“I don’t want to be a leader…”
For so much of my life, ever since I was ten years old, this was my battle cry.
The truth of the matter is, though… that underneath everything that was inside of me, there was nothing more in the world that I wanted then to be a leader. Not only a leader, but a POWERFUL leader.
Take a walk down memory lane with me as I recall a painful life journey about what it means to be a leader:
1. What does it Take to be a Leader: Learning from the Pain
I first learned what it meant to be a leader through an unusual lesson when I was around 10 years old.
It was a beautiful, summer day in June when I was called into the office by the Headteacher of my primary school, Sister Francesca.
Anybody who was ever called into the office as a kid knows that feeling of being scared. Your heart skips a beat, your mind starts racing… Combined with the fact that I’d never been inside the office before, you can only imagine what might have been going through my head.
Well, as I stood there looking up, Sister Francesa was smiling looking down at me.
“We’re making you School Captain,” said Sister Francesca.
The silence in the room was palpable.
I didn’t know what to do with this information, I didn’t know why this responsibility was being forced upon me, I didn’t even know what a School Captain was.
Most importantly, though, I knew nothing about what it meant to be a leader. I was only 10.
For the first of what would be many more times, I had zero clue about what to do with my newfound leadership role.
So, when I spotted a couple of kids breaking the rules a couple of days later, I let a teacher know. Because I thought I was supposed to. Because that’s what it means to be a leader, right?
Boy was I in for a rude awakening.
The kids found out that I was the one who told on them and proceeded to mock me and pick on me for weeks after.
It was this day that I learned to clearly ask about the nature of a role before saying “yes” to it, from then on.
2. What does it Take to be a Leader? You’ll Never be ‘Ready’
What I learned most about what it means to be a leader, over the following twenty-plus years, came from two main sources:
The first source was from my time in the Boy Scouts where I had mainly positive role models. During this time, I experienced the challenge of being pushed outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis. Something that every leader needs to know.
And something that made me realize: I was rarely ‘ready’ to lead.
But I didn’t need to be.
Instead, I accepted a new responsibility and did what I thought was right, whether it be making mistakes, struggling, failing… and eventually, because of this, people would acknowledge me for my successes as opposed to my failures.
3. What does it Take to be a Leader? Learning how ‘NOT’ to Lead
The second source of learning what it takes to be a leader?
Simple. I learned a ton from observing so much of the poor leadership I experienced at every level of every organization that I ever worked for.
It’s unfortunate that the poor leaders always outweighed the good leaders… by a huge percentage.
But despite the frustrations that I may have gone through at the time, this wasn’t all a bad thing. I really DID learn so much about what NOT to do.
In a fast-paced, ever-changing world (which is only getting quicker), it’s really good for me to be clear on my non-negotiables as a leader.
4. What does it Take to be a Leader? Be a Passionate Student of Leadership
As the years went on, I continued to seek out leadership roles, responsibilities, and opportunities.
In 1997, I was appointed to my first senior leadership role where I, once again. Learned more from my mistakes than I did from a different source.
But I also learned a lot by being a passionate student of leadership. I absolutely devoured every leadership book I could find, especially in the biographies of powerful and unusual leaders.
I learned that simple tools can make a huge difference.
For example, I began writing hand-written notes to acknowledge my team members on a regular basis.
It wasn’t until years later that I found out I had become known for these letters and cards — and that most of my old team members had never forgotten them.
I started asking my team members about who their favorite leaders were and why these leaders inspired them.
One young woman told me that her best ever boss would meet her on a Monday morning and discuss her mission for the week. He’d trust her completely, leave her alone for the rest of the week, and then on Friday he’d come into her office and ask her to share her successes and challenges for the week.
After that I started to do the same exact thing. When I left my position, she told me that IWas the best boss that she’d ever had.
To be a leader is challenging – but it doesn’t have to be difficult.
5. What does it Take to be a Leader? The ONE Thing they Never Teach you as a Leader.
In 2005, I was recently appointed as Vice Principal of one of the most challenging schools in London. I was bursting at the seams with ideas on how I could help change the ways that students were taught and how I could better support teachers in their classrooms.
I filled the bookshelf in my new office with ALL of the books on leadership that I’d gathered over the years.
Everyone who saw the bookshelf was impressed with my collection. And I was extremely proud of it, as well.
A few weeks later, I was fired.
Even today, I can still feel the burning shame of having to pack those books into my car.
And then I drove home. Too humiliated to even say a proper goodbye to my students.
Any thoughts of what it meant to be a leader left me completely as I sobbed my heart out on my drive home, preoccupied with the ONE thing they NEVER teach you as a leader — how do you tell your family that you’ve just been fired?
The next day, I took all of my Leadership books to a charity shop and I made the very clear decision that the principles I’d learned were either IN me or they weren’t.
And I let ALL of my books go.
6. What does it Take to be a Leader? Run Away from Leadership
I spent the next few years secretly running away from what it meant to be a leader.
It wasn’t until some time later that I realized that as a coach, the thing that made me the most powerful was the pain of FAILURE that I’d experienced in a leadership role.
Afraid of leading, I started turning my attention to diving in DEEPER than I ever had before with just ONE person at a time.
No more team building, managing upwards, written reports… This was an easy choice for me.
One client at a time, one conversation at a time, one challenge at a time…
I had never felt such relief.
7. What does it Take to be a Leader? Hell Yes. Or Hell No.
Opportunities to be a leader kept arising.
In fact, they seemed to be actively seeking me out.
But… I kept turning them down.
I was invited to run a center for coaching and wellness at a tropical resort. This sounded like a dream project, but something in my gut said, “no.” So, I walked away.
A bit later, I was invited to lead a group of amazing coaches. But I was afraid and I said, “no.” So, once again, I walked away.
And then finally, I accepted the role of CEO of the personal coaching wing of a hugely successful business coaching company.
One day, though, my own coach said to me, “I understand why they want you, Rich. I just don’t understand why you want them.”
And his words stung. I felt them deep in my body and I knew immediately that I had only accepted the role of CEO because I assumed that a cool title would bring me the ‘dream’ clients I so desired. And, truthfully, I was afraid of running a coaching business as ‘just’ me.
My coach’s words resonated deeply. After all, who was I without a great title and an organization behind me?
But I trusted my heart and I quit my first new leadership role in years, the very next day.
8. What does it Take to be a Leader? Being a Leader is like Being a ‘Lady’
My favorite quote on leadership is by Margaret Thatcher:
“Being a leader is like
being a lady.
If you have to tell people
You’re probably not.”
I learned this one the hard way because for much of my life, I’ve been more preoccupied with trying to ‘look good,’ ‘prove myself,’ and getting the ‘right’ credentials or the ‘right’ titles.
As I stepped up to be a leader, I discovered that the complete reverse was true for me.
It turns out that the LESS that I tried to ‘look good’ or ‘prove myself,’ the more clients wanted to hire me.
The LESS that I thought about credentials or titles — and the more I focused completely on the one person in front of me — the more that ‘my people’ sought out a powerful conversation with me.
Authenticity and vulnerability were no longer meant to be feared — they were the ONLY path to follow.
9. What does it Take to be a Leader? The True Test of a Leader
My favorite test to be a leader has always been simple:
If you want to know if you’re a leader, turn around and see who’s following.
Occam’s Razor applies.
To be a leader means you have followers. That’s all that counts.
And one day, I turned around and I began to see that I’d quietly been creating an incredible community of coaches.
And if you’re reading this? You’re probably one of them.
10. What does it Take to be a Leader? True Leaders Create more Leaders
But there’s an even more powerful test of what it means to be a leader:
A true leader creates more leaders — not more followers.
Which is why I created Transition Excellence.
Transition Excellence is a 100-day, self-paced training program which is led by me and my leadership team which focuses on client creation.
With 13 modules, live weekly group calls with me and my leadership team, a private Facebook group full of the most INCREDIBLE people that you’ll ever meet, and more, Transition Excellence is PERFECT for anybody interested in what it means to be a leader and taking control of their own destiny.
Whether you’re an already established coach, you’re just starting out as a coach or you’re looking to transition out of your current position in the corporate world… Transition Excellence is perfect for you.
Already working as an executive coach? Are you working in the coaching industry in a different way? Either way, the ICF has accredited Transition Excellence. You can learn more about the ICF by clicking here.
There is no greater honor to me than seeing the members of my communities become leaders.
I hope that I can help you do the same.
P.S. If you’re interested in what it means to be a leader, but you’re not sure about how to take your next step then I’d like to invite you to take my Coaching Excellence Scorecard. This quiz will challenge you on the 4 pillars of coaching excellence. There are no right or wrong answers, only areas for improvement and this is where Transition Excellence comes in.
If you’re sitting there thinking, “Hell yes, coaching is definitely for me!” then click the link and book a call with a member of my admissions team today ⏩ Book a Call.
We can’t wait to speak with you.