Mastering Leadership

The 3 Leadership Imperatives: As the Leader Thinketh

This is the first in a series of three articles dedicated to the wonderful men and women who likely have not read the latest bestseller on leadership but still get up every morning committed to making a real difference in the work, careers, and lives of others. This series will explore the universal, timeless principles that determine how great leaders think, act, and interact.

As the Leader Thinketh

There is a hard truth about leadership development that many practitioners in this field prefer to ignore: Much of the work done promoting a particular set of leadership practices or comptencies is for naught because it fails to influence a leader’s thinking. Unless there is a sustained change in the way a leader thinks, workshop facilitators and leadership coaches may as well save their time and efforts because any behavioral changes will be short-lived.

In fact, there is so much focus on practices and competencies these days that we neglect the leader’s mind, and it is from here that all great leadership emanates. In 1903, James Allen wrote a remarkable little essay entitled As a Man Thinketh, in which he encouraged the reader to seize the often-ignored power of thought.

So profound were the ideas penned by Allen that they have been repeated by virtually every popular self-help author, from Dale Carnegie to Stephen Covey, from Norman Vincent Peale to Daniel Goleman. Allen asserted that people have the power to shape themselves (essentially, their identity, values, and motivation) by being disciplined and intentional in their thoughts. His was a message of hope and optimism in a time of strife and hardship. Leaders have much to learn from Allen’s message.

Thinking and Leadership

Good thinking creates good leaders, and poor thinking creates poor leaders! This is a simple, straightforward concept but one many leaders would rather ignore. No rocket science here. This is easy to understand but remarkably difficult for many leaders and leadership development practitioners to accept. It is so much neater to define good leadership as a predetermined list of practices and competencies. The truth is, however, that leaders enlarge or diminish themselves and their impact on others by their thoughts.

Leadership is an acquired habit that flows directly from repetitive thoughts. For example, the more you think about the value of creativity and diverse ideas, the more you will be an effective leader of innovation. A leadership habit starts with a thought, then becomes a choice, then a practice that becomes a permanent part of your repertoire (i.e., your leadership). This is how leaders create themselves. A repetitive thought ultimately results in a new leadership practice … for better or for worse!

(It is important to note that I am not advocating for the self-centered “If I think it, I will get it” concept but rather am suggesting that, to increase their effectiveness, leaders need to adopt an “If I think it, I will do it” approach.)

Are your thoughts allies or enemies?

  • What are your thoughts about your organization? Do you think about it as a chaotic, messy institution or a diverse, creative community?
  • What are your thoughts about leadership? Do you think about it as an entitlement to power, privilege, and wealth or as a calling to serve others?
  • What are your thoughts about others? Do you think of them as flawed pawns on your chessboard or as unique, wonderfully gifted partners?
  • What do you think about your work? Do you think of it as an inescapable chore or as a way to live out your purpose and legacy?
  • What are your thoughts about the future? Do you think about it as a road lined with countless perils and menacing enemies or as an amazing adventure?

Cultivating Leadership Thought

Think of your mind as a garden. What are you cultivating? Allen asserts that “A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth.” Leaders who refuse to change their thinking are refusing to grow. I find it particularly sad to see leaders who invest herculean efforts into improving their organizations (and everyone in it) but refuse to change themselves.

If they are being truthful, most leaders will admit that much of their daily effort is directed at trying to change others or alter their behavior. They are missing the point. As a leader, when you change the way you think, others will change the way they act! This is one of the most difficult lessons for anyone seeking to enhance his or her leadership. It all starts in your head!

Too often, leaders fail to recognize that all organization development starts with leadership development … and they cannot improve their leadership without improving their thinking. The cool thing about this is that we, as humans, have the wonderful capacity to change our thinking. We are the masters of our own minds. I recognize that the deepest levels of our consciousness may be hardwired, but we are the authors of our day-to-day thinking patterns. The good news: Our thoughts are the source of our power … and, coincidentally, our happiness.

Allen goes on to say that “If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” So how can the leader keep his or her mind weed-free? One needs to be ever vigilant for the most toxic varieties: jealousy, spite, envy, entitlement, and judgment … and rip these out before they gain a foothold in your mind and weaken you and your leadership. We all have weeds to pull. Great leaders make the choice to pull them. Leaders who allow them to flourish are choosing the easy path toward mediocrity and irrelevance.

As a leader, what are you feeding your mind? And what seeds are you planting to create new thinking patterns? Valuable seeds can be found in many places: a well-written book on philosophy, a rich conversation with an admired colleague, a challenging coach, or quiet contemplation and reflection. We are blessed with potential gardening opportunities—the world is brimming with good seeds. Are you choosing Plato or Angry Birds?

Leadership Character

Allen wrote, “The wise man, by adding thought to thought and deed to deed, buildeth his character.” As much as we try to hide it, others have a pretty good idea as to what we are thinking. A leader cannot not act, in the long run, according to his or her thinking. Thoughts will be revealed through actions. A leader’s character is always on display. For example, how many times have you seen a newly minted leader lather profuse compliments on his or her team members only to be met with ambivalence and disdain?

The team members are likely thinking, “Do you think so little of me that you believe you can buy my loyalty and best work with shallow flattery?” The leader would do better to spend time in serious thought considering the unique talents and work of individual team members and, in doing so, develop a sincere appreciation for each. Following this reflection, a simple, sincere “Thank you for being a part of this team; I am honored to be your partner” will light up a lot of eyes and lift a lot of spirits.

To the leader who aspires to greater things, I will leave you with this thought: Your current thinking has brought you this far. What new thinking will create the leader you wish to be?