The First Step on the Road to Leadership

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

First Steps to Leadership
The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.
—Lao Tzu

To say that the road to becoming an effective leader is long and difficult is an understatement. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. And those who have traveled this perilous and bumpy road also know that it doesn't end. It's a journey and not a destination. 

There are many characteristics and capabilities that an individual must possess or develop to become an effective leader, and there are numerous books and articles claiming to describe these critical leadership requirements. The reality is, no leader, no matter how far along the road, possesses all these leadership characteristics. All leaders are, in one form or another, flawed, yet they can still be effective. 

However, there is one thing that all those desiring to travel the road to leadership must have, and it is actually what allows them to take that important first step. 

That one thing is the understanding that leadership is all about choice, and the courage and capability to make difficult choices. Making a choice between two rights or between right and wrong is easy. But real leadership becomes apparent when we must make choices between two wrongs. By wrong, I mean choices that have negative consequences that cannot be avoided. 


Let me give you an example from the classical Greek mythical poem, the Odyssey. The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus 10 years to reach Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War, and along the way he and his crew face numerous hazards. 

One of those hardships is that he must sail between two great perils: Scylla, a dangerous outcrop of jagged rocks and shallows, and Charybdis, a huge whirlpool. These two dangers lay between the west coast of Italy and the island of Sicily in a narrow passage called the Strait of Messina. To reach his home in Ithaca, Odysseus had to choose between sailing close to the rocky shoals or the whirlpool. Either choice meant loss of life, and there was no turning back or going around. Choice time! 

Now more than ever, business, government, military, religious, and social leaders face unavoidable perils. It comes with the territory, although it seems like in the 21st century the territory is even more hostile than before. Threats of terrorism, social unrest, disruptive technology, unstoppable immigration, employee disengagement, widening gaps between rich and poor, competition from nontraditional players, economic slowdowns, and rising debt levels are just a few. The list of perils, and therefore the number of choices a leader must make, are endless. 

Making hard choices and living with the consequences is the life of a real leader. And by the way, not making a choice is the worst choice of all. 

Effective leadership means learning to live with unpleasant choices, making the best choice possible, learning how to see and deliver the best possible outcome from those choices, and staying optimistic in the face of ever-more-difficult choices. 

Want to grow more leaders? Then put your up-and-coming talented young men and women into situations where they must make, and live with, hard choices. Send them to a newly acquired company to lead the integration. Post them in a foreign country to gain cultural dexterity. Give them the failed technology transformation to sort out. Give them a failing subsidiary to turn around. Make them accountable for developing new managerial talent. Send them to your angriest customers to rebuild the business relationship. 

All these require the courage of choice. Making good choices comes from experience, and experience mostly comes from making hard choices.

About the Author
John R. Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership teams. He is an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. Learn more at 
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