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Marius, head of engineering for a mid-size software startup, grumbled. Surrounded by seemingly ecstatic participants, Marius was here under duress. His fellow executives had ganged up on him and forced him to take this seminar. They claimed to be looking out for his best interests, that he seemed crazy stressed, and that a “fun” workshop about leadership would be just the ticket for letting go of his woes.

“Bah, humbug,” he muttered.

“Not a raving fan like everyone else?” his next-seat-over neighbor asked.

“What?” Marius asked back.

“I heard your ‘bah, humbug’,” his neighbor explained. “So, I guessed you’re not the raving fan everyone else seems to be. I’m Alec, by the way,” his neighbor finished up, extending his hand in greeting.

Still a bit bewildered by the unexpected conversation, Marius took Alec’s proffered hand, more out of habit than anything else. “Nice to meet you, Alec,” he responded. “I’m Marius. And no, I’m not a fan, raving or otherwise.”

“Boss made you come?” Alec guessed in proactive sympathy.

“The rest of my exec team. Apparently, I’ve been going off the rails recently. Not that they put it that way. They’re much too nice to ever put anything that bluntly.” Marius paused, and Alec chuckled. “And, they’re probably right,” Marius sighed. “Everything seems to be falling apart lately. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Then you are in the right place,” Alec replied.

Marius opened his mouth to ask, “Why do you say that?” when the speaker caught his attention quite against his expectations.

“We always lead ourselves,” the person in the spotlight—Marius had forgotten their name almost as soon as they had been introduced—declared. “Sometimes, we also lead our teams.”

“What does that even mean?” Marius asked himself. “And why did it grab my attention like that? I feel more stressed, not less.”

Alec leaned over. “You’re still talking out loud, in case you didn’t know. I’m not bothered. Nor is anyone else, from what I can tell,” he said, glancing around at everyone else’s rapt focus on the speaker. “And, if you’d like an explanation, I can help you. Want to step out to the café?”

“Yes, please.”

1) You don’t have to keep your experience to yourself

A few minutes later, Alec and Marius had moved to the conference center café, placed their orders, and settled in.

“So, you understand what that speaker said about always leading ourselves and only sometimes leading others?” Marius asked.

“I do,” Alec affirmed. “And I’ll be happy to explain it to you. First, though, why don’t you tell me a bit more about what’s on your mind. That will help me explain what the speaker said.”

Twenty minutes later, Marius stopped talking. Alec, who had listened intently throughout, said, “So, if I may paraphrase, the pace of change is overwhelming your teams, you feel overwhelmed in turn because none of the tools you’re used to deploying have helped the situation, you feel you’re letting your team and your entire company down by not being able to solve this, and you’re wondering when someone’s going to realize you don’t have a clue and kick you out?”

Marius felt oddly relieved to hear his circumstances put so succinctly. “Yes, exactly.”

“That’s a tough place to be,” Alec empathized. “Many people I talk with these days are in a similar plight. How have you been finding your way through it?”

2) You lead whether you abdicate or act

“I haven’t been,” Marius replied, putting his head in his hands. “I just get more and more frustrated about it all. I can’t contain it anymore. I keep blowing up on my team. Even though I’m doing everything I can to not do that.”

“This is exactly what the speaker was talking about,” Alec declared.

“But I’m not even leading myself!” Marius denied.

“Oh, but you are,” Alec contradicted. “Only, you’re leading yourself into despair and not delight.”

Marius stared at Alec in utter confusion.

“We have two choices in life,” Alec said. “First, we can let life wash over us and do nothing about it. We abdicate our position. Second, we can act. When we act, we invoke leadership on ourselves. We give ourselves direction, feedback, and rewards. Not always rewards we enjoy,” he hurriedly added, sensing Marius’ pending objection that his life didn’t feel very rewarding right now. “Rewards recognize our effort and achievement. There’s nothing in that definition requiring that recognition to encourage us. When the reward is something we’d rather not receive, we call that punishment.”

“You’re saying which word we use merely reflects our viewpoint? I can get behind that. I’ve certainly been given alleged rewards that felt more like punishment. And my parents never figured out that sending me to my room when I wouldn’t behave around guests I didn’t want to spend time with was not really punishment.”

“There you go again, leading yourself. In a more enjoyable direction, I hazard.”

3) With every choice you make, you lead yourself

Marius, who had been feeling he was starting to understand, suddenly felt bewildered again.

“You’ve got this,” Alec said supportively. “Take a moment.”

Marius thought Alec was off his rocker. Marius didn’t “got” this at all. Then, suddenly, he did.

“Oh!” Marius exclaimed. “I’m leading myself because I’m making sense of what you said. I’m drawing parallels to other experiences I’ve had.”

“Yes, exactly,” Alec confirmed. “You are taking action.”

“So, when the speaker said we always lead ourselves, and only sometimes do we lead others, this is what they meant? I am not leading anyone else right now. Even as I one hundred percent lead myself.”

“Congratulations!” Alec exclaimed. “You got there much faster than do most people I have this discussion with.”

Marius felt the glow of Alec’s compliment. Even more, Marius felt the glow of having solved the puzzle.

4) You can lead without having all the answers

“Thank you, Alec, for paying attention to my mumblings back in the auditorium and for explaining the speaker’s words. I have been feeling so stressed and lost because I haven’t known how to lead myself through this predicament. I’ve been down on myself for not knowing how to solve my teams’ problems.”

Marius stopped and took a breath. Then, he continued.

“Now, I realize that leading doesn’t mean having all the answers. It doesn’t mean hiding my emotions, either. Quite the reverse, in fact: leading means accepting and expressing my emotions, in a way that’s safe for me and my teams. It means inviting them to help me solve our problems. Leading means partnering, not commanding.”

“You said it well,” Alec agreed. “And, I’ll add one caution: you are still the one ultimately responsible. Leading doesn’t mean abdicating that responsibility.”

“Thank you for that reminder,” Marius said. “I can choose to give them authority to make specific decisions. The buck for those still stops with me; it doesn’t get handed down to them.”

“That’s a useful constraint,” Marius mused. “If I’m not willing to take responsibility if their decision doesn’t work out, I should keep the decision for myself.”

Marius sat back, radiating joy. “This has been so valuable. I feel like I should pay you,” he said to Alec.

“Not at all,” Alec returned. “I’m glad I was able to help. And now, I’m going out for some sun before I head back into the conference. Would you like to come along?”

“No, thank you,” Marius said. “I’m staying here a while and let all this sink in a bit more before returning to the workshop. Enjoy your walk.”

“Thanks,” Alec said. “I will. Enjoy your integration time. I’ll see you back in the seminar.”

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