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Why You Must Lead Yourself First

Why You Must Lead Yourself First

Host of The Learning Leader Show, a podcast with millions of listeners in more than 150 countries, Ryan Hawk explains the importance of taking ownership of leading yourself.

August afternoons in Green Bay, Wisconsin, are surprisingly hot, humid affairs. Every year, thousands of people spend those sticky days around a carefully constructed chain-link fence, with one goal: watching their beloved Packers prepare for the upcoming season. Within the fence, the players and coaching staff are focused on the work of training camp.

My younger brother, AJ, played nine seasons for the Packers. During every year of AJ’s time in Green Bay, my dad spent the week of his birthday attending these August training camp practices. Most fans make the effort to arrive early at Ray Nitschke Field (located next to the Don Hutson Center and across the street from Lambeau Field) in order to get a good seat for the entertaining full team scrimmage near the end of the practice.

Not my dad; he always arrived early for another reason. He was fascinated by the first 45 minutes of the afternoon sessions, what is called a “walk through.” At the beginning of every practice, these big, fast, incredibly strong, world-class athletes spend 45 minutes rehearsing their techniques and fundamentals. They focus on the smallest details every single day, and they do it individually. Why? Because before anyone is ready to practice performing as a team, they must make sure each of them is dialed in. And no player, regardless of who they are, is exempt from this preparatory requirement. AJ was a two-time All- American, won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top linebacker in college, and was the Packers’ first round draft pick (number five over- all) in 2006. And yet, every day in August, at the start of every practice, there he was working on the tiniest details of the techniques of his position, just like the lowliest undrafted rookie, just like Aaron Rodgers—another Packers first round draft pick, two-time NFL MVP, and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

For AJ, the seemingly monotonous work was invaluable: “It’s about the tiny details consistently worked on every day, so they become instincts. In the moment, you don’t have to think; you can just rely on the instincts you created.” And for that one week every August, there my dad would be, standing in the Wisconsin sun by that chain-link fence, loving every boring minute of it.

I share that story here at the start because it illustrates a fundamental principle about leadership and performance that I believe in down to my core, and that is this: you can’t lead anyone else successfully over the long term until you take ownership of leading yourself. This is why before we start looking at how to manage your new responsibilities as a leader, we must begin with focusing on you.

If you are like I was when I got that first promotion to management, it may be tempting to skip this section entirely and jump to Parts II and III. You may be saying to yourself, “Lead myself? I can come back to this part another time. Right now, I need to know how to get a handle on the job I now find myself in!” As a question, it is understandable . . . but also shortsighted and misguided.

There are two foundational reasons why focusing on leading yourself well is the proper starting point to learning how to lead others:

Building skills. Having the qualifications necessary to get that new management job is not the same as having the skills to do the job of leading others. You are about to discover that issues you thought were obviously black and white as an employee are now shrouded in shades of gray as a manager, and the skills that made you an excellent performer in your previous role are quite different from those required for your new responsibility—getting others to be excellent performers. In order to develop these skills, refine them, and keep them honed and relevant, you are going to have to embrace the mindset, attitudes, behaviors, and habits of a self-driven learner.

Earning credibility. Do not expect respect, buy-in, and attentiveness from your team as an automatic benefit of your new role and title as their boss. Compliance can be commanded, but commitment cannot. People reserve their full capacity for emotional commitment for leaders they find credible, and credibility must be earned. Whether on the field or in the office, the best way to go about earning the credibility that leads to commitment is by modeling the behavior you want your team to exhibit. 

To read more from Ryan Hawk check out his new book,
Welcome to Management.

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Why You Must Lead Yourself First
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Ryan Hawk is a keynote speaker, author, advisor, and the host of The Learning Leader Show, which Forbes called “the most dynamic leadership podcast out there” and Inc. magazine recognized on its list of “5 Podcasts to Make You a Smarter Leader.” Featuring interviews with hundreds of bestselling authors and world-renowned corporate, athletic, and military leaders, the show has millions of listeners in more than 150 countries.