Become a leader.Photo by Rob Walsh on Unsplash
One of the most embarrassing mistakes I made early on at BodeTree was believing that the title of CEO automatically made me a leader. It didn’t.
I had power, but had yet to earn my authority. Thought I fancied myself a leader, I was just a boss. It took years of mistakes, struggles, and hard realizations for that to change.
You see, anyone can be a boss, but relatively few have the drive, patience, or stamina to become a true leader. Leadership does not require a title, and titles do not make leaders.
There is no such thing as a born leader. There are, however, people who possess the self-awareness necessary to mature into one.
I’ve been a CEO for eight years, but I think I’ve only been a leader for about half of that time. It took me a long time to internalize and understand the difference between the two.
I still have a long way to go, but I have learned three behaviors that are central to the transformation from boss to leader. Like most things of value, these behaviors are easy to accept but hard to live.
#1 – Be Relentless
One of the most important differences between bosses and leaders is the fact that leaders commit fully to their mission and team. For leaders, there is no differentiation between personal and professional lives.
Leadership requires a potent mix of courage, tenacity, and willingness to push yourself further than anyone else. It is this relentlessness that sets the tone for the rest of the team, and separates the leaders from the order-givers.
Early on at BodeTree, I looked to my team members to do much of the hard things for me. I was the “idea guy” and their job was to execute. I sat back and waited for the results to come, which of course they never did.
I was so afraid of coming across as autocratic that I failed to set the tone for my organization. Over time, I learned that I had to be the catalyst for the action I wanted to see. I had to be the one to have the hard conversations, take the first plunge, and keep pushing in the face of mental and emotional exhaustion.
I had to become the company, acting as the very heart and soul of the organization.
This required a relentless dedication to our mission and the internal strength to persevere in the face of adversity. I could not afford to simply be the boss; I had to become something more.
#2 – Control Your Emotions
Once I began to become more of a leader, I noticed that my attitude became more contagious. When I was stressed, scared, or frustrated, it spread throughout my team like a virus.
This posed a unique challenge for me. After all, if I were to be the relentless engine of the organization, how could I possibly suppress the emotions that went along with the role?
I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and I know it was exhausting for my team. They never knew if we were barreling forward towards a glorious victory or were mere moments from final defeat.
While struggling with this conundrum, I looked back and centered my thoughts around the people who made me feel safe earlier in my life. People like my father, who never faltered or let his emotions seep through to the rest of the family.
I know for a fact that he went through his own challenges and struggled with fears and uncertainty while I was growing up, but I never saw it firsthand. He was even keeled, hardly ever raising his voice or leading anyone in the family to doubt our direction.
It wasn’t that he didn’t experience emotions; far from it. He did, however, possess a degree of self control and stoicism that instilled confidence in others. He knew when to be firm, and when to relax. He never shied away from the truth of the situation at hand, but somehow always still made those around him feel safe.
I realized that I had to have the same type of self control and inner strength in order to bring my emotions under control. Balancing the role as relentless core of the business with the stoicism necessary to remain even keeled was not easy.
It took time, practice, and commitment to achieve such a tall order. But that is the essence of leadership; doing the hard things so that the mission at hand is a success.
This unselfish approach further differentiates bosses and leaders. While bosses are slaves to their emotions, leaders are able to control them in order to serve the greater good.
#3 – Lead by Example
All of this comes down to a simple maxim: lead by example. Of course this is easier said than done. As a leader, you must be willing to say “bring me your problems, challenges, and fears” all while holding yourself to a higher performance standard.
There are a few ways I try to lead by example. First and foremost, I make sure that I am the first one to go without pay if cash is tight. If I lay anyone off, it only happens after I’ve cut my compensation to zero first.
Second, I never ask someone to carry a heavier burden than me. Though I’m not always successful, I now push myself to be the first one in the office and the last to leave every day. If there is a tight deadline, I make sure that I’m there working alongside the team, no matter what.
These are small gestures in the scheme of things, but they add up over time. Only by leading through example can anyone hope to earn the respect, trust, and loyalty of their team.
When I falter in my resolve, I think back to the example of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton in 1777. Facing terrible odds and unrelenting attacks, Washington rode to the front of the battle to face his troops. Then, he charged forward into the oncoming fire, putting himself in terrible danger but also inspiring his troops to follow.
That’s what leadership is all about. It isn’t a matter of issuing orders or taking credit for victories. It’s a matter of taking on more pain, responsibility, and burden than anyone else for the sake of the greater good. Such is the difference between bosses and leaders.