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Personal Development for Leaders: 3 Essential Practices

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As a leader, you’re often called upon to do whatever it takes to look after your people. Leading a community or a movement is tough. It means a certain amount of selflessness, of doing the work to make it easy for them to engage, of taking the time to reach out and communicate, and of always thinking of them first.

Whether you’re leading your team at work, your members or clients, your network, your kid’s soccer team, your family, or your weekend hobby group, there is a never ending list of things for you to think about and do. It’s all-consuming. You can’t ever prepare for your community members enough. You’ll never have enough time for all the meetings and conversations. You’ll never complete all the items on your to-do list. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day.

It’s like trying to stay in the center of a Tilt-a-Whirl. All your responsibilities pull your focus outward, exclusively onto other people and everything around you. And it has you skip over one of the most important aspects of being an effective leader – yourself.

Focusing outward is natural and easy. It lets you off the hook and has you look around the mirror instead of into it. It makes you forget to put “the oxygen mask” over your head first before others. Most importantly, it has you forget that others are looking to you as the example.

3 Tips for Stepping Off the Tilt-a-Whirl

Leadership by example takes work, time, and effort. It takes carving time out of your already busy schedule. Making “walking your talk” possible requires a regular, daily commitment to sharpening your sword.

But the payoff for doing so is huge. People follow those they respect and admire, and who are living, breathing examples of the person they aspire to be. If you’re not taking the time to develop yourself, to move toward mastery, then you’re missing out on a huge part of the leadership challenge.

I’ve broken down personal development into three key areas you should consider when planning your leadership “sword-sharpening” activities. Remember, your team or community is looking at you to personally lead the way.

1. Daily Practice

I call this the “show-up muscle.” No matter what you’re working on and how much time you think you don’t have, establishing a daily personal development practice is key. This is something you simply do not skip – no matter what.

It almost doesn’t matter what this practice is. It could be working out, yoga, martial arts, musical instrument practice, artistic painting, woodworking, cooking, writing, emotional processing. It’s a commitment to yourself that you’re willing to practice every day.

A few things to remember about daily practice:

  1. Be willing to fail. What would you try if you didn’t care about failing or looking good? Would you sing at an open mic night? Play basketball? Do yoga? Publish an article? Play guitar? Learn to surf? If you waited to learn to walk until you knew you could do it, you’d have never, ever started. And let’s face it, when you first tried to walk, you were no good at it. Yet, you were willing to fail – and learn by daily practice.
  2. Don’t let fear of failing stop you from taking one next action. This is similar to the first point, but slightly different. While the ultimate objective might seem scary and overwhelming, your next action is quite the opposite – it’s easy. Think small. Think today. Think one next action.
  3. Make sure your daily practice is fun and playful. If it’s something you’re going to do every day, it better have an element of fun. Even it means it’s not “fun” until it’s over.
  4. Use your creativity. Think outside the box. Find a way. Couple this practice with something else you like to do.

2. Mental Improvement

What subjects touch, move, and inspire you? What sort of topic could you read about that you could get lost in? My third grader is developing his reading practice in school right now. He asks me to time him every day, “Thirty minutes, starting… now!” That’s the sort of regular mental improvement I’m talking about.

When’s the last time you finished a book? How about this: when is the last time you regularly and consistently read a book for ten minutes? I’m not talking about catalogs, magazines, or social media articles. I’m also not talking about romance novels. I’m talking about a book with subject matter that stimulates your brain, causes you to think, introduces you to exciting new concepts that you’re interested in, and inspires you in a way that may lead to you taking action in your own life.

Make a list of the books you’d like to read and then order the first one on the list. Don’t wait – do it now. Here are the books that I’ve either read recently or are on my current “to read” list:

3. Participation With Others

Something I’ve found to be hugely beneficial – personally and professionally – is showing others the power of community by being part of one. The best leaders, while great at leading, have also had a lot of practice taking direction, following, and being a part of a bigger group, not as its head, but as just another member.

You can participate with others in many different ways:

  • Join a Toastmasters group
  • Take a journalism class
  • Show up regularly for a drumming circle
  • Regularly attend a group bike ride or run.
  • Join a recreational team sport league.
  • Participate consistently in the parents group at your kid’s school

But for your personal development, “participation with others” means putting yourself out there, in a community, in an area where you don’t necessarily excel, and leaning on the energy, experience, and encouragement of others for your progress.

Bringing It All Together

Look around. As a leader, if you’ve been focusing outward on your community and not taking regular and consistent action inward toward your own personal development, then it’s time to carve out some space for yourself.

Here are three things to consider in your chosen area of development:

  1. Daily Practice – Commit to practicing something each day even if just for five minutes, and know it won’t be something you’re already good at. Don’t let that stop you.
  2. Mental Improvement – Find a way to make inspiring and meaningful reading a part of your daily routine.
  3. Participate With Others – Don’t isolate. Find a group you can just be a member of (no leading) and join in. The best leaders are also great followers and know how to receive support and energy from others.

Take a moment to think, and then post to the comments below what your daily practice will be, what book you’re going to read, and how you’re going to participate with others. Make your commitment publicly so you can hold yourself accountable and we can support you.

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Andy Petranek
Andy is what you’d call a modern day Renaissance Man: a former professional trumpeter who attended the Eastman School of Music; a snowboarder, mountain biker, surfer, kayaker, outrigger paddler, mountaineer, and former Marine (Gulf War veteran); a professionally sponsored adventure racer; and the oldest participant to qualify for and participate in the CrossFit Games at the age of 43.

Andy is a certified CHEK Practitioner and holistic lifestyle coach. He holds a spectrum of certifications from CrossFit and is also a Vivobarefoot certified running coach. He has trained as a Zen buddhist and graduated with a Master’s degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

Andy founded CrossFit LA one of the first and most successful CrossFit training centers in the world and the first to be featured in national media. He is the co-founder of the Whole Life Challenge, Inc, currently its president, and is also a consultant and life/business coach. Andy lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Julia, and son, Dashel.