Like anything in life, learning to be a leader is expected to be a process. There should be growth, challenges, learning and then more growth. I often read about aspects of leadership growth in articles and discussions on the subject. I rarely see the single most difficult hurdle for a burgeoning young leader, the past. True leadership absolutely cannot exist without a clear and candid view of your past. I believe this is the case because of the interwoven nature of leadership and being a lifelong learner.
At 45 I have a past. Like anyone I have had good times and bad, made good choices and poor ones. I have to live with them. If you are are just impacting yourself you can be flippant with the past, you can “move on”. A leader is someone who leads others, his/her decisions impact the wellbeing of others. The decisions of a leader have consequences and gravity. A leader has to understand the past to make the best possible choices in the future. There is no way around it unless you want to continue to make the same mistakes and hurt people in the same way.
In order to face the past we have to honestly acknowledge why we made bad decisions. Were we being selfish, prideful, seeking approval of others? I have found these to be the most common reasons, I am sure there are others. I know that I play back in my mind these situations especially when I am faced with a similar one today. I have to force myself to think about why I made the decisions I did, why I made the poor choice that I made and what were the consequences. This is actually the easy part. Many people do it and end up deeply depressed and discouraged. This is not the point at all.
The key is to keep it in context. Every single person that has ever lived on this earth (with one notable exception, Jesus) has made mistakes that impacted others. Every, single, person. You may want to have a pity party, feel sorry for yourself, focus on others’ actions that made you do such a thing, blame it on circumstances, etc. A real leader sets these emotions aside and focuses on three things.
- What circumstances/distractions kept me from seeing the correct path and making the correct decision?
- Did I receive good advice from my advisors or mentors? (All good leaders have them)
- What weakness in myself attracted me to the wrong choice? (selfishness, pride, anger, approval of others, jealousy, entitlement, ignorance, etc)
I have spent a lot of time thinking about decisions I made in the past. I have learned to choose to allow them to change me. Not through the emotional pity party, although I can still fall into that (part of being human), but through the lens of someone who truly wants to learn from mistakes.
Learning to overcome our weaknesses is critical to both being a leader and a lifelong learner. I have seen over and over again leaders whose very weakness while they were learning becomes their pillar of strength and absolute gift the rest of their life.
A very good example is the life of Peter in the Bible. He was prideful, boastful and foolish. He even famously denied knowing Jesus three times during Jesus’ darkest hour. When Jesus returned he specifically addressed this with Peter and walked him through the learning process. Peter went on to become the immovable stalwart of the early church. He learned his lesson so well that even in his death he acknowledged Jesus, requesting to be crucified upside down to demonstrate his respect and reverence for Jesus’ sacrifice.
A real leader will tear into his past with a vengeance. Fight through the emotions to understand mistakes and learn how to not make them again.
The final problem the past poses for a leader is dealing with people that will not allow you to move on from your mistakes. They want to hold them over you for the rest of your life. The key to dealing with this is not to seek your value in their opinion. Do not despise them, but understand they have likely not faced their own failings and prefer to focus on yours instead of their own. This type of noise and distraction is something a leader must learn to live with. It is the proverbial “heat in the kitchen”. Leaders can not only handle the heat, they can not be distracted or deterred by it.
I am still in the process of learning but I am confident the mistakes I have made can be used to help me make wise choices in the future. I am looking forward to the opportunity I am given each day to do so.