'Nobody's Coming to Save You': ABC Convention Speaker Ryan Leak on the Power of Self-Leadership

For ABC Convention 2024 speaker Ryan Leak, truly effective leadership begins with self-leadership. That means separating following from leading, helping yourself grow and understanding that you’re not going to drown—because you already know how to swim.
By Christopher Durso
January 25, 2024

Leadership coach, speaker and author Ryan Leak is convinced that too many people are sitting around, waiting for someone higher up to tell them what to do. They’re waiting for someone to give them permission, to motivate them, to inspire them. They’re waiting for a leader—and too often that includes leaders themselves.

That became particularly apparent during the pandemic, when newly remote workers across industries were cut off from many of the organizational dynamics—tangible and intangible—that had guided them. What they missed, and what too many professionals today continue to miss, was the importance of self-leadership. Leak explains it as “giving people ownership of their own career and their own development.”

Leak experienced a version of that himself during the pandemic, when he was consulting with an NBA team on leadership development. Up to that point he’d been working primarily as a speaker, but he was introduced to the group as an executive coach. “I thought, I’m an executive coach? When did I become an executive coach?” Leak tells Construction Executive. “Nobody told me I was an executive coach. So, I’m not a self-acclaimed executive coach—that’s how my clients described me, and we just decided to keep going with it.”

“Just keep going with it” is an important part of self-leadership, as is the power of failure, with those two themes undergirding Leak’s two bestselling books—“Leveling Up: 12 Questions to Elevate Your Personal and Professional Development” and “Chasing Failure: How Falling Short Sets You Up for Success,” respectively. Leak will explore these and other aspects of impactful management and leadership when he presents the opening general session at ABC Convention 2024 in March. Recently he talked to CE about what attendees can expect to learn.

What is self-leadership, and why is it so important to personal and professional success?

Most people, when they dive into leadership, they’re trying to figure out how to lead others. But I think you can’t lead others well unless you lead yourself. That is the art of self-leadership. It’s looking at your own personal disciplines and looking at your own personal growth and thinking: Am I growing myself as a leader? Because if I’m not growing myself as a leader, I can’t actually expect that of other people.

Sometimes leaders have expectations of others that they don’t have for themselves. I can’t tell you how many organizations that I have worked with where executives interviewed for these companies have the mindset of, what can this organization do for my career? What can this organization do to help me grow? To which I say: What are you doing to help you grow? What are you doing to help your own career path? Sometimes it’s this idea of, I’m waiting for some magical person to come along and do for me what I actually could be doing for myself. That is the core idea of self-leadership. It’s giving people ownership of their own career and their own development.

What are some of the characteristics of somebody who is practicing good self-leadership?

Number one, we would look at relationships. I think relationships are the currency of every business that we have. Our products might be different, but at the end of the day, if you’re not good with people, it’s going to be very, very difficult to be good at business. It’s looking at those core relationships and those soft skills of how I’m able to relate with others. How do I manage conflict? How do I sit with people that are completely different than me? How do I talk about politics? How do I have an engaging conversation with someone that I disagree with? When we’re sitting with an executive-coaching client, we’re talking about, how are your relationships with your team, your peers, your colleagues, people that work for you?

Another area where self-leadership is very important is calendar. We do a thing with our clients called a calendar audit. I like to say, a person’s calendar will tell me everything I need to know about that person—and it will not only tell me everything I need to know about where you are currently, it will also tell me where you’re going. We have plenty of friends that have jobs who we ask, “Hey, what did you do all week?” “I mean, you know, I did my job.”

“Yeah, but what did you do?”

For most of our friends, most of our colleagues, most of our professional network, if they look back at the last month of their work, the overall sentiment would be, where did the time go? They got some things done, but most people aren’t intentional about their calendar. If you’ve mastered your calendar, you’d be surprised by the amount of efficiency that you’re going to have in your work.

How did you first come to identify self-leadership as something that people were overlooking?

COVID! The world stopped, right? Inevitably, across the global workforce, you had a bunch of people that stalled their growth because they were waiting for answers from their leaders to continue growing.

I have a podcast called “Followership With Ryan Leak.” The premise of followership is, regardless of the kind of leader you have, that does not have to determine the kind of follower that you can become. Some people say, “If I have a toxic leader, well, that means I must be a toxic person.” I don’t like that math personally.

The pandemic highlighted for me that a lot of people took a step back because they were waiting for the president to give them some sort of direction for their life. I kind of live with the mantra “No one’s coming.” Nobody’s coming to save you. And, my encouragement to people is, not only is nobody coming to save you, but you can swim.

I like to think of what I do as, I teach people to swim. Or, I remind them, you already can swim, and you don’t need somebody to come and rescue you from this abyss of mediocrity.

What is the relationship between self-leadership and the more traditional leadership that people are expected to practice at their companies? Does self-leadership trickle into your leadership style if you’re doing it right?

I think so. Traditional leadership has the mantra of “Listen to me”; self-leadership is “Follow me because I’m modeling the behavior that I want you to have.” Traditional leadership is “I just need the title, and then you have to do what I say just because I have the title”—regardless of whether I’m doing these things myself, regardless of whether I’ve put in the work, regardless of whether I’m related to the boss or not. Self-leadership is saying, “I’m doing my best to go to the next level every single day, and the people that work with me, work for me, are going to want to do the same.”

Self-leadership is really an addendum to traditional leadership. Start by leading yourself extremely well, and then, yes, you have to cast some vision to the people who work for you. But if you haven’t led yourself well, when you cast that vision—John Maxwell [author of “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”] says it like this: People can follow you because they have to or because they get to, and how you behave determines which story that is for them. I see a lot of have-to leadership.

What we try to do is help leaders get to a place where people respect them so much, they say, “I get to work with this person, and it’s awesome.”

This seems like something that younger people might be more comfortable with, while older people dismiss as it as a little too touchy-feely. Is there a generational component to it?

Great observation. In fact, my next book has a whole chapter on multi generations in the workplace. The older you get, the more you get to a place of where you think: Listen, my personality’s baked in. I just am who I am. Get over it. Fire me, hire me, promote me. I’m over what people think of me.
To which I would simply say, why did you stop growing? Why are you saying you have no room for growth? I’ve never met anybody who says that. So, if you have room for growth, at what point did you just acquiesce to the status quo and say, “You know, I’m good”? In fact, a better model for the next generation coming after you is to say, “I’ve decided that I’m going to be a lifelong learner. Period.”

Yes, you do see with older generations a completely different mindset around how we work. There is much more of a “we are going to put in the time” attitude with older generations. Younger generations are trying to work smarter. They’re like, if I don’t have to do this for 40 hours and AI could do this in 10 minutes, why wouldn’t I do that? They’re looking for the more innovative solutions.

However, when a pandemic happens, you see resilience in some generations and others that are so heavily reliant on the internet that when their internet is slow, they can’t actually get any work done. So, those are a few little differences.

What is one takeaway you would like your ABC audience to leave with?

I want them feeling like they have permission to, first, enjoy their life. Most people think somebody else is in charge of their happiness and in charge of their growth and in charge of their trajectory. What I want to do is, I want to empower this audience. I want them to feel like, wait a minute, I can grab life by the horns, and if there’s a direction I want to go in my life—a positive direction—guess what? You can do that.

You need no one’s permission to start being a better person. You might need somebody’s permission to buy something or hire someone or whatever. But what you don’t need permission for is your attitude. Your attitude is everything.

by Christopher Durso

Chris leads Construction Executive’s day-to-day operations—overseeing all print and digital content, design and production efforts, and working with the editorial team to tell the many stories of America’s builders and contractors. An experienced association magazine editor, writer and publications strategist, he is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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