May 19

Five Personal Leadership Lessons

By Chuck Coker

Everyone has the potential to lead; we can all lead ourselves. Many have the opportunity to lead others, whether a small team or large organization.

Exceptional leadership does not emerge from a vacuum, it comes from experience and continual personal growth.

In my life so far, I have had the privilege to serve others in a leading role in a variety of settings. The five most important leadership lessons I’ve learned are all from personal experience and are worth sharing.

1) Integrity comes from within, not from the outside.

Integrity is an essential, ‘inner’ quality that is forged in the human fires of fear and greed. Despite the best efforts of regulators, integrity cannot be imposed. Rules and procedures can only provide signals as to when integrity needs to be actively applied with actions. Rules alone cannot produce integrity.

I learned this early in my wealth management career. A client presented an initially compelling proposition, involving bearer shares. The idea was technically permissible and potentially highly revenue generating. Yet something did not quite ring true for me. I found myself grappling privately with both fear – fear of missing out, fear of being seen to fail by my boss – and greed, the potential for bonus-enhancing business. However, a nagging discomfort remained (perhaps the unmarked brown envelope of bearer shares passed the late afternoon on a quiet Friday was the clincher). I turned the opportunity down, resisted the client’s protests and made a choice not to capitulate. Two or three years later, I had occasion to reflect thankfully on that decision and recognized that, for me, it had been a moment in time that had helped, even if just a little, to build personal integrity.

2) No one has a monopoly on good ideas, not even me!

Whether pursuing an investment idea for a client or a strategic business decision, wise counsel will always add value to the decision. This is not the same as consensus decision making, which is rarely effective. This is about understanding that we are heavily biased and that people with a different perspective will help us to see opportunity and risk that we cannot.

Earlier in my life, I would align with like-minded people, enjoying the energy that we experienced together and the comfort and excitement of ‘talking up’ our decisions. But a major fail in my mid-20s served as a shock to the system. I was forced to face the fact that I was inviting confirmation bias, much to my detriment.

I have since intentionally sought out diverse perspectives, however awkward in style and uncomfortable this can be while ensuring that we possess shared core values. While there remains plenty of room for further improvement, this approach has undoubtedly enhanced my choices and enjoyment of life and work.

3) Vision without action is fantasy. Action without vision is drudgery. 

It took me until my late 30s to begin to appreciate the power of a compelling, unique vision. I had previously expected success to ‘just happen’ through committed work. Despite a great career, I did not have a clear vision for what success actually looked like. That made for good, but not phenomenal, work.

Exploring what makes people flourish has helped me to explore my unique strengths and contribution to the world. I am now very clear about my unique purpose, with a compelling ‘big picture’, which has radically transformed my enjoyment of work. Time will tell whether the success will follow!

4) It’s not the external factors that limit us; it’s ourselves!

We will often apportion the blame for a lack of success on external factors; circumstances that our outside of our control. While these cannot be entirely dismissed, in truth we are often the primary source of our limitations. Henry Ford described this well when he said: ‘If you think you can do a thing or you think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.’

I discovered this about myself in recent years. I observed that my confidence, presence, and impact fell apart when presenting to people whom I perceived as highly intelligent, especially lawyers. With some coaching help, I recognized that some of my conditioning was limiting my expectations around certain types of people. Once recognized, I could overcome this and in fact, some of my best, most engaging and enjoyable clients are now partners in law firms. Pressing through fear and self-limitations is a core part of growing as a leader.

5) To lead others well, we need to lead ourselves well.

We are ‘whole’ people; great leadership does not end when we leave our places of work. We cannot expect to grow in leadership if we exude practices and values at work and expect others to embrace them, yet don’t live those same values and behaviors ourselves. If we expect people to be on time, then we should be on time, too. People are increasingly seeking authentic leaders, those who are clear and honest about their values and live them in all aspects of life.

Being relentlessly positive and championing other people is one of my core values. Being relentlessly positive is arguably even more important at home than it is at work, yet it has often been the case that my family are those who have experienced a more negative me than anyone else. This remains a work in progress, but I have made practical adjustments in working patterns and instilled some mental habits to ensure positive thinking in all areas of life. Making time for reflection and inviting feedback from trusted people remains a crucial part of overcoming my blindspots.

These are simply the personal lessons I have learned in my leadership experience to date. Without a doubt, I will continue to learn; what key leadership lessons have you learned through experience?

About the author 

Chuck Coker

For more than 30 years, Chuck has focused his career on people's development. He has implemented proprietary Personal Formation, Human Capital, Talent Management, and incentive-based programs across a broad scope of Fortune Companies, regional organizations, and educational institutions.


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