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“There are many skills effective leaders possess—intellect, long-term vision, and big-picture thinking—but there’s one skill that precedes all the rest: self-leadership”

— Dr. Kevin Elko

His leadership spirit took over immediately after he ejected from his plane. As he was parachuting down to the ground, Admiral James Stockdale knew he’d be captured and taken to a Vietnamese prison. During his descent, he started thinking about how he’d lead the other American prisoners so they’d be unified and not split like prisoners in previous wars.

On his way to the prison, he developed a unique Morse code. He and the prisoners used it daily to tap out the letters, “US,” which stood for “united over self.” A young John McCain was in that prison and was once offered his freedom, but he denied it unless every other prisoner was released with him. Then he looked at his captors and said, “US.”

“US” inspired the prisoners to make a choice every day that the needs of others would be greater than their own wants. It gave them a purpose and kept them united. Ultimately, their mindset could not be controlled by their enemies.


When It Comes to Organizations Today, That Kind of Leadership Is Rare

Many companies and teams today hire psychologists and consultants to determine key leadership attributes and to discover what leaders must do to get results. Many leaders think that if their team members were just more effective, their organization would be successful. They look outward. But I’ve found that organizations, NCAA championship football teams, NFL Super Bowl champions, and well-known companies, win because their leaders focus on themselves first. That’s where leadership starts.


First, Self-Leadership

Carson Tinker, presently with the New York Giants, was a long snapper on the University of Alabama’s 2011 championship team. On April 27, 2011, he suffered a personal tragedy. A tornado struck Tuscaloosa, where he and his girlfriend were staying. They’d huddled in a closet for protection, but the tornado destroyed the house. Tinker’s body landed some 50 yards away. When he awoke in a hospital hours later, he learned that his girlfriend, who’d been ripped from his arms, didn’t survive.

Tinker pulled himself together emotionally and used the tragedy for good. He led the football team in rebuilding several homes for other tornado victims in Tuscaloosa and was a finalist for Sports Illustrated 2011 Sportsperson of the Year. He accepted the Maxwell Award for the NCAA team that contributed the most to their community that year. And, after an earlier loss to LSU, he led the team to a National Championship over LSU in a second matchup that same year. One of the stars of the team, Donte’ Stallworth, hugged Carson before the championship game, telling him how his leadership meant so much to him and that that he loved him.


Carson led himself out of a tragedy

Then he took that same spirit and led the entire team the same way. He led himself with vision, a desire to serve others, and grit. Carson, first being able to lead himself, led others to greatness.

There are many skills effective leaders possess—intellect, long-term vision, and big-picture thinking—but there’s one skill that precedes all the rest: self-leadership. I’ve found the higher someone rises the leadership ladder, the more self-leadership skills matter. When top-level performers are compared, what distinguishes the star performers from the others are self-leadership skills.

One aspect of self-leadership means controlling emotional responses to events in order to think clearly and find the best solutions to problems. And foremost, not making decisions solely on feelings and sticking to decisions despite feelings. We’ll have days when we feel like we’re on an emotional rollercoaster and our feelings can become pretty raw. Emotions are inevitable, but we cannot be governed by them. Clear decisive thought has to rule over emotional reactions.

Self-leadership also means not being consistently offended by others’ opinions and judgments. If we’re constantly spending energy responding to others’ opinions, and justifying our actions, we’ll have little energy left to lead.

For example, imagine someone on your team questions a recent decision you made on an important project. You may feel frustrated or even offended and emotionally respond to your decision being challenged, which could result in things said that you regret later. Instead, be slow to respond, listen to the comment, and attempt to understand where the other person was coming from. The result: your team will be more forthcoming with ideas and feedback in the future.

Having emotional control takes a lot of practice and self-awareness. Our instinct is to defend ourselves in all situations. But leaders who can self-lead generally have high-performing teams. It’s your disposition that makes you a great leader, not your position.


Second, Match Me

When a child or young adult observes someone older responding effectively to challenging events, they’ll often mirror those responses when they encounter challenging events themselves. As a result, they develop resiliency as they learn to bounce back from setbacks.

Today, your team, prospects, and clients are looking for someone to model how to handle setbacks. People crave leadership and someone to show them how to respond. Your response can send a clear message: “Follow me.” Do this and you’ll find people gravitating to you because there are so many wishy-washy leaders who won’t step up with confidence and a solution-oriented attitude.


I see this principle play out over and over as I consult with sports teams

I call it “Match Me.” It’s a process that I’ve used with the Alabama Crimson Tide football team for years. Each year, the team decides what they want to be about: grit, resiliency, intensity, or whatever characteristic they decide on. Suppose the characteristic is “being coachable.” The unit leader then states to his teammates, “I’m going to be very coachable. When I receive instruction from my coach, I’ll choose to not be offended. I’ll receive the information, grow from it, and implement it. I want the rest of you to watch me and match me.”

How can you apply the ”Match Me” principle when leading your team? Schedule some time together to determine what you want your team to be in the next year. Is it relentless, focused, or transparent? Once you decide, communicate and demonstrate that behavior consistently, on a daily basis.

Organizations tend to make leadership more complicated than it needs to be. As a result, they end up not knowing what they stand for and want to be. “Match Me” is a simple leadership principle that’s been effective for transforming a team into a group of champions. It’s easily executed and allows everyone to see a modeled desired behavior and follow it. I’ve used this method with Super Bowl champions, NCAA National Championship teams, and organizations that have risen to higher levels than they ever imagined was possible.


Third, the Language of Winning

The Crimson Tide has a language that’s preceded all their championships over the last twelve years, and they speak the language non-stop. The language includes phrases such as “So what, now what,” “Be where your feet are,” and “Carry the water until it becomes wine.” These words aren’t said here and there or now and then, with the hope that it has a lasting effect. This language is used daily by the head coach, position coach, strength coach, trainers, and eventually, the players themselves until it’s programmed into the mindset of the entire team.

As I worked with The Philadelphia Eagles during the team’s 2017-18 Super Bowl year, the language was quite simple: “The best year we’ll have will be when we take ownership for everything that happens. That means, as a team, we must decide what our reaction will be to all meaningful events.” The head coach, Doug Pederson, placed the word “ownership” in bright green letters behind him every time he spoke to the team, reiterating the message.


Our conscious mind is like a Post-It Note, but our subconscious mind is like a supercomputer

Repeating the language of winning targets the supercomputer and leads to results. Thus, Doug was programming the team’s supercomputer every time he spoke.

The effective leader speaks the language of winning non-stop until it becomes the collective mindset of the entire organization. Morale goes up. We know who we are and what we embody. Confidence rises because we know how to think, and performance increases because we know how to focus. The leader speaks resilience and grit into the collective soul of the team. The leader’s words eventually get inside the subconscious mind of all involved and manifest themselves in the team’s behavior.

When winning language is repeated by the leader and put into practice, it becomes an inherent part of the day-to-day activities of the organization. In other words, it becomes their culture. When the entire organization or team becomes fluent in this winning language, the difference can easily be seen.

As leaders, we need to provide the necessary tools for everyone to win. A key aspect of winning language is faith in the organization, fellow team members, and leaders themselves. Nothing great is ever accomplished without faith. To weave trust and faith into the fabric of the spoken language is a must. It sends a message that we can always grow; no matter how well or how poorly we’ve done, we can improve by finding good and the chance to grow in every situation.


Remember Three Things About Where Leadership Starts

First, it begins with self-leadership. Don’t let emotions and feelings influence your actions or decision making. Second, use the “Match Me” method with your team. Decide what your team will stand for, then lead by example. Third, speak the language of winning. Use it daily to help your team embrace it.


Focus on Yourself First

In football, I see it all the time. A pass gets dropped, a fumble occurs, a pass gets intercepted and players, even coaches, start pointing fingers. Sometimes it’s subtle, just a look or gesture. It’s just natural. And strangely, it can make a coach feel better because he or she doesn’t feel like it’s their fault. But doing this can destroy team morale.

The same thing can happen in financial practices when we lose a client or prospect. It’s easy to blame team members. Resist that approach. Use a Stockdale-type approach. Once our teams know that we care more about them than ourselves, they’ll respond.

A Leader of Leaders
Kevin Elko Headshot

Dr. Elko gives teams and organizations around the globe an immediate shot in the arm with messages of inspiration and motivation in the areas of leadership, goal-setting, and culture. In sports, he has consulted with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Miami Dolphins, and the New Orleans Saints.  In college sports, he’s worked with seven BCS national championship football teams, including the University of Miami, LSU, the University of Alabama, and Florida State University.

Next Steps

1 Schedule a team meeting to determine what your team will stand for over the next six months.
2 Once you decide, use the “Match Me” approach to communicate and demonstrate that behavior consistently, on a daily basis.


Related Topic: Dr. Elko's Power Of Connection >



The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hartford Funds.


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