8 January, 2024

Leadership Surprising Truth: Why It’s All about Me, Me, Me

By Mike Clayton


Situational leadership, leadership roles, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, servant leadership. All our most cherished models of leadership seem to advocate that leaders focus their attention on the people they lead.

We need to serve our followers, adapt ourselves them, be authentic in how we deal with them, transform them, and attend to their needs for team-working, individual attainment, and emotional security. And let’s not forget that there’s one other thing to focus on: the task at hand.

I’ve often heard myself discussing a leader’s needs to pay attention to the balance between task and relationships. But the more I think about the best leaders I have met, the more I think there’s something I’ve missed…

It seems to me that many of the best, most successful, leaders put much of their focus elsewhere. It may sound selfish, but for them, their focus is on themselves. For the best leaders, it’s all ‘me, me, me’.

Leadership Surprising Truth: Why it’s All about Me, Me, Me

Our Leadership Agenda

So, in this article, I want to examine the three ‘me’s, and how each one contributes to exemplary leadership. We will cover:

When you think about it, none of it should be that surprising. As I clarified my thoughts, I came to realize that this is where I have always focused my own leadership development work: first with my own leadership, and then, later, in the leadership development programs I have developed and led for my clients.

The First Me: ‘Who am I?’

Authenticity is one of the watchwords of modern leadership literature. But if, as Shakespeare’s Polonius suggests, you are to be true to yourself; you must first know who you are.

The first Me is All about Self-awareness.

We each need to be able to make a reliable assessment of our capabilities and experience on which to base our leadership. Much of what follows in this article will depend upon it.

At the simplest level, all personal development planning and career planning starts with an exercise like this – often in the form of a personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The challenge is to get a measure of objectivity into our assessments, which is why so much leadership development involves peer assessment, mentoring, and coaching. If you are to avoid the twin sins of false modesty and arrogance, you will need a reliable understanding of what you have and what you need to work on.

Self-awareness Becomes Self-understanding

As we move from the most basic levels of our careers, this kind of self-awareness is no longer sufficient to help us guide our progress and make wise choices. So, the second tier of self-awareness typically comes with an understanding of our personality. There are many personality profiling tools and much debate about the reliability, reproducibility, and permanence of the insights they yield. But what is beyond doubt is that we do have different personality traits and that your personality will influence the way you act in each situation.

Therefore, an insight into this linkage offers new choices. As Sir John Whitmore constantly emphasized when I studied performance coaching with him, the next step in performance comes from the combination of:

  • High-quality awareness, and
  • Willing responsibility that it leads to.

Thinking about how you make choices, and the way you interact with the people around you may be self-centered, but it will certainly have very real consequences for your followers.

Awareness of Your Emotional State

Adjusting your habitual responses is a big step towards readiness for leadership. But the role will test you in new ways. It is under the stresses of our lives that we see a validation of our leadership potential… or not. The third level of awareness is a constant sensitivity to our emotional state. We see a lot of emphasis placed on empathy skills – being sensitive to the feelings of the people around us. This is important, but only truly valuable in the context of our own emotional response.

I will discuss your ability to control your emotional response later, so I hope it is evident that knowing how a situation is affecting you is essential. Day-to-day, however, most of us spend much of our time charting a rising and falling emotional path that rarely reaches the extremes of the commonly named emotions. It isn’t hard for me to know when I am angry, and by the time I am, it can be very hard to do anything about it.

For truly selfish and therefore excellent leadership, you need to be able to monitor and assess the smallest rhythms and ripples in your emotional state. Each of these can affect your effectiveness and, unchecked, some of them can lead to the catastrophic failures you need to avoid.

Leadership - It's all me-me-me

The Second Me: ‘Where am I going?’

If the first Me was all about the present (and, arguably, your past), this one is about the future. It is the question that will lead you to the kind of self-confidence that will make you an attractive, maybe even a charismatic, leader. And it all starts with what you pay attention to.

Your Leadership Focus

One of the challenges of leadership is the need to have a broad perspective across the whole landscape of your team or organization. But the ‘big picture’ metaphor only works when we understand the picture to contain detail too. A big, blurry, out-of-focus picture may show us the broad shapes of what is going on, but it can easily deceive us. So, what are you going to focus on, as a leader?

This choice is vitally important. Where you place your attention will dictate the choices you make, what you learn more about, and ultimately, who you are. There is a strong interaction between the first Me and this aspect of the second.

Your Leadership Manifesto

If leadership is to mean anything, then it necessarily implies some form of direction and therefore some focus of attention. We expect our leaders to set that direction, so an important exercise is to develop your own Leadership Manifesto. This will set out what leadership means to you and how you plan to use it. Just as political parties use manifestos to set out their case to lead, you need to be able to do so too.

You may never share your manifesto with others – at least, not in the form of a manifesto – but it will inform a lot of the conversations you have and the decisions you make. Without taking the time to think it through, craft it, and test it out for intellectual rigor, you run the risk of being a weathercock; pointing in the direction of the wind, and saying ‘that way!’

Life-long Leadership Development

Making your choice of where you are going will help guide your own personal growth as a leader, a professional, and a human being. Leadership demands a measure of self-confidence, but not arrogance. The belief that you don’t need to develop yourself and learn constantly is arrogance. A commitment to life-long self-development is a statement of confidence in your ability to adapt and evolve.

This becomes particularly important when you are operating in a context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). In times like these, good leadership demands the confidence to innovate, rather than a fear of change. Leaders with the drive to learn and the self-confidence to try out new ideas will rise to the top. Unless, that is, they have so much confidence that they are blind to the impacts of their choices.

The Importance of Optimism

Another aspect of knowing where you are heading, and having the confidence to move forward with purpose, is optimism. We know that our expectations often shape our realities. If you look out for opportunity, you are bound to spot it. If, on the other hand, you expect to see failure and setbacks, guess what you will find. Confirmation bias doesn’t just perpetuate prejudice; it plays a very important role in luck, too.

Leadership - It's all me-me-me

The Third Me: ‘What do I want?’

It doesn’t get much more selfish than the third Me: ‘what do I want?’ This is the source of your motivation, of course. It is easy to be enthusiastic when immediate gratification is on offer, but longer-term gratification – in terms of the second Me of ‘where am I going’ demands discipline too. Here we see the beating heart of the third Me: Self-control.

Self-control and Resilience

Self-control will allow you to take the initiative and stick with things that are hard, rather than opting for the easy course. It needs to be a kind of determination that inspires others, rather than the dogged tunnel vision that refuses to accept reality, when events shift.

But setbacks will happen. If you want to be the leader whom we all respect, you will need the resilience to re-gather your strength, and carry on – despite fatigue and frustration. Not only this, but you will also find the reserves to motivate the people around you.

Emotional Self-control

The challenge is one that I alluded to earlier. Frustration is just one of the emotions that can get in the way of leadership. What we expect of our leaders is a level of emotional self-control. As a leader, you need to be able to sense the shifts in your emotions that could lead to clouded thinking, poor decision-making, and reduced focus. The result of these is known in sporting parlance as ‘choking’ – the inability to perform at your best when under pressure.

Choke and Clutch

Whilst there are lots of tips and advice for how to prevent choking and, indeed for how to be ‘clutch’ – the opposite of choking, I want to highlight two things.

  1. First is the need to over-learn – practice again and again under increasing pressure, so that high performance under pressure becomes almost automatic.
  2. The second is the value of self-awareness of your reactions, combined with the ability to interpret your stress responses as evidence of commitment, rather than fear of failure.

Both of these approaches are widely used by top professionals in every field, and are what allow emergency service personnel to perform at the highest levels in the most testing of circumstances. If you aspire to lead, you too need to invest in yourself to this degree.

There are two excellent books that I recommend:

  1. Choke, by Sian Beilock (Free Press, 2010)
  2. Clutch, by Paul Sullivan (Portfolio, 2010)

Self-control and Calm

You need to go further too. You will need to be able to stay calm under sudden provocation, and refuse to take personally, what may feel like very personal attacks. Nobody wants their leader to be cold automaton, but neither do we want to find our leaders operating on a hair trigger. So, your ability to control your impulses to anger, revenge, or other unconstructive emotions is vital. One way to do this is to make long-term investments in your self-control, through disciplines like disciplines like sport, martial arts, reflection, and meditation.

Another is to develop a routine or habit that allows you to mentally step back from a charged situation, to review it objectively before you respond. However you do this, the self-control to remain rational in the most stressful situations is far from selfish: lives can depend upon it.

So, is Leadership about me, me, me?

I hope I have managed to show you that, in part, it is. It may sound selfish to turn the tables on more traditional models of leadership. Instead, I believe that if you focus vigorously on truly self-focused development, leaders can better prepare themselves to serve their followers.

Self-awareness, reflection, character, self-control… These things develop more than ‘just’ leadership capacity. They are vital ingredients in the mixture that forms wisdom. Nobody knows the origin of the ancient Greek advice to ‘know yourself’ but it was long-established by the time that Aristotle (allegedly) first told us that:

‘Self-knowledge is the beginning of all wisdom.’

But if this is true, then I propose that self-knowledge, self-confidence, and self-control, are also the three bases of all leadership. So, in that sense, leadership really is all about me, me, me.

More about Leadership

We have over two dozen articles and videos, that focus on the topic of leadership, so I shall only list a few that I think are most relevant to the specific topic of this article.

What are Your Thoughts on Leadership and Focusing on Yourself, as a Leader?

Please do comment below, to share your own thoughts.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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