When I left for the University of Georgia in the fall of 1975, I had absolutely zero clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But, thanks to some amazing role models, I had a pretty good idea of the person I wanted to be.
I grew up in a small, rural, southern community. The great thing about growing up in a small town is that you really get to know the people who live around you. Not like in the city, where you probably know a neighbor to two’s name, and maybe know where they work and that’s about it. You really get to know a lot about people, so you also learn how much reputation matters. Being in that environment taught me the importance of working hard and being someone who kept their word and I knew, regardless of what career path I took, I wanted to be a person others considered a person of honor when they saw me walk down the street.
That’s it. That’s all I knew in 1975. And it was enough. You see, the first step of leadership is learning to lead yourself and the only way to do that is to decide—and accept—who you are. Deciding who you are isn’t as simple as emulating someone you admire or taking on characteristics that are considered cool or trendy. It’s an evolutionary process that requires a lot of introspection and purposeful action.
Decide what you believe and who you are in the process of becoming.
For a lot of people, this is the absolute scariest part of their leadership journey because you really have to look closely at yourself, almost like looking at yourself under a microscope, and ask yourself what makes you unique. What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Is what you portray outwardly an honest representation of who are on the inside? What do you know is true and you will follow no matter what? Then you have to accept all it—your flaws and your weaknesses—as well as find and focus on what you’re good at. Not the stuff you’re OK at, but the stuff you have a natural talent for, the stuff you are good at without even trying. Focusing on and accentuating those things will help you figure out who you are, live an authentic life and accomplish great things.
Look for the best in people and do what you can bring that out in them.
I know I talk about this a lot. It’s because finding the best in people is a true hallmark of a real leader. It is also instrumental in deciding who you are. See, you can’t look past another person’s flaws and find the good in them until you can do that same thing for yourself. Doing it for yourself is way harder than doing it for someone else since we are generally our own worst critics. Accept your own imperfections and then make a conscious decision to accept others and be the first person to see their good qualities.
Keep moving forward.
Part of deciding who you are is deciding to get a little better each day. None of us decides who we are going to be and then bounce out of bed the next morning being exactly that person. Being the best version of the person we want to be requires incremental improvement and incremental improvement requires patience, persistence and faith. It’s a journey, but in the end it’s totally worth everything you put into it.
The kind of person you turn out to be is ultimately your decision. Does your upbringing, parents and experiences play a role in that? Absolutely. I even started this blog post with an anecdote about how my upbringing influenced who I am. But only you can decide what to do with all that stuff. And it’s a decision you will make and work on dozens of times a day for the rest of your life because we are much more than human beings—we are human becomings. Ongoing projects.
So, the decision is yours. Will you decide to put in the work to become the type of person people look up to, admire and want to follow?