It’s easy to make the essentials of leadership too complex. Occam’s razor—the principle that basically says, “The simpler, the better”—also applies to leadership. My version of the leadership path comes down to this: The way to lead is to watch where you’re going. The path to leadership lies within. Its landmarks are personal commitment, self-awareness and vision.
The first step on the path to leadership is deciding to go somewhere—to take a journey and bring others along. The transforming event is the decision: the personal commitment to make a contribution, whether it’s to create change, help others, make a discovery or simply explore the unknown.
For CIOs or CXOs, this commitment might take the form of managing an especially complex project, creating an open-source component to the enterprise architecture or supporting the development of a new product as it is brought to market. Those are ambitious destinations with no obvious road map. But by deciding to go someplace and getting others to go there with you, you become a leader.
The door to leadership opened for me when I was just out of college, with an apparently useless history major and clueless about life. I met a man who told me that no one in his organization had been able to solve a particular problem. I took him up on the offer. After more than a year of door-to-door sales pitches and test marketing, I put a new magazine on the map. I had just taken the first step on the path to leadership, making a commitment to go somewhere. It transformed my view of myself as a potential leader.
Later, I became part of a small team investigating options for a new business. One day our thinking finally crystallized, and we wrote the name of the future company down on an old yellow legal pad. I remember looking at that name and deciding that, come hell or high water, I would make it a reality.
It doesn’t matter what the challenge is. And it doesn’t even matter whether you personally take charge. What’s important is that you commit yourself consciously to an endeavor, recognizing both the risks and potential rewards, and hold yourself accountable for the results.
The second step on the path to leadership is being self-aware. It’s watching yourself and how you interact, learning where your strengths and weaknesses lie; watching the path you are on, the danger spots on the road, and what it takes to clear the obstacles ahead; watching where paths diverge, and learning to make choices and live with the consequences; and watching where you are moment-to-moment and in relationship to your overall goal.
“Awareness training” is now a ubiquitous part of leadership training. Every leadership course has some type of self-evaluation or personal diagnostic. Those are all helpful. But the true path to awareness comes from experience and reflection—learning by doing.
The military practices awareness with intensive training and after-action reviews. The medical profession does it with teaching hospitals. Recent research shows that poor performers are typically unaware that they have problems. In contrast, good leaders learn who they need on their team to compensate for their flaws and what types of challenges play to their strengths. With this information, they can decide which situations to avoid, as well as what critical weaknesses they have to shore up.
For instance, most CIOs still come up through the IT ranks. Yet the demands of the CIO position require much more than technical knowledge. Those who have poor communication skills—and refuse to improve them—probably won’t be CIOs for long.
My own self-awareness emerged at a major consultancy where, with only a modicum of formal training, I was challenged to lead large client teams whose members knew more about their business than I ever could, to compete with colleagues in a relentless “up or out” system and to deliver lasting value for clients. The constant challenges, real-time feedback and ever greater expectations forced me to think about where I was going. I took notes nearly every night on what I was learning and how to do better. In the end, I was transformed by an awareness of my own capabilities and of world-class quality standards.
Once you’ve made the commitment to lead and gained an awareness of your leadership traits, you’re ready to take the third step on the path to leadership: setting your vision. This is a different type of choice. It’s not just about which challenge to confront, but a matter of what and who you want to be. What is your ultimate place in the world? Where are you now and how can you get to that place? Laying out your own development path that will take you toward your vision is the final step in becoming a leader.
My own vision emerged only after decades of searching and several years of writing and thinking. The process was messy. I received no crystal-clear visions and heard no voices. Many personal demons obscured my path, and false starts and mistakes tested my resolve. Yet those things also served to focus me on the essence of what I wanted to do with my life.
The beauty is that once you reach this place on the path to leadership, you can never really fail as a leader. Whether you succeed or fail in others’ minds, accomplish or fall short in any of your endeavors, the act of working toward your vision makes you a leader. Theodore Roosevelt articulated this point perfectly when he said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
If you can find your own landmarks and communicate your own messages on the path to leadership, you will take your leadership to a whole new level.