A Fresh Perspective on Leadership

By Zachary M. Cochran

As business owners and leaders, we hear so much about leadership that it can become a cliché. What is leadership? I want to force us to pause and to consider the topic from a fresh perspective, because while we all know what leadership is, it can be challenging to define well.

Ready for a difficult question? Okay, here it is:

“How do you define leadership?”

Take a moment to define it for yourself before you keep reading.

The most common definition of leadership is: “getting people to follow you.” But there are dozens of definitions of leadership. Some will say that leadership is getting people to do things (which technically, is management, not leadership). Still others say that leadership is “influence.” Still others say that leadership is having a position, title, or authority.

But a surprising and insightful definition (from one of my mentors) defines leadership as “self-management.” If you are unable to manage yourself, you will be unable to model the leadership behaviors that get others to follow you. If you are unable to lead yourself with skill and wisdom, you will be unable to lead others well.

What is self-management, then? It has three main pillars: self-mastery, critical thinking, and learning agility. Let’s take these piece by piece.

As I see it, self-mastery is about disciplining yourself to achieve what you want to achieve. You are able to make yourself do things that aren’t convenient or easy but are challenging. To be more specific: you are able to change your habits. In fact, you might even say that self-mastery is the habit of changing your habits. All of us are creatures of our habits, so if you can change any habit you choose, then you are not bound by any and are free, having fully mastered yourself.

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate thoughts, ideas, and actions. If I can compare and contrast multiple points of view, then I am able to think critically. Critical thinking isn’t about being critical or criticizing others. It’s about being skilled at evaluating the nuanced difference between things. For example, if I accept a paradigm from a client or family member at face value, that is different from being able to critically evaluate the paradigm, see any holes in their logic, and to consider another viewpoint. According to Edward de Bono, the author of the classic book Six Thinking Hats, the Western world has historically excelled at critical thinking (which he calls “black hat” thinking), while the East has excelled at what he calls “lateral thinking”—the ability to see multiple viewpoints collectively and in succession, and thus the ability to use all six hats: white (information), red (emotion), black (negative outcomes), yellow (positive outcomes), green (new ideas), and blue (coordinating the thinking process). Both modes of thinking are important and can lead to great outcomes when used in the appropriate settings. The ability to critically evaluate perspectives, ideas, and opinions, whether standalone or as a piece of a larger thinking process, is a key pillar of self-management.

Learning agility is the third essential pillar of self-management. As a business owner, if I am agile in my learning, I am going to be protected from disruption in my industry. Competitors or other forces may change the landscape for my business, but I will be able to adapt. For example, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, most of us were surprised and caught off guard by the sudden changes to life and work it brought. The most effective leaders did not stay caught back on their heels, but adapted, pivoting their business model or methods of providing value, often faster than anyone else. Those who did not adapt and could not learn to overcome the changes fast enough lost money or even closed. No more was this clear than in the restaurant industry. Restaurants that ramped up their online sales and had effective channels to sell online did well, while other restaurants that kept hoping people would return in person soon ran out of time and closed down, perhaps never again to reopen.

These three pillars stand together. If I am able to master myself through forming whatever habits I need to succeed, I will be well-equipped to become who I need to become to overcome the challenges I face, even if that requires critical analysis or learning. If I can think critically, I can determine what habits I must form to get to success and I can decide what to learn to get there faster. If I develop the skill of learning agility, I will be more effective in my methods to develop habits and I will be better at thinking critically as I learn how to learn.

Can anyone be a leader? Yes, because anyone can manage themselves, and learn the skills of self-mastery, critical thinking, and learning agility. But in no way is this a quick process. At the organization my mentor ran, he had a three-year program for leadership development, and that, in many ways, was just the start of the journey.

For those of us who are leaders in title, influence, or desire, we would do well to think about how well we are managing ourselves. Because with effective self-management, we will be better equipped to lead others: supporting them on their journey to lead themselves and others more effectively.

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