At 16, Nero became the emperor of the most powerful civilization in the world.

Barely out of diapers, he conquered new lands for Rome and quashed rebellions from the comfort of a palace of unimaginable luxury.

Despite his position, Nero has gone down in history for his extreme brutality—he executed rivals, his stepbrother and even his own mother. Historians suspect that he started the Great Fire of Rome to build a new palace, then blamed Christians as an excuse to execute them.

You’ve probably had a boss whose sadism and incompetence was not quite Nero-level but still left you wondering, “Who put this maniac in charge?”

To explain: Having a leadership role doesn’t make someone a leader.

Compare Nero’s reign to that of Marcus Aurelius, a successor. From what we know of “The Last of the Five Good Emperors” through his private writings, he was the leader we’d all want: balanced and fair, who took initiative, not needing credit or seeking power, and always eager to grow as a human.

A Mindset, Not a Role

If you’ve been lucky enough to have an Aurelius-type for a boss, you know that great leadership can create miracle-like results.

The right leader triples a company’s client base, solves a global problem, and nurtures his team members even beyond his own level.

That leader is effective not because of his or her job title but because of a leadership mindset.

Leadership is an attitude we can apply in every situation. When you start to see each moment as an invitation to lead, you’ll leap toward your highest potential.

This is true whether you’re a janitor or a father or a president.

“Not in my job,” you might say. “My boss gives me no autonomy” / “My work is meaningless” / “The shareholders would never go for it.”

The beauty of leadership? It doesn’t depend on external situations. Nelson Mandela led every day for 27 years in prison, though his only possession was a bucket-toilet.

To the true leader, an obstacle is only an exciting opportunity to find a new way forward.

Small Actions Save Lives

On November 18, 1987, commuters at King’s Cross Subway Station in Central London told ticket collectors about a bit of burning paper on the tracks. But staff were not allowed to leave their booths, so someone told his supervisor, who told her supervisor. We know how that goes.

In a few minutes, the fire was raging, and when layers of flammable paint in a tunnel ignited, the fire flashed over and killed 31 people, and injured another 100.

The inquiry that followed showed many fatal causes, but each stemmed back to a failure to lead. The ticket collectors failed to go look. Decades of painters failed to strip old paint (which they knew was flammable). And management upheld policies that discouraged initiative.

If one person had acted as a leader, those lives might have been saved.

In a world facing climate catastrophe and a resurgence of intolerance, our only hope is for more people to see themselves as leaders. Yes, that means you.

6 Self-Leadership Principles

First, you need to show that you can lead yourself. Here are six leadership principles that you can apply to your own life before you seek to lead others.

1. Take control of your thoughts.

All that’s ever been created was first thought. The novel you’re reading, your breakfast burrito, democracy, your general mood—were first ideas.

Top leaders know that what you think, you literally become. You cannot afford to let one negative thought into your mind because these spread and manifest in your words and actions.

Do you know any effective leaders who complain, ridicule or gossip? ‘Course not, so why would you? If you want to lead, watch your thoughts constantly and choose positive ones. Over time, it becomes habit.

2. Take initiative in every situation.

You probably know someone who always waits to be told what to do—a co-worker, family member or that stranger five feet away, idly watching as you struggle with the apartment door and bags full of groceries.

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At work, initiative leads to advancement. Personal development legend Brian Tracy talks about the time he immediately started a new project, on a weekend, and uncovered a million-dollar fraud. His bosses were more than impressed.

Initiative is even more important in your own business. Ray Kroc would walk the parking lots of his McDonald’s franchises picking up garbage, sending a clear message to his employees that details matter. And it’s attention to detail that helped McDonald’s succeed (for better or worse).

3. Prioritize “great work.”

We run into a friend we haven’t seen in a while and ask, “How’s it going?”

“Good—busy. So busy!” is usually the reply.

Virtually everyone’s calendar is stacked tight as a pile of bricks, where no light can get through. Yet what percentage of people would you rate as highly “effective”?

People work, but not always on what matters. A leader effectively prioritizes his or her own life, ruthlessly cutting the good for the great.

I’d love to shoot under 100 on the golf course, bake my own bread and learn to lip read. But for now I’ve had to back burner these pursuits. Everything has an opportunity cost.

Leaders first make time and space to reflect on their own life, and then prioritize.

4. Let go of needing to “get credit.”

When our kids clean their room only to collect their allowance.

When a tobacco company spends $10 million on ads to tout the $50,000 they spent on cancer research.

When a politician finds a clever loophole to use public money to tell you how fiscally responsible he is.

Does this inspire a sympathetic response? No. We don’t follow shameless glory-seekers.

A focus on what you can get brands you as a self-serving. Plus, with one eye on the credit prize, you have less time and energy to do the job well.

Leaders do their duty without needing praise.

5. Keep your cup empty.

A professor of Eastern Philosophy travels to a Tibetan monastery to meet with a guru. They sit as the visitor relates all that he knows about enlightenment.

“Would you like tea?” asks the sage.

As he pours, the professor continues to talk. The cup overflows.

“What are you doing?” the man asks.

“Like the cup, you’re already full of ideas. How can more go in until you empty your cup?” says the guru.

A leader doesn’t have all the answers. She is someone who is always on the lookout for better ideas. And she applies that attitude full time.

6. Prioritize personal growth.

When I was 24 and shopping for a wedding ring, I couldn’t understand why my friends had relationship problems. Love was so easy, I thought.

Roughly 15 breakups later I learned the hard way that, the more you think you have “figured it out,” the harder the fall.

Psychologists who studied winning and losing noted the same, fascinating effect. Those who won a challenge became entrenched in their habits while the “losers” reflected and performed better over time.

In our own lives, we enjoy a bit of success but then forget that situations change, and luck plays a role in that success.

The best antidote to getting stuck in a rut is to treat yourself as your own one man or woman corporation. Leaders set targets, prioritize growth and remain flexible.

5 Places to Lead

It’s easy to nod your head when you read a list of lofty principles. We know intuitively we should be volunteering for projects and prioritizing important tasks.

But how do we apply this theoretical leadership to our life? Here are tips to help you become the “master of your domain,” to borrow a Seinfeld-ism; five ways to show leadership in your own sphere of influence.

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1. At Home

Become someone who picks up the trash that’s blown into your front yard, even if you rent. Oil the squeaky door. Don’t make your partner remind you to fix things or get groceries.

Don’t lecture your children on the importance of books—read. Don’t preach good health—cook broccoli and go for a run.

When you lead at home, you practice to lead in your work. But beyond this, it simply feels good to be on top of things, and to live in a beautiful, ordered home even if it’s modest.

Make some changes on the ole home front, and you will see these benefits spill into other areas of your life.

2. At Work

Even if you’re not in an official “leadership” role at work, go above and beyond your job description and the results will be miraculous.

There’s barely any traffic on the extra mile. Plus, it’s only one mile, not 1,000. You don’t need to do 10 times as much as your colleagues to stand out; outstanding work often requires only an extra phone call to clients or helping a co-worker with a project that’s technically not your problem.

When you become someone who shows leadership in your humble role, people notice, and eventually offer you more responsibility (and the perks that come with it).

3. In Relationships

A great relationship is a place to give, not get.

In developed countries, a married couple’s chances of getting divorced are hovering just under 50 percent.

Couples split for multitude reasons, but often the root is one or both partners’ “what have you done for me lately?” attitude.

In all budding relationships, in the throes of passionate love, you buy your partner gifts, take them to dinner, on trips, and spend hours devising ways to surprise him or her. You hang on every word.

But the relationship progresses and the novelty fades and we forget that it can only thrive if we continue investing in it.

When we blame our partner for the relationship’s problems, it’s doomed. When we take 100% responsibility for its success, it thrives.

4. In Your Body

Our body is our vehicle through life. If it works, we enjoy life; if not, all the money in the world is useless.

Fitness is a prized possession that can’t be bought or inherited. You can only maintain it with constant work.

Before I made peak fitness a priority, I saw exercise as a frivolous, vain pursuit. But a healthy body signals determination, dedication, mental focus and self-respect.

Would you rather work for someone who embodies those qualities, or someone who lets their body fall apart?

Protect this most precious asset, and you’ll be a more believable leader.

5. In Your Finances

You’ve heard the one about the millionaire who couldn’t make mortgage payments. How about the $20-million-a-year athlete who declared bankruptcy? And the top financial adviser who doesn’t have a dollar invested? I know—cry me a river.

Earning boatloads of money doesn’t make you wealthy, and you can be perfectly abundant on a modest salary. Oxford professor William MacAskill donates every dollar he earns over $30,000 to charity.

I’m not suggesting you do the same, only that you take the time to get control of this area that most people neglect. Do you save and invest at least 10% of your income? Do you avoid mutual funds like the plague? Have you chosen an asset allocation that works for you?

If all this sounds foreign, pick up a copy of Money: Master the Game. You can read it in a week and you might just end up 100 times richer when it’s time to retire.

Leaders are entrusted with managing resources. How can you lead if you can’t manage your own?

4 Signs You’re Not Taking Initiative

Do you have integrity? That is, are your actions consistent with your values? You probably walk your talk some or most of the time—maybe you even scored five for five in the above list.

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By all means, celebrate your awesome. But if you’re reading SUCCESS articles, I’m guessing you’re not here for the pats on the back, but to become even more effective as a leader.

As you read on, be honest about whether any of these four descriptions remind you even a bit of you. If so, carry this list and work to grow.

1. You wait for someone to tell you what to do.

If you’re earning a wage, someone is trading his or her money for the results you deliver. If you find yourself sitting at your desk with nothing to do, then you’ve made a tacit decision to break this agreement.

Nobody is “entitled” to a salary. It’s an honorable thing to earn a living. Plus, the time at your desk will pass, anyway. At the end of your life, will you be proud that you spent an hour each workday scrolling Instagram, or would you rather say that you gave it your all, and made an impact on the world?

If you’re finding your job slow, say to your boss repeatedly, “I’d like more responsibility.” This key phrase will change your life.

This advice applies to business owners as well. Don’t wait for your client to provide marching orders—surprise them with brilliant ideas. Don’t wait for the phone to ring or someone to walk into your shop. Go on the offensive by creating something of value, and then sell it.

2. You complain about problems.

Yes, we’ve heard the hand wringing about the economy, the government, the traffic and the share price.

A person with a leadership mentality expects problems and even thrives in those conditions. What has ever gone the way you planned? Each time I start a business, I have an idea of how long and difficult it will be to reach profitability, and each time it’s required 10 times the effort.

Problems in life and business are guaranteed, but excuses don’t have to be. Leaders divert the energy most of us put toward complaining into trying a new approach until success arrives.

3. You find reasons for why you can’t do something.

Catching yourself when you complain is relatively easy compared to this one.

Many people are not even aware of the facts they tell themselves that simply ain’t true.

“I can’t afford to hire another employee” or “I don’t have time to take a vacation.”

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Your language creates your beliefs creates your actions creates your life.

When you trade “can’t” and “don’t” for “how can I?” or “I can,” what seemed impossible will start to arrive in your life as if by magic.

4. You react instead of act.

Leaders don’t waste a minute more than needed on playing defense. From time to time, they may be sued or deal with a flood in the main office. Surprises happen.

But if you’re spending most of your time reacting to situations, how will you ever lead your team, business or yourself to your goals?

Ask yourself honestly: Is this the best use of my time? If not, can you delegate it? Can you ignore it? Many “crisis situations” are resolved by completely ignoring them.

Would your career, relationships or company be better served by acting intentionally instead of reacting?

Lead yourself first, and others will follow you to the ends of the Earth.

Photo by Greg Raines on Unsplash

Michael Pietrzak
Michael Pietrzak

Michael Pietrzak is the founder of So You Want to Write? Inc., which helps writers improve their writing and get published. He’s passionate about personal development, CrossFit, and playing guitar.


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