As a freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983, I wrote an essay for a Naval Leadership class. The instructor told us to write about a relevant topic of our choice. I chose self leadership. I had not read anything about the subject in our course material, nor even heard the term. Nevertheless, it struck me as a good name for the ability to convince one’s self to do what he knows he should do despite what he might feel. I thought I had hit on an original, important topic. It is one of the few college writing assignments I didn’t save.
My instructor thought my paper missed the mark. He handed it back with a condescending smile and a B-minus. The gist of his remarks was that I had merely described self discipline. I disagreed. I wanted to explain that discipline resulted from training. It meant following a code of behavior or a set of expectations. Self discipline caused a person to adhere to a set of standards. Self leadership, on the other hand, meant knowing what to do, not wanting to do it, yet leading the self through doubt to accomplish a goal. That’s what I wanted to say, what my paper apparently failed to say. But I was a first-semester freshman, a plebe, and he was a naval officer. I was in no position to argue about leadership.
In retrospect, I know I had a great idea, presented it well, and supported it with good examples. I still remember two of the examples, and others come to mind now. Self leadership convinces a pilot to trust his instruments. It enables a prisoner of war to give — and continue giving — only his name, rank, and service number. It makes a man hold his wife’s hand in the delivery room, or leave a note on a car he has backed into, or deliver a eulogy. It convinces men and women to apologize. It takes a long view, discerning value at various points in time for comparison with emotional priorities in the present moment. It leads with humility, commanding one’s emotional self to follow after emotion is satisfied its voice has been heard. In doing so, it catalyzes right, logical action, often with the subtlety of a gifted leader who gains the confidence of followers without them even realizing they have accepted the leader’s guidance. Like overt leadership bringing cohesion to a group, self leadership resolves internal conflict between reason and emotion in a manner that creates integrity.
When I was an impressionable plebe at the Naval Academy, I thought Lieutenants like my instructor were wise authorities on all matters of leadership. A few years later, when I learned how fallible Lieutenants and more senior officers can be, I appreciated the value of my paper, the depth of my insight. I regretted throwing my essay in a trash can in Bancroft Hall rather than mailing it home to my parents. They would have kept it along with every other letter I ever sent. I would still have it today. The ironic reason I don’t have it today is because I didn’t do what I had written about doing.
My treatment of the subject of self leadership in NL101 may have been tentative and cursory and flawed. And if it wasn’t a new idea, it was at least an original realization. Now I see the topic often. Most recently, I read it at work: “Lead yourself is the foundational level of the Wells Fargo leadership model.” I’ve seen it other places, too, nestled in various contexts. I hope my former instructor sees it and experiences a nagging feeling he’s heard it before. I hope he thinks hard about where he might have read it. Maybe he has even led himself to conclude it’s a good idea even though he once dismissed it. Self leadership can work that way.
May 5, 2013