It Starts With You

4 March 2008 Bob Marcus

Brimstone's Robert P Weiler and Bob Marcus highlight the methods for developing strong leadership skills.

We all have a tendency to make our box small, to be bounded by a concept of our abilities. Rarely do we take up the challenge of finding out what our true limits are; instead, we choose to look at ourselves from a narrowed perspective. Often, we let other people define us. We let our current job define us. We let our education or upbringing or past experience define us.

It’s human nature to focus on inadequacies and settle for the status quo. At Brimstone, we consulted with hundreds of corporate leaders who couldn’t get unstuck from this rut. Our experience, with t-shirted students and senior executives alike, tells us that you can achieve much more than you think – if you commit to it.


Leadership, at any level of an organisation, begins with a personal commitment – to change, to improve and to succeed. In our consulting practice, we often see it start with the CEO, but everyone, including the first-time manager, must make the commitment.

You must look in the mirror, recognise what you see and act accordingly. And you must take responsibility for the end results of your efforts. It starts with you.

"You must look in the mirror, recognise what you see and act accordingly."

Even when you think your challenges stem from others who are in your way, or have made life difficult, or are not carrying out their responsibilities or reaching their goals, it is still about you. It’s not about them.

You should assess each situation from multiple perspectives, but start with the first-person – ask yourself what changes you can make, what actions you can take, to address the problem or opportunity.

We once worked with a senior executive team whose members complained bitterly about how late their performance reviews had been. They felt the CEO had failed them. In a meeting, one of us asked: "How many of you are under 50 years old?"

No one raised a hand. The room was filled with strong individuals who had climbed the corporate ladder, who had achieved many personal and professional goals and who had been rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Yet they wanted their performance review to be someone else’s responsibility.

Our response: You own it. There are many ways to get a performance review. If your boss won’t initiate it, then do your own review, as if you were your own boss. Use your self-written review to spark a discussion with your boss. If you want more feedback, ask your peers or your team to give you a review. But don’t blame your boss for a lack of feedback. Don’t externalise the situation. Take control and get the feedback.

Despite your leadership role and title, you lack the ability to control events and the actions of those around you. In the end, the only actions you can control are your own. Leaders don’t view this is as a limitation, they recognise it is a source of power.


Most people who rise to a leadership position want to lead. They aspire to make things happen, to have an impact on the world around them. In business, the opportunity typically comes along through a series of individual successes driven by a specific skill or practice. When you land the promotion, you are asked to lead others.

"Your job is primarily one of marshalling resources and developing people."

Many of the leaders we meet find it challenging to ‘cross the bridge’ to a higher level of leadership responsibility. Their immediate inclination is to apply to their new role the very same work habits, abilities and attitudes that got them the promotion. Yet many of the attributes that made them successful in the last job can doom them to failure in the new one.

Whether you’re a top sales person promoted to sales manager or a COO promoted to CEO, you’ve got to recognise that new levels of responsibility often require fundamentally new approaches to leadership.

When working with executives, we sometimes use the phrase: "Put down your rifle and get off the field". Just as colonels often find it difficult when they become generals to become comfortable leading the fight from a rear area, business leaders often struggle to stop thinking of themselves as the ‘expert’ and instead focus their energies on building around themselves a team of experts.

As you rise up the chain of command, your job becomes less about doing things yourself and more about building in your organisation the capacity to get those things done. Your job is primarily one of marshalling resources and developing people. You must embrace the notion that the members of your team – some of whom you will inherit and some of whom you will select – will contribute significantly to your success or failure.

That said, if your organisation is not delivering the expected results, it’s you who is not delivering those results. As the leader, you must assume full responsibility. You must look inward to assess how you are enhancing the organisation’s capacity to achieve the desired outcomes – and how you are getting in the way. Remember, it starts with you.