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Great Leaders Live Beyond Themselves

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At a very personal and private moment with one of my clients, a new CEO,  he asked me, “How did you learn what you know?”   I have been teaching CEO’s how to be great leaders for nearly 30 years, I didn’t know how to answer his question.  I have been pondering his question ever since.  I was raised during a time when you started your career with a mentor.  Mine was an Executive at General Motors, I was a senior in college lucky enough to be working in strategic planning and product development for Oldsmobile.  He was my mentor for 15 years, one of the gifts he shared with me was the following:

Beyond Yourself

In his book My Grandfather’s Son, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks of his grandfather’s example.  When Thomas was nine years old, he and his older brother went to live with his grandparents.  His grandfather instructed the young boys that they should not just do what he said, but do as he did.  He held himself to a high standard and level of accountability.  Looking back, Thomas says, “…example is worth a thousand lectures.”

If only more CEOs and executives would grasp this basic concept of effective leadership.  Granted, CEOs and executives have demanding jobs, constantly under pressure to provide answers, fix what is wrong, and produce financial results in a fast changing and highly competitive market environment.   Even so, it’s amazing to see leaders destroy the credibility of their communications and plans due to a lack of personal or professional discipline.

The CEO is an example for the entire organization.  Scott McNealy, co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, once commented that when you occupy higher paid, highly visible leadership roles, you must live “beyond yourself.”  In other words, a leader must demonstrate a clear willingness to set aside individual desires, motives, and preferences, acting in a manner of transparent character and integrity – not just at work, not just in front of employees, but every single moment of every single day, in public and in private.

These are intense expectations.  To meet them, CEOs and executives must be mentally and physically fit.  Think of the most disciplined CEOs you know.  Are they physically fit?  Likely, they are.  It’s not uncommon for CEOs and executives to compete in marathons, triathlons, or other physically demanding activities.  We all know the physical and psychological health benefits of staying in shape, but the personal discipline required for getting (and staying) in shape carries over into other areas of life, including work.

Employees are more likely to be disciplined in their work when they see discipline modeled by their leaders.  Remember, your example is worth a thousand lectures.

Are you willing to live “beyond yourself?”

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