5 Harsh Truths Every Aspiring Leader Needs to Know

So Easy to Forget

Whether you've led teams for decades or just started in your first leadership role, if you want to be effective, there are fundamental truths you cannot afford to ignore.

You may even be familiar with them, but they are easy to forget and many leaders ignore them - at great risk to their own credibility and influence.

Keep these in front of you and review them monthly to see how you're doing. They'll keep you grounded and effective.

1. You cannot do it alone.

I coached an executive who shared his perspective that "results are everything."

It's true - whether a volunteer service group, a sports team, or a corporate division, your team exists to accomplish something in the world and we call that something "results."

Without those results, there's no reason to have a team and nothing for you to lead toward.

However (and this is a very harsh truth for some leaders),  those results cannot happen on their own.

Everything you do happens with, through, and because of people.

Results are a product…they happen because of people and processes. Myopically focusing on results and ignoring people will ultimately undermine your ability to achieve them.

Some leaders fall into the trap of thinking they could just do it themselves if people would get out of the way.

It's tempting to think that way, but it's a lie: you didn't even get here on your own - at the beginning, someone clothed you, fed you, taught you, and kept you safe.

Whatever you want to do, you cannot do it on your own. It always takes people.

Which leads us to the second harsh truth:

2. You cannot make people do anything.

I've coached leaders in over 2000 sessions and this is one of the most consistently ignored or misunderstood truths.

Stated another way:  everything people do is a choice. Even if they don't realize they have a choice, they do. They can always make another choice - even if that choice is to quit, be fired, or stay, but stop working.

This is a 'double-whammy' for many leaders I've coached. They had this illusion that if they could just "get the job" that they'd be able to make a team perform.

But you cannot make anyone do anything.

That's the harsh truth.

The good news is that you most definitely can influence people…to make choices that benefit the team, to give their all, and to achieve results.

Real leadership influence begins when you understand you do not control another person.

And that brings us to the third harsh truth:

3. Your influence is 100% your responsibility.

Your company may or may not equip you to maximize your influence. The leaders in your organization might not be great role models of how to do it right.

Even if you do have the benefit of training and good examples, they do not substitute for this truth: your influence is your responsibility.

No one can do this work for you:

  • No one else can be the example you need to be.
  • No one else can give the encouragement you need to give.
  • No one else can invest in your people the way you need to invest.
  • No one else can address the change the things you need to change.
  • No one else can envision the future with your team the way you can.

The good news here is that you live at a time where it is easier than ever before to equip yourself to do these things. Keep reading Lead Change, subscribe to my blog as well as the other writers here. There is so much information to help you - my younger self is jealous!

Your influence is 100% your responsibility and you have more opportunity to meet that responsibility than the billions of people who have lived before you!

4. You control very little.

No matter your position in an organization, from entry level to CEO, you have very little control over the world and systems in which you live and work.

  • If you lead a small team, you cannot control most of what is happening in the rest of the company.
  • If you are captain of a sports team, you cannot control how the other team prepares, what is happening in the lives of your team mates, or the weather.
  • If you are CEO of an organization, you cannot control the world, what your competitors are doing, what is happening in the personal lives of your employees…or the weather.

We all live and work in systems and environments where we have little control.

Even so, you do have control over a great many things: your own attitude, learning, preparation, how you treat the people around you, how you modify the environment, where you put your time, and the choices you make.

The good news is that these things make a tremendous impact and have great influence over the things you cannot control.

You control very little, but you can influence much!

5. Once is never enough.

There are many ways to look at this one…stated even more harshly:

"You are not the center of anyone else's universe."

Okay, maybe your dog…maybe.  (But definitely not your cat!)

Many leaders I've coached get frustrated because their words do not immediately sink into their team's hearts and become mantras that guide their every waking moment.


The truth is, we all have busy lives. Think of every single bit of information you've been told, read, or encountered just in the last 24 hours...

Unless your blessed (cursed?) with a photographic memory, there is no way you can possibly remember everything that has entered your brain.

Now think about your important relationships. If you're married, I hope you didn't tell your spouse "I love you" on your wedding day and then never repeat it.

Once was not enough.

So it is with your teams. You must keep the "big why" in front of people…the mission and reasons you exist and how your people's work relates to that "why." I recommend at least monthly…and more doesn't hurt.

What are the consistent, specific actions that will accomplish your "big why?" Keep those in front of everyone on a weekly basis.

Use multiple means of communicating and do it often. One of my colleagues use to tell his team, "If you haven't said it at least 6 times in at least 3 different ways, you haven't said it."

Once is never enough.

Your Turn

These are fundamental truths which are harsh because they force us to leave aside our illusions and recognize our limitations.

When you embrace the truth and work within your limitations, however, you will see your influence expand significantly.

What are the "harsh" truths you've encountered in your leadership journey?

Take care,

David M. Dye

Creative Commons Photo Credits: Five by Woodley Wonderworks, Space by Sweetie187

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