger and more loving leader and person in the long run. Can you relate?

This brings us to the question, who's the toughest to lead? Or, who in my life fits this role? Well, if you ask leadership guru John C. Maxwell, he actually titled Chapter 2 of his book Leadership Gold with the answer to this question: "The Toughest Person to Lead is Always Yourself." Ouch. And also true. I can find my biggest leadership EGR in the mirror. And so can you. Thus, any conversation about loving the toughest to lead has to start with ourselves. Furthermore, the discipline of leading ourselves well reaps double dividends in that it not only aids in our growth but in that of those around us.

I heard a comment recently that, "Leadership is self-care," and I thought how very true that is.  Personally, I can look back on times in my life when I've let self-care slip down the ladder of priority, and the fact that it didn't take long for that to have a significant impact on my leadership ability. This can happen in the sense of our physical self-care (nutrition, exercise, sleep), managing our time (organization and prioritization), or even caring for our mental health. While the first two may be more obvious, care for our mental health and thought life can easily be overlooked. Perhaps you've heard of "THINK -- FEEL -- ACT," the common principle that underscores the importance of our thoughts in relation to our emotions and behavior. Psychologists have held for decades that almost all of how we respond to the circumstances around us happens in this order. Knowing this formula means that changing our thinking can absolutely change our lives. I'm a firm believer that our mental health care sets up our ability to manage other parts of our lives so powerfully that we'll spend the rest of our time together right here.

Connecting the dots to this point:  

  • There's a certain amount of love that goes into leading others well.
  • The toughest person we lead is in the mirror -- ourselves.
  • Leading ourselves well up-levels our leadership of others.
  • Effective leadership involves self-care.
  • Care for our mental health is just as important as care for our physical and social health.

John C. Maxwell says, "The most important person you talk to all day is yourself." Let's think on this -- If you serve others, lead others, care for others, etc., that's a pretty important person you're talking to!  And since the way we often talk to ourselves comes in the form of our thoughts, I want to call out three thought patterns leaders are especially prone to that may not be serving us well, and that can go a long way in supporting our self-care if we learn to manage, if not minimize altogether.

  1. Perfectionism.  I like to call this the "Responsible Person's Problem." After all, a certain amount of shooting for perfection is what got us to where we are today.  Pushing ourselves to achieve the highest and best possible outcomes has resulted in just that so much that we may begin to believe there's no other way.  And ironically, the mental practice that's carried us so far can become the very thing that slows us down and even paralyzes us.  "If I can't do this perfectly, and/or perfectly the first time, then what's the point?" This line of thinking can allow a fear of failure to creep in that can also get in the way of our growth.  We can start missing the lessons that come from trial and error along the way.  John C. Maxwell takes this further when he states, "If you're not getting as much success as you'd like, consider failing more."  Uh, what?  That was my reaction when I first heard that, but it was the challenge to my own perfectionistic tendencies I needed to hear.  To use a basketball analogy, if we're not scoring enough points, perhaps it's because we're not taking enough shots.  How to combat perfectionistic thinking?  Start taking more shots and look forward to the learning that comes from the missed ones.  
  2. Comparison thinking. This one can also be in our human nature and part of our self-motivation for success that is, in seeing the success of others and using that as something to strive for.  Like perfectionistic thinking, this one can serve us to a point, but then loses its value when taken too far. When we compare ourselves to others, our tendency is to compare everything we know about ourselves (the good, bad, and ugly) to only the external or good image put on by others.  That really puts us in a lose-lose situation.  How to combat comparison thinking?  Two steps for this one:  1) Be actively grateful for where you are today, and 2) Establish and write down a vision of the you you're growing toward.  Keep on looking forward and take one step closer in that direction.
  3. "Should thinking."  Another significant temptation for driven and successful people, this line of thinking can work for a while and then can inhibit us when not kept in check.  Like a runaway freight train, the "coulda- shoulda- woulda's" we beat ourselves up with can do a lot of damage and be very hard on the most important person we talk to all day. What to do about this one?  As the renowned late psychologist Albert Ellis would say, "Stop should-ing all over ourselves!  Take the lesson, decide we'll be smarter next time, and move on!"  He could be a little edgy as you might deduct, but he's on point.  Dwelling on the things of yesterday that we can't change only rob us of today's energy and creativity.  It's OK to move on!

To come full circle, when we can accomplish better care for ourselves as leaders by examining and establishing some thought patterns that serve our mental health, it's a big step in leading ourselves well and our boat floats a little higher.  If we can do this for the toughest amongst us to lead (back to that mirror) we can certainly do it for others, all steps in the right direction toward the growth and results we're looking for.  


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