How Real Is Your Real Leadership?


Good leadership is something we talk about a lot around here. It’s the compass that guides how I interact with everyone I meet. I put a lot of value in good leadership because I’ve seen what it can truly accomplish when put into play. Truth be told, I have been at this for some time now. I’ve had the time to understand the value a good leader brings to any organization, and I’ve been a leader long enough to know good leadership practices vs. bad.

But what if leadership is something entirely new to you? What if you’ve never been in a position to influence others and guide them to the finish line? How do you know what to do? How do you know what not to do? If you feel like you aren’t some natural-born leader, can you become one?

A Two-Prong Approach to Leadership Skills

I like to think of leadership in two distinct categories: internal and external. This can be reflected in everything you do for your team, family, or others (external) and everything you do for yourself to continue growing (internal).

Looking Within

When I used to head to work, whether I was driving my car or taking MARTA (Atlanta’s transport system), I would take that time to focus on fortifying my inner leadership. I would think ahead to the day: How am I feeling? Am I stressed, nervous, or feeling unfocused? Am I feeling resentful toward anyone? Do I need to pull anyone aside to apologize for anything? Is there anyone I need to forgive for this day to run as smoothly as possible?

During that commute, I was able to focus and look for clarity in my approach to the day. I would often meditate or practice mindfulness, allowing the thoughts clouding my mind to clear out for at least a few minutes. This way, I was able to ensure that my mind was the clearest it could be so that when I set foot in that office, I could be the lighthouse my team needed to see through the day.

Make it happen: Set aside some time each day (if you can only commit to 10 minutes, that’s fine), and get very quiet. Meditate or have a mindfulness practice that will ensure you stay clear on your objectives and goals without the harried environment of the office whispering in your ear while you are trying to focus on your inner world.

If you enjoy exercises like the one above, keep reading or Download my Real Leadership Roadmap to start digging deeper into Real Leadership now.

Looking Around

External leadership refers to the principles we apply to others. Holding a meeting to encourage the team to step up their game, finding resources for a team member, in particular, which help them achieve their goals, or simply getting on the phone with someone who is doubting their capabilities and reassuring them that they have what it takes are all examples of ways in which our leadership directly affects those around us.

When I focus on external leadership, I am actively planning, researching, and talking to people to figure out how I can help. Where does someone need a hand when they can’t do it themselves? How can I reach a team member who has a specific skillset about which I know nothing and still make them feel supported in their efforts? Or how can I get other team members in place to support one of their own?

I like to think of my internal leadership practice as more quiet and introspective, while my external leadership time is spent hustling to make things happen for others. All of life is about balance, and this is how I create balance within my leadership practice and how you can, too.

Make it happen: Make a checklist that covers what you need to do (or what you can do) to help your team on any given day. Check off each action item as you complete it, ensuring you are moving and shaking on your team’s behalf. Remember: Good leaders work with their teams, but great leaders work for their teams.

If you have yet to be exposed to external leadership practices, you can get started with my free course, Mission Leadership.

An Exercise for Engaging Effective Leadership

While many people already feel like they are doing their very best at work, sometimes offering them a tool for some reflection can open the door to unfettered growth. When one person is willing to grow to positively impact the team, it’s much easier to get everyone on board together.

It’s all in the cards…

For leadership principles that come to you and your team, you can easily make a deck of leadership cards. Write several principles of leadership on the front of a deck of cards; for example, patience, fortitude, positivity, forgiveness, gratitude, courage, hope, willingness, support…etc.

At the beginning of the week, have each person pick a card. Whatever is written on the card should inform their choices and interactions as they go about completing their tasks each day.

*Key factor* You don’t need to monitor each person; that likely won’t go well. How they choose to display that leadership principle is entirely up to them. The point of this exercise is to inspire others to tap into their leadership qualities, not for you to get overly involved in helping them stick to your idea of the leadership principle.

Think of yourself like the garden soil on this one; your team members are the seeds, and the cards are the light, something for them to reach toward. You are just the space in which all of this growth takes place. You don’t need to do anything but stay available for questions or discussions.

At the end of the week, you can ask team members if they want to share their experiences with others. This is an excellent time for everyone to work on their listening skills while focusing on personal growth and development.

You might ask them to elaborate on the following:

  • Where did they feel successful?
  • Where did they struggle?
  • What do they want to do to utilize that principle going forward?
  • What might be some roadblocks they could foresee encountering?
  • What are some possible workarounds to those roadblocks?

What they share might significantly impact another team member, which could help each person on your team develop more empathy.

Regular exercises that everyone takes on as a team create unity, a sense of belonging, and camaraderie. It often takes a lot to motivate a team beyond their basic job requirements, but the great news is they have you, a successful leader, showing them the way.

Great Leaders Read the Comments

Uh oh. Read the comments? The first rule in life is NOT to read the comments, isn’t it? Yes, but you aren’t on social media here. This is your leadership lifestyle, and that’s where the rubber meets the road, folks. So, find your reading glasses because it’s time to take a deep breath, get ready to look at your strengths and weaknesses, and read those comments.

Most great leaders understand that leadership roles change constantly and leadership itself is a dynamic, fluid, and very subjective art. It can look like a million different things depending on your industry, job title, size of the team, and your goals, among other things. Where one leader shines over here, over there, he might fail miserably. Knowing your audience, i.e., your team, is of critical importance. You have to know how to reach them. A good leader learns what matters to their team, and consequently, they will discover what motivates them. So, how do you go about doing that, exactly?

Make it happen: For this exercise, you’ll gather your team and let them know that you are going to be asking them to make some notes for you to read. One easy way to do this exercise is to just jot these questions down on a piece of paper or 3 x 5 note cards and hand them out. You could also email everyone a PDF to print out with their typed answers, which will stop you from being able to recognize any handwriting. We need

They are going to answer a few questions on these topics, namely:

  • What does real leadership look like to you?
  • How do you feel your leadership is doing in terms of helping you meet your goals and needs?
  • What can your leadership do to serve you better?

Bonus: You can also include a comments portion where people can write about anything problematic that is on their mind. Opening the door for frank discussions goes a long way toward building trust, and as a practicing real leader, if your team doesn’t trust you, you have some work to do. We

Once complete, have someone in the office collect them in a stack and then go over them when you have set aside time so there are no distractions.

*Note* When it comes to this exercise, finding a way to make these questionnaires anonymous can be of critical importance unless you and your team are used to being entirely open and honest with one another. If employees feel the need to share something sensitive that might get them in trouble or otherwise ruffle feathers or something that might make waves with leadership, they must know they can share openly and honestly without any fear of repercussion.

This exercise goes a long way toward building relationships that are positive and based on communication skills, interpersonal skills, and common goals.

Don’t Be Afraid of Critique

When it’s time to buckle up and read those comments, don’t be afraid. This is for your own good and your own growth. A strong leader knows how to be open to constructive criticism, especially when it helps solve problems within their community.

The key to being successful here is to remember that this isn’t a performance review in the traditional sense, nor is it a personal attack. Think humility; it’s time for you to take this feedback and use it as fodder for your self-development. You can even tell your team members that you are simply trying to learn how to serve them better and that you value their input and thoughts. When you preface an exercise like that, they will be much more likely to find ways to be kind enough to help you so you can, in turn, help them.

Here is where you need to shift from external to internal leadership. You have to go within, and you have to figure out where there’s room to grow and better yourself on behalf of the team. Then, once you have made peace with your own strengths and weaknesses and where you could be doing better, you can chart a clear path for yourself to reach the goals your team set forth for their leadership. What you apply during your work as you focus on cultivating internal leadership can then be shifted and put out into the work environment as external leadership.

In The End

The truth is that applying leadership principles isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. Be kind to yourself and remember that just like anyone learning a new skill, new habits and ways of thinking take time to solidify. Even if you are a seasoned leadership icon, you can still fall short of where you want to be, and that’s okay. It happens.

The fact that you are reading these very words tells me that you are seeking knowledge, and you are willing to open yourself up to different ways of thinking and operating in the world. That’s a big deal in and of itself. Your success as a business leader begins with those two things: being open to trying new things and finding the courage to see them through. But we already know you have what it takes since you are reading these words.

In the journey of real leadership, embracing change and continuous growth is the hallmark of a true leader. Remember, every step forward—no matter how small— brings you closer to your goals and to becoming the exceptional leader you aspire to be.

For more personalized work to develop your real leadership skills, download my free Companion Booklet that goes with Real Leadership Volume 2. It’s chock full of reflective exercises to help you gain the wisdom you seek when it comes to applying Real Leadership principles in your organization.

I’ll see you at the top!


  1. Helen F Davies

    Thank you John Addison for imparting your knowledge. I’ve a lot to learn, “every step forward – no matter how small “…

    • Addison Leadership Team

      Helen! What a wonderful message to receive today! Thank you for taking the time to read and leave your thoughts. I often think of Rome, which was built brick by brick. We are all just making those small steps closer to what we want. The only real issue is when we stop taking any steps altogether. Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate you!


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“The scarcest resource in the world is not oil, it’s leadership.”

As Co-CEO of the largest independent financal services company in North America, John Addison’s skill as a leader was tested and honed daily. He retired in 2015 after taking the company and it’s people to massive heights. He’s just not done helping people get to the top. Today, he’s at the helm of Addison Leadership Group, INC working daily to mentor and educate new leaders.