The will to lead oneself: Who are you? Why are you here?

Decades ago, when I was new to health care leadership and a young executive, my boss called me into his office for a meeting. I was understandably anxious, and being a new leader, wanted to know more about the meeting’s purpose.

What had I done? What had I not done?
The meeting began with this individual asking me to step into a new role; in effect, a promotion. I was somewhat surprised, and when I asked why, he noted: “I selected you not for what you have done, but for what you will do.”
In other words, the selection was a recognition of a personal attribute called willpower, which one uses to close the “knowing-doing” gap; for being willing to lead; for being willing to do the tough things that leaders must often do.
But beyond willpower, another attribute was being recognized, although I didn’t know it at the time. This attribute I have come to understand is known as self-mastery, or the willingness to lead oneself first. Self-mastery means leaders must, in the words of the bard, William Shakespeare, in his play Hamlet: “To thine ownself be true.” First, know thyself.
I began to realize that I had been going about my leadership work unconsciously, and would have to become more conscious and more intentional about it. This would mean incorporating into my leadership practice such skills as introspection, reflection, self-awareness; and, above all, the practice of humility.
Here are some ideas I can share from what I did, which may in turn help you.
Daily journaling: I was gifted at a Christmas celebration 15 years ago a beautifully bound journal. Without knowing exactly why I was doing it, I began a daily journaling practice. I decided to make it fun and brief; nothing profound or complex. But the practice actually turned into a profound opportunity for introspection, self-awareness, reflection and inquiry. While I did lapse the practice from time-to-time, such as when traveling, I began to rely on the journal to help me see inside my attitude, express fears and generate ideas; as in, “aha” moments.
Meditation and prayer: I began these twin efforts in an attempt to both reflect and quiet myself. I learned that I could borrow from a rich and diverse variety of religious and nonreligious traditions to develop “interiority,” meaning an interior life. While I did not enter a formal meditative practice, the mere act of stopping and thinking with eyes closed and taking time out was helpful physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Spiritual retreats: Since I had grown up in a faith tradition which enabled periodic youth retreats, I was accustomed to the practice. Living in northern Wisconsin at the time, we benefitted from a local Franciscan monastery which provided a wealth of private and couple retreats, for all faith traditions. This beautiful old-world environment on spacious grounds was a perfect place to recharge and follow house rules, which promoted a practice of introspection, prayer, reflection and quiet.
I found two wonderful ways to learn more deeply about humility. First was the act of volunteering “on the ground,” meaning, it is humbling to be in the presence of those whom you are serving. This meant breaking from the notion that the nonprofit and community boards on which I was serving were the sole form of service. Those are necessary engagements for leaders, but insufficient if one is not really in the presence of those being served. In other words, a personal service type of volunteering is indeed “good for the soul.” Opportunities abound, such as building homes with Habitat for Humanity, becoming a big brother or sister, serving at a community food bank, etc.
Second was taking several Roots Trips. Being the first generation son of an Italian immigrant from Lucca, Tuscany meant a trip back there, to the village astride the river where my father was born and lived until the age of seven. It was remarkable to be in the cemetery with headstones named for our family and those of my cousins, to walk along the village paths and cross the river bridge where my father and his family had gone before, to visit the local church and dust off my father’s baptismal records. This was a humbling experience, which taught me I really was standing on the shoulders of those who came before.
That trip was followed by a visit to Ellis Island in New York City, where most immigrants landed, to walk the same marble floor my father, his mom and his brother had walked in 1920.
Indeed, being willing to lead is joined inextricably to being willing to lead oneself by seeing more into oneself, getting to know the real person inside, which then leads to asking the big life questions: Who am I? Why am I here?
The leadership bar has just been raised.

-Bob De Vita recently retired after a 42-year career in health care leadership spanning three states. He teaches an MBA seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, serves as a volunteer advisor and board member, and volunteers as a football coach at a local high school. He can be reached at

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