The First Person You Should Lead

If you aspire to lead other people, being consistently the same person in private that you are when you are with others is paramount to establishing credibility and influence.

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Ben Dooley

University of Tennessee College of Law

Class of 2023

In my first year of law school, I celebrated my fourth year of marriage; fathered my first child; trained for, and ran a Half-Ironman; built a small triathlon brand complete with corporate sponsors; and finished my 1L year with high honors. This is an impressive list, but if I am brutally honest, I must admit that I am not an exceptionally gifted or intelligent person. In fact, it is likely that most people who read this article have a higher undergraduate GPA and/or LSAT score than me. The reason I have found a measure of success lies in a recent commitment to self-leadership. 

I have always aspired to be a leader and, as a result, I found myself in various leadership roles starting in high school. But aspiring to be a leader and actually leading people are two different things. I quickly discovered that I am not a “natural-born leader.” I am an opportunist, and leadership appeared to be a phenomenal opportunity to make a name for myself. Thankfully, in my old age (nearly 30 now!), my view and practice of leadership has changed. Through my own leadership journey, I discovered that the most effective and successful leaders are the individuals who focus acutely on self-leadership. The first person every leader must lead effectively is themself. 

Leading yourself is no small task though. Believe it or not, it is far easier to lead others than to lead yourself. This is because when we are leading others, we can pretend to be the type of person that people want to follow. But when we are leading ourselves, there is no pretending. We are keenly aware of just how scared, undisciplined, unmotivated, unkind, and inconsistent we can be. This reality is why we can all name seemingly effective leaders who have shocking personal issues that eventually cost them their leadership platform. I would argue that they, much like us, find leading others to be easier than leading themselves. 

So, why does it matter if I lead myself? In short, it’s impossible to be a life-long effective leader without integrity. And integrity is achieved through self-leadership. Almost all people conduct themselves differently in public as opposed to when “no one is looking.” We project an impression of ourselves in front of others and then denigrate to who we truly are when we are in private. In other words, we lack integrity. If you aspire to lead other people, being consistently the same person in private that you are when you are with others is paramount to establishing credibility and influence. 

The only way to achieve this type of consistency is to commit to leading yourself. Making such a commitment requires a plan, goals, intentional effort, discipline, and the ability to show yourself grace as you grow. It requires facing your shortcomings with brutal honesty instead of living blissfully ignorant. Self-leadership is painful, but it is vital. Without it, our integrity and our leadership will be no different than any number of disgraced leaders we can each name. Left unaltered, we can also expect our leadership careers to end similarly.

In no way is this an exhaustive article on the importance of self-leadership. I couldn’t possibly detail all the positive effects that leading yourself can have on your career, future spouse and/or children, hobbies, and general success. Instead, I have chosen to fire a flare that briefly illuminates self-leadership as the common denominator among leaders who experience long-term success. My life is living proof that an exceptionally average individual can find success in many different areas of life by making a concerted effort to lead oneself every day.

In closing, I would encourage you to consider how embracing self-leadership could change your life. It comes with a cost, but the results far outweigh the sacrifice. If you aspire to live a life that makes a difference for others, you must begin with making a difference in yourself. If you desire to accomplish great things without, you must first accomplish great things within. Convincing yourself to “buy in” to self-leadership will easily be your hardest assignment as a leader. Don’t let this intimidate you. The life of impact you desire is waiting. All that stands in the way is you! 

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