Top 10 Ways to Lead Yourself

baseball hat

It was 6:30 am when he came in the building wearing a green baseball hat. Had he been at any other YMCA in Chicago, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but this YMCA was in the heart of Cabrini Green, a housing project rife with gangs. Depending on how a hat was worn, and its color, it could constitute a gang sign, so we had a “no hats” policy in the facility. At 6:35 am, one of my staff members came to tell me a man was refusing to take off his cap. I went out to meet him, knowing that once he understood the reason behind our policy, he’d be happy to comply.

Boy, was I wrong! After telling him why we had the policy, he simply said, “I’m an FBI agent and I’m wearing my $@# hat!” It was then I had an amygdala hijack as my emotional brain swamped my rational one. He’d made a power play and I wasn’t to be outdone. So I informed him that if he failed to take off his hat, I’d have his membership revoked. Needless to say, the conflict went south from there. I had failed to lead myself well.

If you want to lead well and have a positive impact on both those around you and your company or organization, then 50% of your time should be spent in leading yourself. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about this and it’s become the centerpiece of the MBA leadership classes I teach at Lipscomb University. So today I’m sharing with you the top 10 things I’ve learned over my career about leading myself.

  • I’ve made a lot of mistakes and poor choices. I need to own them when they happen, apologize, and take immediate action to rebuild trust.
  • I am consistently reading, studying, and going to conferences. Only by expanding the information I expose myself to can I grow and become a better leader, consultant, and coach.
  • I love change, but 75% of people don’t. So I have to slow the process down and give them an opportunity to get on board.
  • When holding someone accountable, it’s important that I balance grace (understanding and giving them room to fail) with truth (making sure they know what not to do – or to do – next time).
  • When I have one of those days where everything seems to go wrong, and I just know I’m going to take the next person’s head off when they walk through my door, I take a walk, or go down the street to get an iced tea at Starbucks. Cooling off prevents amygdala hijacks.
  • I’m a bullet point communicator – short and sweet. But only 30% of the population is like me, so I need to modify my communication style in order to better serve the person I’m going to be working with.
  • I’ve spent a lot of time understanding what I most value in my life and then creating a values vision statement. This helps me hold myself accountable to live a life of integrity and purpose. (email me at if you’d like a copy)
  • When someone asks me to a make a commitment, I wait at least 24 hours to give them an answer. In that time, I weigh the cost of the commitment and how I’ll really feel when the time comes to engage. If it’s not in line with my focus and values, I’m learning to say no.
  • I am a Jesus follower. Jesus taught “whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant…” Doing anything other than servant leadership, for me, lacks integrity.
  • My ability to lead others decreases during times of stress. My tendency is to work harder and sacrifice more, in order to get the job done. That only further decreases my ability to lead. I need courageous friends around me who will hold me accountable and help me pull out of the self-sacrifice flywheel.


The Gift of “You’re Fired!”

New City YMCA at Cabrini


These were the words I heard from across a table on a Monday morning over 20 years ago. I was stunned. I had two hours to pack my office and leave. It was the first big failure in my life. But as I look back now, it was also a time when God decided to teach me about integrity.

When I interviewed for the job, one of the questions I’d asked was whether they functioned well as a team. The answer had been a resounding YES, accompanied by stories of their support of each other. The reality, however, was something very different. Brittle laughter could be heard in staff meetings when a joke was cracked—usually at the expense of another staff person. They didn’t know how to function as a team, and I didn’t know how to build a team. Between backbiting, sarcasm, and a general lack of respect, I was miserable. I can look back now and know that I lacked the integrity to build trust and to lead. While I said that I was there to serve them, in reality this job was just another rung on a ladder to my dream job. Because my faith didn’t match my words, which didn’t match my actions, my pride was all they could see.

In the middle of my misery, I got a call to interview for a position in Chicago’s inner city, at a YMCA in one of the worst housing projects in the United States, Cabrini Green. Weeks before a little 6-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis had been gunned down in gang crossfire while he walked to school with his mom.

Surely God didn’t want me to go there?

I decided to go to the interview, but only for the experience. The Friday interview was a one-day process and as fast and tough as I’ve ever experienced; half-hour slots with various leaders and board members; little time with the people I would lead; and an offer of employment at 3:30 that same afternoon. I told them I would let them know my decision by the end of the weekend. I prayed, I wrestled—and I decided God surely could not intend for a young, white woman from a farm in Indiana to go serve in Cabrini Green. And so I turned down the position on Sunday evening.

On Monday morning when I arrived at work, I heard the words, “You’re fired!” They said, “Nancy, you can really run a YMCA, but we’re not sure anyone would climb the mountain with you to plant the flag”.   I could picture the image of Iwo Jima in my mind, but I didn’t know why anyone wouldn’t climb with me!  With my stomach tied in knots and my body shaking, I called my husband. He came over with some boxes and we packed up my office. In the middle of packing, the phone rang—it was the leadership in Chicago, wondering why I had said no and what it would take for me to reconsider. My heart pounded so hard I was sure they could hear it over the phone.

How do I sound nonchalant and calm, considering what I’m going through, and tell them I would like to reconsider?

My fear and pride kicked in. I was afraid if I said yes, they’d think something was wrong or know I had been fired. So I explained how hurried I had felt through the interview process and requested permission to come up and spend time individually with each person I would be supervising.

That same week, while driving to Chicago for the second interview, the story of Jonah came on a radio program I was listening to in my car. Jonah—you know, the guy God told to go to Nineveh. Instead Jonah said no way and headed for Tarshish. God let him spend some think time in the belly of a fish in order for him to see the light. I realized God was speaking to me as directly as He ever had in my life—Cabrini Green was my Nineveh.

God took me to Cabrini Green to learn about integrity and leadership, His way.  The words I heard when I was fired set me a course to learn about this “leadership thing”.

Today, while painful, I know that experience was one of the best character and leadership development experiences of my career.  I learned how to choose well, lead well, and how to finish well.  In upcoming musings, I’ll share the lessons learned and encourage you to choose well, lead well, and finish well.

Thank you, Scott Gaalaas

“The YMCA will eat you up if you let it.  Be careful to take time off for what’s most important.”

Those words were spoken to me by my very first boss in the YMCA movement, Scott Gaalaas.   It was 1986, and he’d just hired me to be the aquatics director at the Monroe County YMCA in Bloomington, IN.  He was cautioning me that a career in the YMCA would be time consuming.  “It ‘s your responsibility,” he said, “to take time off when you need it.”    He punctuated that advice with the statistic that YMCA professionals had a higher divorce rate than the general population.  He was an advocate for living your life by your values.  He took his own words seriously, and retired from the YMCA at the age of 63 and moved from Oak Park, IL to Loudon, TN, enjoying time with his family and grandchildren.   He was building homes with Habitat for Humanity, riding his bike, and playing racquetball.   He recently suffered a catastrophic stroke and “graduated to glory” on February 22nd, 2012.

I will miss my former boss, mentor and friend.  Not only did he teach me life balance,  he taught  me how to read a financial statement, develop a budget, and how to delight the members.   He was a man of integrity, because he could be counted on to do what he said he would do.   Over the years, as we each moved to different locations, we often reconnected at AYP events.   In the early 1990’s, we both served as executives in the Chicago area.   We played golf in Arizona, and Florida with  YMCA colleagues.

I will miss Scott deeply. He poured into my life in a way that had a huge impact.  I know he did that for countless others.  While I didn’t always have the best life-balance, I was better than I would have been because of his mentoring.   Great leaders count their success by how many people they developed.   Scott is right there with the best.  Thank you, Scott.