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The Secret Price of True Leadership

We don’t actually value leadership. The price of true leadership feels like more than the average person cares to pay. What that means is, we assign a low value on the payoff true leadership provides. What we value instead is status quo – either ours, or of those we aspire to be. We value memorization and imitation as the pathway to power. It is obvious what we value, since it is what we teach our children. If we valued true leadership, we would teach it.

There are channels where we learn the skills we most often associate with leadership, such as team sports, the military, and management roles. Yet, even so, we aren’t learning leadership as the catalyst of our own personal, evolutionary growth. Instead, leadership is treated as a necessary (and often confusing) tool to get others to do what we want. Leadership has become synonymous with control of others.


Leading is not about who follows or obeys us. It is not about the number of customers we acquire, or our likes on Facebook. Leading is about boldly stepping into our vision of what the world, and our place in it. That can make a lot of people – most noticeably ourselves – extremely uncomfortable. And that is the price of true leadership – our own discomfort. When we step into our personal vision, we leave status quo behind. Those are uncharted waters. Followers can disappear.

A place without any status quo stirs up our deepest, darkest fears in us.

How will I make a living?

Will I find myself alone and abandoned?

How will I know what to do?

The risk feels too great.

The threat of loss of our friends, families and revenue stream pulls us back to safer, shallower waters. It pulls us back to where we believe we are in control.

This radical idea of leadership of only our self – that recognizes the only one being that can be led by us, is us – is rare indeed. It is a lost art to focus on our interior experience, which, at first blush, can seem irrelevant in today’s business world. Yet those who had it, even in the face of tremendous external resistance, transformed the world. These leaders (from spiritual to science and business) include Buddha, Jesus, Galileo, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, and Jobs. They were all ridiculed and persevered, trusting themselves over others.


Leading from the inside does not have to involve high drama and suffering. We just believe it does. We applaud the leaders who changed the world, and then add, “But they were different and that’s not me.” Instead we play smaller than we are meant to. We lead only to the level of public approval and reward.

We want to be powerful enough to have comfort and safety. And that’s where we want to stop. CEOs of major corporations, and international political office, who have enormous visibility, money and influence, simply have a higher threshold of what is comfortable and safe.

It is not true leadership is when it depends on others doing what they are asked. That is reverse leadership. The “other” is required to cooperate for the leader to lead in that scenario. False leadership requires validation, and attracts followers equally committed to status quo. In fact, the false leadership actually becomes the leader being led by the “followers” and whether they are following or not.


Far from being an exercise is philosophy, without practical application, true leadership is what drives innovation and real progress. Here are the key characteristics of true leadership:

  1. Curiosity: Questioning everything that has been assumed, especially when something is dysfunctional or frustrating.

  2. Discernment: The ability to think for oneself, to try new approaches, and decide when an approach is worth exploring.

  3. Boldness: A love of risk, not to put oneself in danger, but to dare to break through invisible barriers against transformation

  4. Courage: Recognizing there will likely be discomfort, but that discomfort is temporary, and the prize of fulfillment is far greater.

  5. Service: Although the vision to lead comes from within, the beneficiary is always the greater good. This is the opposite of false leadership.


There are true leaders everywhere today. They actually do exist in business. They exist in political office (no, seriously, there are some!) They have learned how to lead even when the deck was stacked against them. That’s what true leaders do. It is also possible to learn to be a true leader even when you have not been operating like one for decades.

Ideally, true leadership would be instilled in early education, inviting critical and non-linear solutions to our world’s most troubling problems, in addition to memorizing and imitating what has already been done. Let the children, not yet crushed under society’s should’s, lead us. Let the adults learn from their originality and creativity.

In the meanwhile, there are certain, simple, common exercises that those of us aspiring to live into our true leadership potential can do. These exercises enhance existing true leadership behaviors, and cultivate them where they have been underutilized.

Exercise #1: Find a service role to fill. Whether it is a structured role for a non-profit, or an ad hoc helping hand for a friend who is moving this weekend, get busy helping someone. This creates an expanded worldview that alters our normal focus solely on our needs and ourselves.

Exercise #2: Get out of your comfort zone. Try something you have never done before, or something you are avoiding. Start with something that has low or no risk, like taking an alternate route to a familiar destination, and then daily begin upping the ante.

Exercise #3: Learn to trust the small, still voice within. If you are going to understand what your vision is, you will need to learn how to hear it first. Keep a notebook handy. When you have a sense, an insight, a feeling about what you ought to do or say – a person you should call – a conversation you might need to have – then write it down, and if it is not impossible, do it. Notice the results.

Exercise #4: Meditate. Meditation is the stilling of the mind’s thinking, long enough to witness oneself. Sitting or lying still for just minutes a day, breathing deeply, being fully present in your body, and letting thoughts that come up pass on without attachment, is the essence of this exercise. The result is that your conscious mind will have greater access to the 95% of your decision power that rests in the unconscious mind.

Exercise #5: Get a Mentor. While this may sound self-serving, a mentor is simply someone who is further along the path you want to travel. Don’t ask for their help without offering something of value in return, but absorb their experience as much as possible, without imitation. This is one of the greatest values in retreats.


Join us at the 2019 Fire Starter Retreat.

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