Leadership and Self Awareness

Self-reflection by the Rhine

There is an old leadership principal that you cannot lead other until you can lead yourself.  In the Scriptures, there are admonitions that bishop be the husband of one wife, have no debt, etc.  The idea behind this is that is our lives are a mess we will not be effective leaders of others.  Those of us called to lead, unfortunately, are held to a higher standard than those we lead.  If we wish to be in leadership, and we don’t want our lives under a microscope, then perhaps we need to find another profession.

I have begun to read a book about the leadership style of Civil War General Robert E. Lee.  For me, this satisfies two areas of interest, the Civil War and leadership.  I do believe there are many leadership lessons to be learned by military leaders of the past, as well as the present, so this book piqued my curiosity as soon as I saw the title.

The authors lays out three principles of leadership; self-awareness, putting others first, and do what your conscience dictates. The author then proceeds to describe the leadership of Lee under these characteristics with self-awareness being first on the list.

“I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot control himself.”

This was the axiom that Lee lived by and how he led during his long and distinguished career.  Lee, like most of the men of his day, was raised in the Anglican tradition, and it was through this tradition that he became self-aware.  He had a belief in original sin, and this taught him to expect the failure of humans.  He believed that the more one worked on defeating the base passions in our lives, the better we would become.  As a gentleman, he thought that he had an obligation to do better and when, not if, he failed he needed to learn the lessons of that failure and put them into practice in the future.

Lee knew that if he wanted to lead by example and to inspire the respect of those he was leading, he was going to have to fulfill the ideal of a person who was aware of his failings and learned from them.  Failure is not a defeat it is a time to learn.  Sometimes the lessons we have to learn are painful but they are necessary if we are not going to fail again.

Self-awareness is tied to self-denial.  Writing to his wife on the raising of their son he said, “teach him he must deny himself.”  This lesson comes straight out of the religious upbringing that Lee had as an Anglican, self-denial, never putting one’s self first, always thinking of others before you.  This is the second principal of leadership that will be discussed in a later essay.  However, it is tied to self-awareness as well.

A successful leader must be self-disciplined, and this self-discipline comes first from knowing and understanding ourselves.  Getting to know one’s self is not easy and perhaps is a painful exercise but if this is not accomplished one will not be an effective leader.  Knowing one’s weaknesses and faults and working to overcome them is not weakness but strength.  Sometimes we think we can do it all when in actuality we cannot.

In my particular religious tradition self-knowledge comes through prayer and work with a spiritual guide. The spiritual guide is not one who has all of the answers he is the one who has all of the questions.  Self-knowledge does not come from the outside, but the inside, leadership begins on the inside and then, and only then, moves out.

The work of the spiritual guide or coach if you are not an especially religious person guides us, with a series of questions, to discover the answers for ourselves.  The guide pushes us to go deeper into our lives of the past, our lives of the present, and perhaps our lives of the future.  The guide helps us discover for ourselves the weaknesses that we have so we can overcome them and work out a plan.

Lee was an amazing military strategist, but he only had one set of eyes.  He needs those around his to inform him of the ever-changing landscape and how best to use the resources that he had available at the time.  He did not surround himself with “yes men” but with men who were not afraid to speak up and offer suggestions that might make the plan better and run smoother.  The mark of a true leader is to know that they do not know and to find people work with them who have that knowledge.

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