“Is life not a hundred times too short for us to stifle ourselves?” Friedrich Nietzsche

When a leader avoids responsibility for his actions, it often shows up as belittling, disingenuous, unsympathetic, incredible, unreliable, and egocentric.

This list illustrates the polar opposite of role model leadership attributes. It also reminds us that the path to improvement starts with curiosity, willingness to learn, and a desire to serve others with increasing care and skill over time.

The best leaders acknowledge their strengths as well as the gap between current and optimal performance. They set values-based standards worthy of their talent and time.

Stories that stifle our development

On the path to enlightenment, we sometimes create stories that stifle our development:

I need to look good. When our egos lead the way, we forget that we are in leadership positions to serve others and deliver results. We may pivot to a shortcut rather than raise a hand to say, “I screwed up, let’s learn from this.” The cure: Everybody screws up, and nobody respects a manager that shirks responsibility and lays blame on others. Raise your hand, accept responsibility, and know that your reliability and credibility as a leader increases as you practice this habit. This is the path to being good at what you do, and that looks good to anyone.

I see things the way they are and my behavior the way it is. We see things the way we are with the filters of context, beliefs, and attitudes. We also tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others on their observable behaviors. The cure: We all have personal and cultural biases that impact our perceptions and actions. Open your mind to requested feedback from respected sources. Establish boundaries; it’s not open season on you. Just because Mr. Fix-It has an opinion doesn’t give him license to accost you with a list of shortcomings.

Avoid sycophants and surround yourself with straight talkers. Respected sources are trustworthy, have your best interests at heart, and are more likely to provide you honest, relevant input. You may also decide to find a coach to use as a thinking partner in concert with assessment tools to better understand your work style and personality.

I need you to hear me. This is a cousin of looking good. The need to be heard shows up when leaders talk when they should be listening. They may believe their point of view is correct by definition and view attempts to challenge an idea as a personal attack. The cure: Practice listening in low-pressure environments. Take time to paraphrase your discussion partner’s words to demonstrate understanding. This is a proven way to increase rapport, attention span, and message retention.

Check your motives. What is it you want from this discussion? Do you know what the other person wants? If you knew, would it change your approach? A balanced approach to an inquiry (what other people need) and advocacy (what you want them to know) leads to better outcomes.

Grandmothers everywhere admonish us to remember that we have two ears and one mouth and to use them proportionally. This remains a winning strategy.

I don’t know what (or who) I want to be when I grow up. A familiar refrain from kids, teenagers, and most adults. I know lawyers who say that the best part of being a lawyer was law school. There are doctors disillusioned with the administrative complexity of practice management and the shrinking time they have to serve patients. You know professionals, perhaps even yourself, that wonder what it would be like to do something completely different from whatever it is they are doing now. Far from being unusual, this is the norm.  The cure: We have a human need for growth. It’s not a preference or whimsical notion. It’s a requirement. When we pursue personal growth, our levels of satisfaction and happiness grow as we expand our capabilities.

Start by setting goals that demand a reach beyond what’s currently possible. Stretch goals require us to develop new approaches and skills to reach the target. Leaving our comfort zone is a requirement to succeed. There is rarely a time we use the word stuck to describe learning, growth, and happiness. Our cognitive dissonance multiplied by our ability to handle uncertainty forms the foundation of our experiences. We are happiest when we are moving toward something meaningful to us. We experience uneasiness and frustration when we stand in one place for too long—whether in our careers, our emotional well-being, our physical fitness, or acquiring and applying knowledge.

I don’t know what to do next. Sometimes we see what we need to do and struggle to do it. We may be waiting for help, but not know how to ask for it. We may believe we don’t have the budget and don’t know how to raise the capital. We may ask ourselves what business do we have thinking we can do this anyway? We may have a potential customer’s cell number but aren’t sure what to say when he answers. We may need to have a performance management discussion with an employee, but the disastrous reactions we play out in our heads delay the inevitable. The cure: Accept that there is always a path forward and resources available to help along the way. Use a thinking partner to help get you unstuck by asking questions and reframing the problem. Three simple questions can help: What happened? What’s missing? What’s next?

I have higher standards than other people. Holding ourselves to a higher standard is an admirable and useful quality. We get stuck, though, when we become self-righteous and judgmental about others’ behavior. This happens when the behavior doesn’t match the definition of our invented standard. The cure: Respect that others also embrace their standards and beliefs. It’s a happy coincidence when they agree with your definition. When they don’t, there is an opportunity to learn something about them and you. Engage in open dialogue to understand alternative points of view. Make the distinction that high standards and self-righteousness can be two sides of the same coin and remind yourself how easy it is to slip over the line.

Takeaway: Serving optimally and creating a legacy of role model values and behaviors is largely the point of leadership. We cannot be effective without first assessing our strengths and weaknesses and putting together an improvement plan. Along the way, our stories may stifle our development.

By noticing the stories that stand in our way, we reclaim our ability to change them into ones that serve us. When we stay in our heads, we forget that we always hold power to change what things mean to us. Solutions show up when we decide to focus on our talents, contributions, and how we can constructively impact others. Along the way, remember that asking for help is heroic.