The Greatest Responsibility of Leaders


The Greatest Responsibility of Leader by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Nicolo Castellini. Available at Flickr.com.

What is the greatest responsibility of leaders? Or, more accurately, WHO is your greatest responsibility in leadership? When you consider all the people in your sphere of leadership—followers, peers, your own superiors, and yourself—who in that list is your number one priority? I’ve been asking that question of clients and students for years now. The answer almost always given (and very likely your first, gut reaction) is “followers.” Unfortunately, that’s the last priority on your list.

I honestly cannot remember where I first learned this principle. I think it’s rather profound so I wish I could say this is a Yorkovich original. Alas, I cannot. Here is the principle: Your first responsibility in leadership is self-leadership. Self? Yes, you. You must first provide leadership to yourself. The argument is that if you do not take on this basic and fundamental responsibility you will be of little value working with others or in an organization. What is self-leadership? More on that below, but first, I want to share the leadership responsibility priority list:

  1. Leading self
  2. Leading up
  3. Leading peers
  4. Leading followers

The most common question that arises when confronted with that list is “Why are followers last?” I’ll admit that is a bit counterintuitive. When people think of and talk about leadership the focus is almost entirely external—on others, not internal or self. However, the logic is that if you first focus your attention on leading self and then leading up, leading peers and followers will follow quite naturally.

By leading self you are in the process of reaching your God-given potential. By leading self you are becoming a great follower for your leaders. By leading up, you encourage your leaders in their challenging responsibilities and foster an environment of excellence and growth. An environment of excellence and growth establishes a positive culture for your peers and your own followers.

So what is involved in each of these responsibilities of leadership? Many books and articles have been written about each. My little blog article can’t possibly capture all of that, but below is what I believe to be the core essence of each:

  • Leading Self – developing a keen sense of self-awareness; knowing your strengths and weaknesses and their impact on others; become a steward of all your personal and physical resources.
  • Leading Up – respecting authority figures; developing trusting relationships; discerning when to challenge and when to promote your leaders.
  • Leading Peers – being a model follower; encouraging others in their person and in their exercise of leadership; developing an atmosphere of trust and collaboration.
  • Leading Followers – providing vision; communicating passion and hope; creating a path for success.

I’m going to go out on a limb quite a bit: I’m going to say that aside from fulfilling your core job responsibilities (please keep your job!), if you were to focus all of your growth and development efforts on self-leadership, the medium and long-term impact on your organization and on your career will be phenomenal. To be clear, I am NOT saying ignore other responsibilities. I am saying that if you focus your growth effort on self-leadership the effect will be far greater than growth in how to lead others, colleagues, or superiors.

Want to get started? Here is my favorite book on self-leadership: Leading from the Inside Out, by Samuel Rima (Baker, 2000). Oh! There’s also a great library of articles on leading self in this blog. To date, we’ve published 95 articles in this category. Just click here or on the “leading self” category in the right panel.

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