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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

The first pillar of leadership: the individual

As I mentioned last week (link here), my conception of leadership has developed into a concept modeled on three basic pillars: the individual (the leader), his or her destination (vision), and his or her reference system (values).

After posting the blog article on the three pillars of leadership, however, I realized that it was necessary to give more depth to the concept. So, with this post and the next ones, I will try to go into more detail about each "pillar" and provide some insights on how to make it more solid.

Of course, let's start with the first pillar, the person-centered one. Because, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said 2600 years ago:

"He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened."

Image of a woman seen from behind sitting on top of a column. The person is looking in front of her, and the ground below is as if it were a map map, with a path plotted to get to the destination, with coincides with the column itself. There are no other columns nearby. The sky is clear and illuminated, with just a small new one on the horizon.
"He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened." Image generated by DALL-E

Self-awareness: the inner map

The first leadership column is fundamentally structured on self-awareness, the inner map that reaches the core of our true being. By following this map, we discover all the intricate details of our leadership journey. We are then able to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, understand our own communication style, and identify our blind spots and limitations. But even beyond that: self-awareness means understanding where we come from and how events and people have helped and are helping to shape us and make us who we are today.

It is thus a fundamental element of emotional intelligence, which is defined by Daniel Goleman, perhaps the greatest scholar in this area, as:

"the ability to motivate oneself, to persist in pursuing a goal despite frustrations, to control impulses and postpone gratification, to modulate one's moods by preventing suffering from preventing us from thinking, to be empathetic and hopeful."

Goleman believes that emotional intelligence is structured on five main skills: self-awareness (precisely), self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and relationship management. These skills help us recognize and manage our emotions and those of others and communicate effectively. Goleman also argues that emotional intelligence is more important than intelligence quotient (IQ) for success in life because it enables us to adapt to different situations and challenges we encounter.

I want to highlight two key aspects:

  • through self-awareness, we are not only able to deepen our understanding of ourselves but also to illuminate the other two pillars of leadership. For example, clarity in vision and soundness of reference systems are enhanced by being aware of who we are.

  • while the first pillar may begin with the leader, it extends to the entire team. Team solidity is, in effect, an extension of solidity as a leader. So internal team awareness is a collective journey. Understanding the mechanisms, tensions, relationships, level of fellowship, roles, etc. of a group of people working together only strengthens the resilience of the team itself.

"I realized I was no longer the right leader."

Marc Randolph is the founder of Netflix and the first CEO of the U.S.-based company that, in its early days, was set up to sell and rent DVDs through the postal service. Marc is an entrepreneur, consultant, and speaker, who in addition to helping create one of the world's largest streaming platforms, has also founded or invested in other start-ups such as Looker Data Sciences, Chubbies Shorts, and Rafter.

In his book "It Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Extraordinary Life of an Idea," it clearly shines through how Randolph knows what his strengths are: his creativity, his sense of humor, and his open-mindedness. These are the qualities he has used to establish a company based on a unique corporate culture that is open to innovation, fun, and experimentation.

Randolph is also aware of his limitations and areas for improvement. That is why, as Netflix began to grow, he realized that he did not have the right qualities to continue running the company and was able to give way to other members of his team, such as Reed Hastings, Netflix's second CEO. In his own words:

"I realized that I was no longer the right leader for Netflix. I didn't have the passion, determination, and vision to take the company to the next level. I was tired, exhausted, and frustrated. I had become a hindrance, not a catalyst. It was time to let go."

At the same time, Randolph understood how his qualities are, instead, particularly suited to organizing at the start-up level, and, in fact, that is where he found more satisfaction after leaving Netflix.

I suggest you read the book because, in addition to what I have written, it contains many other lessons that could be useful to today's leaders.

Inside the column

Fully understanding what the first column looks like -that is, getting in touch with ourselves- may seem like an impossible goal. In fact, it is doable even though it can actually be torturous.

There is a variety of tools and techniques designed to help achieve this fundamental self-understanding and also to improve oneself. The advice I give is to use more than one because each tool has limitations.

A lone column by the sea. The column is very large and has a few cracks in it. Some people, women and men dressed in modern clothes, are working along the column to repair the cracks and make it stronger. Some people are on a ladder, while others are on top of the column or at its base. The sea is calm and a sailing ship can be seen in the background.
There are many tools to help you know and improve yourself. Image generated by DALL-E

There is a variety of tools and techniques designed to help achieve this fundamental self-understanding and also to improve oneself. The advice I give is to use more than one, because each tool has limitations.

  • Personality Test: it allows the establishment of a fairly accurate map of each person's personality. The one I prefer and have used for myself is the Enneagram, with which an individual can identify his or her strengths and areas for improvement, gaining deep insight into one's personal and leadership style. In addition to the Enneagram, tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or the StrengthsFinder can offer other perspectives on your personality and leadership style. The limitation is accuracy, which definitely correlates with the honesty with which you take the tests but also with the fallacy -very low for the Enneagram- of the test-processing systems. If you are interested in learning more about the Enneagram, I would be happy to give you more information.

  • Meditation and Journaling: These introspective practices may seem simple, but their impact is profound. Meditation helps you develop mental presence and emotional balance, while journaling provides a platform to reflect on behaviors, decisions, and feelings. In particular, a related practice to meditation is mindfulness, which teaches you to remain aware of the present moment. This can help in stress management and improve decision-making. The main limitation is the time it takes to master these techniques. Also, negative aspects of one's character can hardly be accessed through meditation or mindfulness.

  • Feedback from Trusted People: Nothing can replace the honesty of direct feedback. Choosing a small group of colleagues, friends, or family members who can provide constructive feedback can be enlightening to help you see angles of yourself that might otherwise remain hidden. Of course, the important part is to listen with intention, curiosity, and open-mindedness, letting go of our touchiness or beliefs. The main limitation lies in the fact that an outside person, no matter how well he or she may know us, does not have the ability to dig too deeply.

  • Professionals: the advice or support of an expert, such as a coach or psychologist, can help us look inside, going to analyze corners of our personality that are particularly difficult to access on our own. The main limitation of professional help is that the client must do the heavy lifting, so if a person is not willing to make an effort, even the best coach in the world will fail.

  • Courses and Books: literature and courses on self-development and self-knowledge offer a wealth and variety of different information and techniques that can be useful. Through self-education, a person can learn from experts in the field, applying theories and techniques to improve his or her self-awareness. For example, one book I would recommend is "Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation" by Bruce Tift." The limit is the willpower needed not only to read books or take courses but also to apply what is learned on a daily basis.

Change is possible

As mentioned, having greater self-awareness also allows us to understand what our limitations and weaknesses are, so that we have the opportunity to work on smoothing out the negative corners of our character. I like to repeat, as I have written in other posts, that leaders are not born, they are made.

Being aware of who we are and thus knowing what the first pillar of leadership looks like gives us the freedom to grow and improve. As always, it is up to us to decide what to do with this freedom.

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