The best leaders master leadership of self before tackling others

Jan 18, 2016 by Paul Ferdais

This may sound odd coming from someone who works with people who want to become better leaders, but leadership isn’t something that can be taught just in a classroom.

Learning leadership isn’t like learning to read a chart, changing the oil in an engine or learning how to make the boss a perfect cup of coffee.

Leadership is practice. Leadership happens in the heat of the moment with people, not in the safety of a classroom. This is why many leadership courses often fail to bring change to the people enrolled.

Outstanding leadership takes a long time to develop. No one will be the perfect leader after a weeklong training course, no matter who the provider is. Genuine leadership is a progression and is different with each individual. This means that leadership hinges on the behavior each person displays.

Leadership, as a concept, can be seen as an umbrella title because it’s made up of many components: how well we lead ourselves, how effectively we interact with others, and how skilled we are at leading the organization. Each of these three components, or competencies, includes different elements: how well we communicate, the environment we create to help motivate others, being adaptable, being accountable, having vision, etc. This is what characterizes leadership in the eyes of others.

Our ability to demonstrate the competencies of leadership is what determines whether others follow. That’s it. Of course, it’s easy to say that but challenging to put into practice.

Stages of leadership

Instead of fixating on the idea of leadership, focus on the foundation of what makes someone a good leader. The foundation consists of three actionable, independent yet related areas: self-leadership, leading others and leading the organization.

Start with self-leadership and progress through the other stages, building one layer on top of the other.

Stage 1: Self-leadership

This crucial stage is often skipped over by leaders. Who a person is at his/her core is the basis of their leadership: their character, how trustworthy they are, how credible they are, whether they get results as well as other factors. All of these competencies demonstrate to others how well a person leads themselves. What a person says is one thing; how they behave is what people really notice.

Stage 2: Leading others

This is where most people think leadership begins. And this is often when leaders run into challenges. They tell others to do one thing and they do the opposite. For example, if a captain tells the crew no drinking when operating the tender and then is seen to take the tender to the pub and returns drunk, problems arise. The crew sees what the leader does versus what he says and considers the captain a hypocrite. That captain just undermined his ability to lead, no matter how successful he might have been up to that point.

The competencies involved with leading others includes interpersonal skills such as communication, resolving conflict, delegating, etc. Just because someone has the title of leader doesn’t mean people will fall into line. How well leaders lead others rests on how well they demonstrate self-leadership and the skills of leading others.

Stage 3: Leading the organization

The final set of competencies to understand is what skills are necessary to lead the organization. This includes communicating purpose to the team, having a vision of what the organization can look like or achieve, planning and organizing, taking risks and innovating, and getting results, as well as other skills.  

If a captain has grand ideas about what level of service he would like to see on his vessel yet has no plan or direction on how to achieve that goal, he won’t be seen as an effective leader.    

So what?

So what is the point in taking a leadership training course? At its core, workshops will give leaders the tools to identify their strengths and the areas where they can improve.  

Leadership development requires self-analysis and examination of experiences to gain insight on how to behave as a person. Personal awareness directly influences our abilities as a leader.

The material presented in any leadership training course is a collection of tools that are available. It’s up to the student to make the material part of who they are. The hard work is just beginning.

When you walk out the door at the end of a training session, what are you prepared to do with the information you have received? The facilitator of the course isn’t going to be with you when you get back to work. It’s up to you to aspire to be the best example of all of the competencies you examine so you can be inspirational to those around you.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through