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Core Principles of Leadership Development

Brian Smith


Leadership development is personal development, done in a public setting. There are countless books, trainings, workshops, and even college courses that purport to teach leadership. These courses seldom actually take the participants through anything related to leadership development. Rather, they address management training, which is a skill that can be learned. Yet, if such training was truly effective, institutions such as Harvard and Stanford should be consistently churning out incredible leaders. Clearly, this is not the case.  

Three principles that drive leadership development are:

  1. Great leaders empower others

  2. Great leaders don’t play the role of a leader

  3. One cannot distinguish between great leaders and great people

None of these are new ideas. In fact, none of them are essentially mine. These are time-tested ideas that have served great leaders for millennia. In the 6th century BC, Lao Tzu laid out these principles in the Tao Te Ching:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed,
All the people say, "We ourselves have achieved it!"

Both leaders and organizations thrive through service, not profit. Rabindranath Tagore teaches this succinctly in his beautiful poem which reminds us that action in the service of others will give us that which we seek:

I dreamt and slept that life is joy
I awoke and saw that life is service
I acted and, behold, service is joy

All of these are principles that, when applied by any individual, will improve their ability to lead. Over time, as they live their life in accordance with these principles, they will find that the people around them look to them as a leader. Leadership doesn’t require a C-level position, ownership of a company, or a defined set of followers of any sort. Leadership is a characteristic that can be developed through deep, personal work. If someone must stand on a stage to tell you that they are a leader; a leader they are not.

A great example of this principle can be seen on the show VEEP on HBO. The humor in the show is that there is not a single leader in the entire show. The politicians in the show hold power, but they are not themselves leaders. As power shifts throughout the show, so does the loyalties of the political staffers. The only loyal employees are portrayed as having deeply flawed psyches. The show is a stark reminder that simply because you hold a position of power does not mean that you possess any leadership abilities whatsoever.

Businesses are often no different than the political catastrophe portrayed in Veep. Simply starting a business does convey any meaningful leadership ability. Likewise, proficiency in business functions does not translate to leadership ability. Don’t mistake longevity in a role with leadership ability either.

True leadership isn’t displayed by standing on a stage, commanding those in front of you to do your bidding. True leadership is sitting amongst the members of the crowd, engaging with them as a peer, and through your conduct and your example, guiding them in how to make decisions for themselves that best serve the group. When your work is done, as the Tao says, the people you’ve lead will say “we ourselves have achieved it!”

The biggest hurdle that most people encounter on their journey to this zenith of leadership is their own perceptions of what a leader should look like. We’re accustomed to seeing leaders celebrated. We see presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs on a stage, cheered on by the fawning masses. We watch shows like The Apprentice and Shark Tank that lead us to believe that leadership involves control of resources or money. We’re taught at a young age to respect the position someone holds, such as a teacher or principal, without consideration of the worthiness of the person holding that role. This, however, is power and position; not leadership.

To become a truly intentional and conscious leader we must relieve ourselves of the notion that we are a leader simply because we hold either power or position. Often the emperor has no clothes. Being a founder, CEO, or owner, doesn’t mean you’ve got any leadership ability. It means that you wield some degree of power.

Leadership development is hard work. It involves letting go of the image you hold of a leader and, instead, working on becoming the best human that you can possibly become. Leaders first and foremost connect with other humans. They stand with others, rather than stand out from them. A leader is humble. A leader is in touch with oneself, one’s own feelings, one’s own needs, one’s own strengths, and especially one’s own weaknesses. A leader understands that their greatest asset is the ability to communicate with others and that it’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that others correctly interpret their message. For this reason, leaders work tirelessly to improve their communication with others.

The question then remains, how can someone transform themselves into a leader? Where does one acquire the deeply personal alignment that predicates a commanding and holistic leadership? The answer is not skills training, or management school. An MBA, assuredly, does not guide one to leadership. The stark truth is that one requires challenge, introspection, and personal alignment of one’s true, inner landscape in order to effectively transform into a truly effective leader.  These are not skills taught to us in school or in workshops. The intensity of challenge required to accelerate one’s growth into a true leader is a journey that most of us are either unable or unwilling to complete on our own. Transformational work & leadership growth can be greatly accelerated through truly deep, personal work, guided by a professional.

This is what guided me to become a coach.  After watching countless people in positions of power and authority lack the moral fortitude of even a shred of leadership, I began to realize that we were facing a crisis. Can a company, or community, or world function without genuine leadership; or can they function when those who hold powerful titles lack the core skills of being a leader? It is since then that I have dedicated myself and my life to working with high performers to transform their core skill and power into truly aligned leadership.

Each person who is set to make a meaningful & lasting positive impact in the world must forego the brute force of power and step up to the challenging journey of transforming oneself into a leader.  This will come, not through courses or seminars or even an expensive education. Leadership will only come through personal transformation and direct deep work.

Leadership development is the core of the work I do with my clients. Are you ready to take your leadership to the next level? Are you ready for the challenging growth and skills necessary to be a truly conscious and generative leader? Contact me and let’s have a discussion about how leadership and personal development can change your life, your organization, and the world, today.

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