Posted by: chrismaser | May 12, 2010


Although you, as a leader, cannot realistically expect to succeed all the time, you can, as Hubert Humphrey counseled, “. . . live your life so that even when you lose, you end up ahead.” Having said this, it is still necessary to remember that even an experienced leader can become glum and begin to doubt their value as a leader when forced to admit that there are people, sometimes whole audiences, whom they cannot touch in a significant way. As a leader, you must have the self-honesty to admit you cannot work successfully with everyone.

As a leader, there is a delicate balance between learning your realistic limits and challenging what you sometime perceive as “limits.” You may, for example, tell yourself that you could never work with a certain of person or group because you differ so much in you thinking that you could not “identify with them,” so they would never trust you or you them.

To find out how real your perceived handicap is, however, it might be a good idea to test what you perceive as your limitations and open yourself to the person or group. If you dare to risk feeling uncomfortable for a while, you may find there are more grounds for identifying with the person or group than you thought. Thus, before deciding that you don’t have the necessary life experiences, philosophical compatibility, or personal qualities to work successfully with a particular group of people, you might expand your leadership abilities by finding mentors in this selfsame group of people and develop the habit of asking for, receiving, and using ideas and counsel from the people around you.

Cultivate an appreciation of information from people who can help you improve your leadership abilities and give you ideas for helping others. Develop a comfortable habit of systematically asking for, receiving, and using ideas, impressions, and counsel from those around you.

Listen carefully when you ask for counsel. Learn to ask the right questions for a maximum return, and, when possible, let people know how you have used what they told you. If you do not customarily ask for feedback, spend some time learning how.

You might, for example, say to someone you respect: “I think of you as a mentor and would appreciate hearing any ideas you might have that could help me improve my leadership skills.” You might also ask, “How did you feel about my speech today? Can you suggest ways in which I can improve the next one?”

With colleagues, you would be wise to establish a continual flow of helpful feedback by asking questions or restating information to make sure you understand the counsel they are giving you: “Did I understand you when you said . . .?” or “Let me get this clear . . .,” or perhaps “If I understood you correctly, I thought I heard you say. . . .” Again, let them know when and how you use it.

Remember, choose your counselors carefully. If you ask for counsel from a position of strength and authentic desire to improve, you will find that most people are willing to help you.

When you are fortunate enough to receive good information, accept it at face value in a defenseless demeanor. If is feels overly critical, accept it gracefully nevertheless. Assess it fairly from a point of personal detachment. Remember, you asked for it, and it is given as a helping gesture.

It is also important to show genuine behavioral change. People feel gratified when they see their counsel put to good, honest use, and they are more likely to continue to act like your mirror as you improve your abilities to lead.

You might even find your own self-evaluation useful. Ask yourself some questions after important meetings. Formally debrief yourself by asking: Did I open the session well? Did I say the right things and ask the right questions? Did I speak from my heart? Did I get the desired outcome for the good of the whole?

You might also debrief yourself at the end of each day, or at least at the end of days with important events: What did I do today?” “What did I need to do that I left undone? How can I do it better tomorrow? Follow up in a similar manner at the end of each week, month, and year.

Despite all this, you will have difficult times, which any mentor will tell you are times of personal growth. Appraise your own efforts when you encounter such difficulty, and determine what you have learned from the experience because every difficulty has hidden within a lesson you need to learn. Good judgment, after all, is often based on one or more bad experiences. You might also ask friends and colleagues how they handled the same problem or circumstance when they encountered it.

When confronted by a problem, imagine all the likely scenarios you could use to resolve it. This might include developing a flowchart of the options open to you. As your skills of simulation deepen, you will gradually become adept at predicting solutions to problems before they occur, which brings to mind a building contractor I met some years ago on an airplane.

I asked him how he built a house. “Well,” he replied, “I build each house at least a hundred times in my mind before I purchase the first nail or board. That way I see the problems before they arise and have figured out how to fix them with the least cost and loss of time. I’m the only person who really ‘knows’ the house. I know it better than the owners ever will, even if they live in it for 50 years!”

Another thing you might do as you happen upon important principles or conclusions about your leadership is record them in your personal “lesson” book. Although it may take years, your book will fill in with time and will become a powerful source of information, as well as a record of your personal growth and accomplishments.

However much you may think you require help in expanding your own perceived limitations of leadership, you undoubtedly have talents and skill that you can offer to someone else. Do it. Act as a mentor to a less experienced peer, and you will find that you are also helping yourself by sharpening your own skills of human relationships, which will in turn motivate you to learn and excel in your own ability to lead while helping to avoid self-deception.1

Series on Leadership Challenges:

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• Dealing With Anxiety

• Use Of Power

• Criticism In The Form Of Projection

• Criticism And Your Image

• Being And Disclosing Yourself

• The Zen Of Perfection

• Honesty With Followers

• Understanding Silence

• Understanding The Need To Be Heard

• Establishing Your Boundaries

• Dealing With The Uncommitted

• Accepting Slow Or Delayed Results

• Avoiding Self-Deception


  1. The foregoing discussion in based on: (1) Fred Pryor. Do You Have An Appetite For Input? The Toastmaster 63 (1997):11; (2) Richard G. Ensman, Jr. Become Your Own Mentor. The Toastmaster 63 (1997):14-15; (3)Luann Lee Brown. Coping With a Disliked Member. The Toastmaster 63 (1997):6-7.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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