Written by: Brian Smith
Original by: Business Know How

Countless experts on leadership have emphasized that in order to lead, you have to put yourself last. While there is some truth in that, it is also true that to be a good leader, you have to be your best self, which means focusing at least some of your energy on yourself.

We have all heard the phrase, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” However, in reality, there are actually two. Understanding the role each “I” plays in your team will result in great leaders who lead great teams. Before you can be a leader of anyone or anything, you need to have some understanding of yourself.

One of the things our world is currently teaching us is to put others first: the customer comes first, your family comes first, your *insert group here* comes first. However, if you continually put others first, where does that leave you?

This is a topic I discuss on a weekly basis, and usually when I begin this discussion, I immediately get people jumping to conclusions regarding selfishness, narcissism, religion, and politics. These are all important things to consider; they have legitimate influence that we, as individuals and as leaders, must understand.

People often associate with what is most prevalent in their lives—the things that create the most noticeable influence. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to assume that focusing on yourself means that you are selfish or narcissistic; however, this is not always the case. I recommend putting yourself first in order to be the best leader for your team. We have all had experience with those who do put themselves first, only think about themselves, and do not use this mentality for the betterment of anyone except themselves. Many of us have even worked for someone who says, “Do as I say, not as I do,” thinking they are above the standard they preach.

To start, you must understand this: the word “individual” is not always singular. In its most basic use, it implies that we are discussing one singular being or thing. But when many individuals are working together as a team, they become one Individual (which I will characterize with a capitalized I). They are, collectively, Individual because they are moving together towards the same goal as one.

As an individual, the single most important responsibility you have in life is the influence you have over those you lead or those that are influenced by you. In every aspect of your life, for all entities which you have influence over, you deserve and owe it to others and yourself to be the best you can be. This is your responsibility as being the only you this world has.

Leaders must be their best self in order to lead their team effectively. To be your best, you must center yourself, understand what influences you, and what influence you have on others. When you have a strong sense of self and understand your spheres of influence, you ensure that you are always in the best position to lead your Individual team. By extension, your Individual team has a great influence on others too, both singular individuals and collective Individuals.

Finding a balance between being the best for yourself and leading your team while not coming across as arrogant or condescending, can be difficult for most people. As the leader of any group (appointed, hired, or gifted), humans assume that the title defines your role. If you are the owner or executive of a company, people generally assume you have some inherent right to treat people as you see fit to accomplish the goals that you have been tasked with either creating, managing or both.

There are some circumstances where hierarchy dictates immediate observance of a position, without a lot of effort having been put into earning any real respect. For example, in the military, you may have a 22-year-old come out of one of the military academies and assume leadership of men twice his age with more knowledge and experience, yet they defer to the new officer. However, in that world there are standards and policies that govern and protect the true leadership needs so that the individual coming from an academy can assume leadership while simultaneously leaning on the experience of the individual who does not have rank; here, the whole Individual unit gains from the influence each individual has.

If we assume a leadership role is an emotional thing when we become the leader of other individuals we can experience a number of internal feelings. Those feelings we get can help us or hinder us. Anxiety can numb our ability to make decisions, trust other team members, and trust our own decisions. Fear has the same effect. While these are negative on the surface, they play a part in tempering some of our other human emotions and feelings, such as confidence or aggressiveness.

These negative feelings are usually fed by ego. Ego can be the one thing that turns what should be positive and pragmatic leadership into narcissistic, dictatorial leadership. Would you be surprised to learn that a great many people don’t quit jobs because of the work? Many people quit because of the lack of leadership and poor influence they receive as part of the organization.

Look at any company with high turnover and most of the time it will be because of a lack of positive leadership. How do you control those inner impulses that tell you that you’re the boss so what you say goes? You earned this right, didn’t you? You put your time in, or you got that degree, or you were born into the right family.

That feeling that you are better than everyone should not influence how you treat other individuals. If you have those feelings, put them into perspective. Who is really making you great? If you put the time in, someone taught you. You had a mentor or teacher or someone who helped you get to where you are now.

The fact is that to be a good leader you need to recognize your value. Your value as a leader is your influence to help people work together for the benefit of the company, the team, and all the other individuals they all influence. When you recognize this and use your influence in a positive way, you create more positive influence.

One example I like to use is the kitchen exhaust cleaning (KEC) industry. These are companies that clean the kitchen exhaust hoods for restaurants and cooking industries; it is a dirty and thankless job. The pay is generally menial, and the labor is treated as such. If you poll owners of these companies around the country, most of them will complain about the high turnover and blame it on the dirty job, lousy hours, and lower pay.

I could introduce you to KEC companies that don’t have these problems. They have the same job, work during the same hours, and charge the same, or similar, amounts. The difference is the influence the leaders have created for their companies. The customers don’t look at these people as menial; they look at them as fire safety professionals because that is the purpose of their work. That is how leaders communicate. The leaders pay wages commensurable with the value of the work being performed; for that, they get quality work and content individuals that understand the importance of their work.

How you convey to yourself and your team the meaning of your work, individually and together Individually, is the influence that can set the foundation for your leadership. Leading with a positive attitude and setting an example for your team will set you apart from those who lead through demand, fear, or expectation. How you view yourself will have a dramatic influence on how others perceive you. Positively influencing your team by being your best self will allow your team to perceive you as a leader who supports their, and the company’s, overall goals. Your team will give you the respect you deserve when you lead them with the influence that they deserve.