When I was a kid, we played a lot of sandlot baseball, front yard football, and driveway basketball. Almost every day after school, the kids on my street and the surrounding streets, convened to play the daily version of the game of the century in one sport or another. Oh, I played on organized teams, too, but in my neighborhood, the real prestige didn’t come from winning the Little League Championship on July the 4th. It came from the reputation you earned as an after-school “game warrior.”
In “Pick-up” games, the first thing you do is choose the teams. You have to have fair teams to have a good game. The second thing you do is to choose your boundaries. What’s out of bounds? Where’s the goal line? How far does the baseball have to go for it to be a homerun? The answers to these questions frame the boundaries in which the game is going to be played. They have to be clear. Everyone has to agree on them, and, of course, you have to go by them. If you don’t go by them, it’s cheating.
What does this have to do with leadership? I’ve come to see that leadership starts with self-leadership or self-management. To be a good leader, you have to know what your boundaries or core values are, and you have to go by them. I don’t know how you would, personally, articulate those boundaries, but I think it’s critical that if you are going to be good at self-leadership that you have to know your own boundaries, and you have to stay with them. Otherwise, it’s cheating, and cheating is a fatal flaw.
As you think about what those boundaries should be, here are some things to keep in mind because they will help you select boundaries that will help you be successful as a leader.
Boundary #1—Don’t be driven by unbridled hunger for prestige
Most leaders want to accomplish something great, and many want to receive a certain amount of recognition for it. That’s natural, and probably not disastrous, as long as it is held in check. However, if you let that hunger get out of control, it will compromise your judgment in more ways than one. Take the important discipline of networking, for example. Being a good networker is supremely important for you as a leader in order to be successful, but what happens to the person who has an insatiable hunger for prestige? You can find yourself entwined in a lot of phony relationships that rob you of your sense of integrity—all in the name of “networking.” I’m sure you can think of many other ways that you can end up “out of bounds.”
Boundary #2—Don’t neglect your duties at home
Simply put: There are some things that cannot be delegated nor honorably neglected. Leadership is not a 9 to 5 job. That’s for sure. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of leaders in all sectors who be consumed with their responsibility to every stakeholder—except their families. A mentor of mine shared an experience early in his marriage. He was leading a growing organization, and he was an up and coming “star” in his sphere. He was a model of what it meant to be a servant-leader. He was dynamic, likeable, and insightful. The people in his organization were crazy about him, but things weren’t going so well at home. Things changed only when his wife confronted him and said, “You’ll do anything for anyone in this place, except for me.” My mentor showed what a great leader he really was by realizing that he was out of bounds, making amends to his family, and finding a way to “play the game” within the proper boundaries. That was well over thirty years ago, and I can promise you that today, he doesn’t regret those changes one bit! I’m quite certain that had he not “self-corrected” his behavior, it would be a different story.
Boundary #3—Don’t forget that just because you can doesn’t mean that you should
As you accomplish more and more things as a leader, you will experience more and more opportunities. You will be given benefits that you didn’t receive at earlier points of your career. People will give you space, room, and authority. These can be good things and helpful things because those kinds of freedoms can allow you to operate without being unduly bothered by some constraints. That sort of an environment can lead to more and more success. However, that kind of freedom can also severely cloud your judgment. It can lead just about any person to conclude that “If I can, it’s alright if I do.” Obviously, when a leader acts on that conclusion—he/she is out of bounds. Yes, maybe you can, but once you develop an appetite for ignoring the discipline of self-restraint, it won’t be long until that appetite goes viral. You will find yourself willing to cross one boundary after another. Self-restraint is almost a forgotten virtue, but without it you will soon find it impossible to stay within any boundaries.
Boundary #4—Don’t let the level of your education surpass the quality of your character
When followers are surveyed on the qualities that they most admire and desire in leaders, the terms character, integrity, and credibility are always near the top. We don’t expect perfection, but we do expect them to be forthright and honest. If you think about the various leadership scandals that have rocked our nation, they almost always involve people who are well educated. I’m not saying that education isn’t important. I am a strong advocate of life-long-learning. However, along with that, must be an equally stout commitment to make sure that your walk matches your talk, and that when it doesn’t, you admit it, accept the penalty, and correct your behavior for the future.