The leadership space is a noisy one. There are degrees, courses, seminars, blogs and a list of other things as long as my leg that is meant to help people become better leaders. So I thought “Why not add more noise?” Totally kidding. Becoming a great leader doesn’t begin with how adept you are at influencing others. It doesn’t start when you get a large group of people to accomplish a great task. It should and must be a work that is done in you before it can be done through you. I wrote about this concept in an earlier blog post called: The Mirror Revolution.

If leadership doesn’t begin with the person on the other side of the mirror, it’s a fraud and inauthentic. This disingenuous approach to leadership has brought about the ruination of people, organizations and governments for millenia. It won’t be any different for you or me. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an absolute master of communication and I have a lot of respect for him. He succinctly puts this concept in a simple sentence (of course this is intended to be gender neutral).

Let not a man guard his dignity, but let his dignity guard him.

A leader without dignity is a loose cannon. Leadership demands that speech and actions show self-respect, respect for others and an appreciation for the gravity of a situation. Without dignity, you are a disaster waiting to happen…at least for someone else.

In a brief conversation with a friend of mine, 4 other traits surfaced that could be used in addition to dignity in this thought by Emerson in order to have a significant impact as a leader: reputation, legacy, image, integrity

Let not a man guard his reputation, but let his reputation guard him.

At the end of the day, we only have our past to show for us. Our reputation is a collage of our values painted through behavior and actions. It is a public, yet intimate, look into our world view and belief system. Gaining a good reputation begins with doing some quality work in the area of self-awareness and purposeful crafting of your values and what you choose to believe. Choose wisely. Your reputation depends on it!

Let not a man guard his legacy, but let his legacy guard him.

We don’t really have the ability to control what people think and say about us. If you don’t believe that, spend 10 minutes watching an election campaign. When we die, we have even less control over these things. The one thing we are able to do is to create a legacy that continues to speak for us. Self-serving legacies make us look despotic. Other-serving legacies make us look impactful. 

Let not a man guard his image, but let his image guard him.

This isn’t about how expensive your clothes, watches or cars can be. It’s not about how many A-list parties you get invited to. It IS about how you decide to present yourself to the world on a daily basis. Your image is all-encompassing. It includes how you treat those who can’t do anything for you, how you communicate, how you deal with conflict, how you do relationships, etc. It’s the day-to-day way in which you manage yourself, not others.

Let not a man guard his integrity, but let his integrity guard him.

Integrity is born from the intersection of character, discipline and values. Integrity isn’t a tool of convenience that is utilized only in certain situations. If  being a person of integrity isn’t a daily occurrence for you, then your leadership will suffer…along with your reputation, image, legacy and sense of dignity.

I would venture a guess there is at least one person you have met in your life who possesses these 5 traits. Would you want them to lead you? Would you want to follow anyone who didn’t possess these 5 traits? Make sure the person on the other side of the mirror is working on being an impactful leader.

  • What about the women in leadership??? 😉

  • Have a look back at the post, Melissa. I made it a point to say the post was “gender neutral”. I just kept the actual quote from Emerson with the same words. The heart of the post is about leadership traits, not gender preference.

  • Steve G

    Leadership Advisor…this is one heck of a post. Your points are right on. (but you knew that already!) There is not much to add to your writing on this subject other than applaud your thoughts. This post is one I will not only bookmark, but read, and re-read over and over again. It truly struck a note with me. What I like about those traits is how they are each linked with the next one…together they form, the impactful leader – so true.

    I strive to lead with those five essential traits that you address – yet often I am faced with a challenge…as a leader, how do you lets others (who you lead) know that they are not getting the job done, that they need to take responsibility, and they need to be accountability without coming across disrespectful, self serving, and arrogant…that is my challenge.

    Thanks Leadership Advisor…It has been awhile, and I am glad I am back!


  • I always appreciate your thoughtful and personal comments, Steve. Thanks so much for contributing!

  • Great assessment using Emerson, William.
    My favorite: Integrity is born from the intersection of character, discipline and values. …. isn’t a tool of convenience that is utilized only in certain situations.

    Sadly, so many leaders are about platitudes and part-time integrity. They say the right things but do not live the values they so strongly espouse. I think that is largely because leadership has become “popular”. I had a woman that worked for me once that I truly thought was the best leader ever. Every time she met with me, she shared a story of someone on her team being empowered, of new tools she was using to engage, and of special training and support forums she had developed. I thought to myself, “Wow, she gets it. She knows that employees are the only reason a leader is successful.” But in reality, she was awful. Her employees thought it was great she did so many things but they disrespected the fact that she did not live the values highlighted by the materials she shared. In essence, she was guarding her integrity. She was guarding her image. She was guarding her reputation. Meanwhile, her integrity, image, and reputation were off on their own doing irreparable damage that in the end was only repaired when she left the company.

    I will continue to follow your blog. As interesting as determining whether you have a leader that demonstrates these five essential attributes is determining what to do if he/she does not….

  • Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Adam. I love to hear stories that show us the reasons needed for change. I appreciate your contribution!!

  • A thought-provoking post, but I wonder how much attention will be paid to the first part of how these traits are expressed, “Let not man guard …”

    I took this to mean, don’t worry about protecting your image, reputation, etc. Instead, focus on acting authentically, in a way that serves the needs of others rather than your own.

    In short, by doing good for others, others will think well of you.

    Close to the mark?

  • Great points and you’re right on the mark. Being authentic to something honorable will make you an honorable leader. Thanks for your question/comment!