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What You Need to Know to Become a Great Leader

Jim Rohn, American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker.

17 September 1930 - 5 December 2009

Adapted from The Jim Rohn Guide to Leadership

A note on this guide: The text of this guide is based on the transcripts of Jim Rohn’s most popular lectures and writings on the subject of personal development. His original words have been transcribed, edited, rearranged and slightly modified in some instances for greater clarity. As you read, you may recognize a familiar pace to the text. It is our hope that Jim’s easy conversational tone and speaking style come across as you read the life philosophies and success principles that are as relevant today as they were when he first expressed them.

Leadership is the great challenge of today, in all fields, and leadership will continue to be among our greatest challenges in the future.

I want to begin by recognizing one of the most challenging roles in leadership: parenting. Yes, one of the greatest challenges of leadership is parenting. Unless we take our children by the hand and strengthen the family foundation, the nation is shaky. Parenting is where it all begins.

My father had a simple little rule. He said, “Son, if you get in trouble in school, when you get home it’s double trouble.” Does that method sound familiar? Double trouble at home if you get in trouble at school.

A lot of parents are hoping someone else will exercise the leadership role—teachers or the church or the school or the community. That somebody will take up the task of being the example. But this is a challenge for parents to take up themselves, to become leaders.

The Challenge of Leadership

Leadership is the challenge to be something more than mediocre. It was said of Abraham Lincoln that when his mother died, he was at her bedside, and her last words to him were, “Be somebody, Abe.” If that story’s true, he must have taken it to heart. Be somebody. Be somebody wise. Be somebody strong. Be somebody kind. All of the attributes of leadership are a unique challenge.

Leadership is the challenge to step up to a new level, a new dimension that has opportunity and responsibility. Who wouldn’t want the responsibility along with the opportunity if it builds an extraordinary life? You wouldn’t want it any other way.

There’s a whole new method of leadership called leadership by invitation. Not leadership by threat. Not leadership by aggravation. Not leadership by intimidation, which shows their weakness or ego at work instead of their skills. Leadership by invitation. Invite somebody to a better way of doing things.

It’s also called leadership by inspiration. Inspire somebody to make the necessary changes to move up or to get the job done. As leaders, we inspire. As leaders, we entice. As leaders, we invite. Invite, entice, inspire, but don’t threaten.

7 Qualities of an Effective Leader

If you want to be a leader who attracts quality people, the key is to become a person of quality yourself. Leadership is the ability to attract someone to the gifts, skills and opportunities you offer as an owner, as a manager, as a parent.

What’s important in leadership is refining your skills. All great leaders keep working on themselves until they become effective. Here’s how:

1. Be strong but not rude.

Learning to be strong but not impolite is an extra step you must take to become a powerful, capable leader with a wide range of reach. But it’s a thin line. Make sure you don’t cross it. Some people mistake rudeness for strength. It’s not even a good substitute. Rudeness, we don’t need. Strength, we do need.

2. Be kind but not weak.

We must not mistake weakness for kindness. Kindness isn’t weak. Kindness is a certain type of strength. We must be kind enough to tell someone the truth. We must be kind enough and considerate enough to lay it on the line. We must be kind enough to tell it like it is and not deal in delusion.

3. Be bold but not a bully.

It takes boldness to win the day. We need to boldly seize the moment, boldly seize the opportunity, boldly seize the chance. But we don’t need bullies. We don’t need anybody to push anybody around.

4. Be humble but not timid.

Some people mistake timidity for humility. But humility is a virtue, and timidity is a weakness. You must turn your timidity into strength. Keep working on it until finally it does not dominate your life anymore, and then expand your ability to understand the vastness of this life. Humility is a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, an awareness of the human soul and spirit. Humility is a grasp of the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we’re a part of the stars.

5. Be thoughtful but not lazy.

We need to give thought, but we also need to take action. You need to dream without just being a dreamer. Head in the clouds, yes, dreaming lofty dreams, but feet on the ground.

6. Be proud but not arrogant.

It takes pride to build your ambitions. It takes pride to build a community. There’s something to be said for pride, yes, but don’t cross the line to arrogance. Pride, we need. Arrogance, we don’t. Do you know the worst kind of arrogance? Arrogance from ignorance. If someone is smart and arrogant, we can tolerate that. But if someone is ignorant and arrogant, that’s hard to take.

7. Have humor without folly.

There’s a difference between being silly and having humor. In leadership, we learn that it’s OK to be witty but not silly; fun but not foolish.

The Basic Laws of Leadership

All leaders must learn the basic laws of leadership so they can use them as illustrations, as well as use them for productivity.

The Law of Sowing and Reaping

Whatever you sow, you reap. Another way to put it: In order to reap, you must sow. Everyone has to get good at one of two things: planting in the spring or begging in the fall. To deserve the harvest, you must plant the seed, take care of it in the summer and then carefully harvest it.

Now, here’s the rest of the law of sowing and reaping: If you sow good, you reap good. If you sow bad, you reap bad. You can’t sow bad and hope for good. You can’t plant weeds and hope for flowers. It works both ways, positive and negative.

Here’s something else about the law of sowing and reaping: You don’t reap only what you sow. You reap much more than what you sow. That’s important to understand. This works both positively and negatively, too. The old prophet said, “If you sow the wind, you don’t reap wind, you reap a whirlwind.” But if you plant a cup of corn, how much do you get back—a cup? No, a bushel for the cup. You get back much more than what you plant. That’s the reason for planting—for the increase.

Now, here’s the next key to the law of sowing and reaping: Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The farmer plants the crop in the spring and takes care of it all summer. He’s an honorable man, loves his family and is a decent citizen. But the day before he sends the combines into the field, a hail storm comes along and beats his crop into the ground. And it’s gone. It’s lost.

So this time it didn’t work. Now what must the farmer do? He’s got to decide whether to do it again or not. “Shall we take another chance the next spring?” We would advise him to do so even though he lost everything in the last harvest, because, more often than not, you’ll have a harvest if you plant in the spring. There’s no guarantee, but it’s pretty good odds.

The Law of Averages

If you do something often enough, you’ll get a ratio of results. Once you understand that, the world is yours.

Let’s say you’re just getting started in sales and you talk to 10 people, and you get one. We now have what we call the beginning of a ratio. Talk to 10, nine say no, and one says, “Yes, I’ll buy your product. I’ll take your service.” Somebody says, “Well, one out of 10 isn’t that good.” Well, you’re just getting started. Here’s what happens with the law of averages: Once it starts, it tends to continue. If you talk to 10 and get one, chances are excellent that if you talk to 10 more, you’ll get another one. You don’t have to be perfect here. All you have to do is understand the law of averages.

Even if you’re only getting one out of 10, you can now start to compete. If you’ve been at it a long time, you can get nine out of 10. Even though I just started, I’m telling you if we have a contest, I will beat you. You say, “Well, you just started. How could you beat me?” It’s very simple. If we have a 30-day or a 60-day contest, while you talk to 10 and get nine, I’ll talk to 100 and get 10. I win. Isn’t that clever?

Here’s what I do if I’m new: I make up in numbers what I lack in skill. When my skills increase, I don’t have to do 100 to get 10. Once you understand the law of averages, the chances are excellent that the ratios will work for you. The law of averages will serve you well as a leader in your business career, in your sales career, in any kind of career.

The 80/20 Rule

There’s an old leadership rule that’s been around a long time. It says 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the business, and 80 percent do 20 percent. This isn’t something you try to change or rearrange. It’s part of the deal. Somebody says, “Well, I’ll just fire the 80 percent.” No, because then, of whoever’s left, some of them will do 80 percent and the rest will do 20 percent. It’s not something you mess with.

These laws are just something you work with. So, how do you work with the 80/20 rule? Here’s what you’ve got to do: Part of it is time management. You can only give 20 percent of your time to the 80 percent because they’re only producing 20 percent. Now, you can give 80 percent of your time to the 20 percent. The pull, though, is in the opposite direction. Guess who wants eighty percent of your time? The wrong group.

This is not a moral question. It’s the wrong group in terms of productivity and effectiveness in your business, for your future. So what’s the answer to that? You can work individually with the 20 percent, but you can only work in a group setting with the 80 percent. The key to remember: Give 80 percent of your time to the 20 percent.

The Law of Faith

Faith is the ability to see things that don’t yet exist. Faith can turn difficulty into positive reality. There are a few parts to the law of faith:

See it as it is. First, faith is the ability to see it as it is. Faith doesn’t mind seeing it as it is because faith is a miracle worker. Faith does not ignore the negative. Faith uses the negative, because if there was no negative, then there’d be no need for faith. You need faith because everything isn’t OK. If it’s ugly, then it’s ugly. If it isn’t working, then it isn’t working. If it’s a mess, then it’s a mess. It doesn’t hurt to call a mess a mess. Faith doesn’t mind admitting that. Faith doesn’t mind seeing that. Seeing it as it is—that’s the beginning of faith.

See it better than it is. Second, faith is the ability to see it better than it is. Can’t you see beyond the mess? The mess is for today. Can’t you look into tomorrow? The answer is, “Yes, I can look into tomorrow.” Humans have this incredible ability to look into tomorrow, to look into next week, next year. So we not only have the ability to see it as it is—the beginning of faith—but also to see it better than it is. Dream the dreams, make the plans, visualize, use your imagination and see it better than it is.

Make it better than it is. Now, the part that turns faith into reality: Make it better than it is. Faith now must be invested. If you invest faith in action, you can take any situation and make it better than it is.

Don’t see it worse than it is. Here’s something to watch out for in the beginning of faith: Don’t see it worse than it is. Don’t blow it out of proportion. If it’s bad, that’s how bad it is. You don’t need to multiply how bad it is by 10. That’s not necessary. See it just as it is. That’s the deal.

Don’t see it for more than it can become. Here’s another unique key to faith: Don’t see it for more than it can become. There’s a thin line between faith and folly. Yes, it’s possible to see yourself as a millionaire, but not overnight. It’s still possible to be a millionaire and it’s still possible to be rich and wealthy, given a certain amount of time working with the law of averages. Plenty is possible without being foolish in your faith exercise.

It might be worse than when you first see it. Keep in mind that it might be worse than you first see it. Sometimes you just look at the surface. You’d better look underneath. You’d better take a deeper look so that you can really see it as bad as it is. Not to overblow it now, but to make sure you see it as bad as it really is.

It might be far more in the future. Don’t forget to give yourself a chance to see that it could be far more in the future than what you can first see. On a foggy night, if all you can see is a hundred feet, then walk that first hundred feet. Now you can see another hundred feet.

So take the early steps of faith. Whatever you can see as possible to become, start believing that, have faith in that. As that starts to take hold, you’ll be able to see it for more and for more and for more, and the possibilities will start to increase in your own imagination.

Work With the People Who Deserve It

Life operates by deserve. So, in leading people, learn to work with the people who deserve it, not the people who need it.

You’ve got to set up objectives ahead of time to determine who deserves it. When you bring somebody into your enterprise, you set the ground rules. Make sure all the guidelines are clear. Monitor results and accomplishments, then you know who deserves it.

Now, remember the 80/20 rule—the pull is in the opposite direction. Guess who wants your help: usually the wrong people. It’s usually the people who need it, not the people who deserve it. There are plenty of places for your benevolence, but in your enterprise, you must respond to the people who deserve it.

Teach people how to deserve it.

Teaching people and moving them from need to deserve starts to accelerate their self-esteem. You can’t believe what a high the beginning of new self-esteem is. If a person hasn’t had it for years and years, and they’ve been beaten down by their own philosophy and they’ve been beaten down by everybody else—if you start them on the early steps of learning to deserve, then that starts this process of self-esteem. And self-esteem leads to action, action leads to progress, and progress leads to fortune. So work with the people who deserve it. And teach people how to deserve your time, how to deserve your help.

Let people grow and develop.

Don’t expect the pear tree to bear apples. I mean, let people do whatever they can do. And let them change their mind. Let them grow and develop. Here’s what I’ve found: You cannot change people, but they can change themselves. The best you can do is to inspire, teach, pray and hope. You can’t get in there and change them, but you can do your best to deliver the message that can create change if someone will accept it. If someone will do something about it, then take the early baby steps to get them started. Be happy with the smallest progress, give some rewards and a pat on the back and say, “It’s going to work for you. You’ve taken these two steps. I’m telling you, if you can take two steps, you can take 102.”

Know That There Is Both Good and Evil

All leaders must teach the fact that there is both good and evil. We are all challenged to become the most of the good in us and the least of the bad. That’s the beginning of civilization. Character is a core element of leadership.

Let me tell you a story. The frog and the scorpion appear on the bank of the river at the same time, and the frog is about to jump in and swim to the other side. The scorpion sees what’s about to happen and engages the frog in conversation. He says, “Mr. Frog, I’m a scorpion and I can’t swim. Would you be so kind as to let me hop on your back? You swim across the river, and just deposit me on the other side. I’d be grateful.” The frog looks at the scorpion and says, “No way. Scorpions sting frogs and kill them. I’d get out there halfway, you’d sting me, and I’d drown.” The scorpion said, “Mr. Frog, with your frog brain, you’re not thinking. If I stung you out there halfway, you’d drown and I’d drown. I just want to get to the other side. Please do me the favor.” The frog says, “OK, that makes sense. Hop on.” The scorpion hops on the frog’s back, and the frog starts across the river. Sure enough, halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog. They’re both in the water about to go down. The frog cannot believe what’s happened, and he says, “Why did you do that? I’m about to drown and die, but so are you. Why would you do that?” And the scorpion says, “Because I am a scorpion.” It’s his nature, his character. Make note of this: You can’t take a chance. You’ve got to know the scorpion.

I learned in building an enterprise that there are some people you don’t need. You’re better off without their productivity because they’re scorpions in the fold. The old prophet said, “Beware of the foxes that spoil the vines.” The vineyard looks good, but you’d better look a little closer—the foxes are at work. And to be a good shepherd, to be a good father, to be a good mother, you’ve got to learn the story of the frog and the scorpion and the foxes that spoil the vines.

6 Essential Traits of Good Character

The following are what I believe to be the basics of good character. Miss one of these, and you’ll find a weak link in your character—one that may be your leadership’s undoing.

1. Integrity

Integrity is a good catchword that is similar to character but provides us with a different way of looking at the ideas of character. The root of integrity means “whole” or “undivided,” and that’s a terrific way to help us understand what integrity is—an undivided life. For example, you don’t act one way in one situation and another in a different situation. There is integrity and wholeness to your life. Living this way will build trust in your followers. Another use of the word integrity that provides insight for us is when the word is used in regard to a physical structure. A wall or a building that is strong and has no cracks is said to have integrity. The same could be said for great leaders.

2. Honesty

It is regularly said that honesty is the best policy, but I would add that honesty is the only policy for great leaders. Think about it. Why do people hedge the truth? Usually for a few basic reasons: They are either afraid of the ramifications or they are trying to hide something. Either way, a lack of honesty results in the fact that you destroy the trust of those who follow you. Even if you tell them the truth but they know you have lied to others, it will destroy the trust you had with them. They find themselves thinking, “If he will lie to them, will he lie to me?”

I’ve never understood what people hope to accomplish by being dishonest. Eventually people come to know that you’re not honest in your dealings, and that is what you become known for. Your reputation is what your leadership is based on, though. When we’re honest and live transparently before our followers, they’re able to see us for who we are and make solid decisions to follow.

3. Loyalty

People of good character are loyal people. They have a “stick-to-it” attitude when it comes to others. Anybody who knows human nature knows that people fail. It’s just a matter of time, no matter how talented someone is. A person of good character stays with their friends even in the downtimes. Anyone can be friends with others when times are good. People of good character stay with their friends when they need them most. How this translates into making you a good leader is this: People want to follow a leader who will stretch them beyond where they are now, but who’ll also allow them to try—and to fail. When we are loyal to our followers, they’ll be loyal to us and make every effort to succeed on our behalf and on behalf of the organization. There are few things that strengthen the leader-follower bond more than when a leader shows loyalty to a follower in need.

4. Self-Sacrifice

Lee Iacocca became a legend when he said he’d bring Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy and would take only a dollar a year in pay. This was a classic example of a leader sacrificing for the followers. It also showed his understanding of and empathizing with the average line worker. As a result, the workers of Chrysler rewarded him with an incredible following as they built Chrysler into one of the world’s leading car companies.

What is it about self-sacrifice that breeds followers? Followers don’t mind putting in the hard work. They don’t even mind a leader making more money or reaping benefits from their work. What followers do mind, though, is when the leader is using them for personal gain. People of good character don’t use other people, period. So when a leader shows sacrifice of personal gain, it says to the followers that they are willing to come alongside of them—and followers reward that almost universally. A person of good character shows that they can give up personal gain for the good of the whole.

5. Accountability

People of good character don’t mind accountability. In fact, they welcome it. This is the act of allowing others to have a say in your life, to speak to you straight about your life and conduct. The brutal truth is that we have blind spots and need other people to be in close to us so we can advance down the road of success. The need for accountability doesn’t prove lack of character. Rather, it proves the presence of character. G.K. Chesterton said, “Original sin is the only philosophy empirically validated by 3,500 years of human history.” The person of good character knows this and invites others to speak into their life.

Followers grow tired of leaders who will have nothing to do with accountability. They don’t mind leaders who make mistakes, but they do mind leaders who don’t take responsibility for their mistakes by being accountable. When we allow ourselves to be held accountable, our followers know that we are serious about keeping our own house in order, and thus will do a good job in leading the rest of the organization.

6. Self-Control

The ability to make decisions—good decisions—about what we will and will not do with our actions is at the core of what we become in regard to our character. There will be plenty of options to participate in things that are not moral. Everybody has temptations, but a person of good character knows to exercise self-control—literal control over their choices. When people don’t exercise self-control, they sabotage their ability to lead. People lose respect for them and will follow less, if at all. Self-control is the ability to choose to do the things we should, and to refrain from doing the things we shouldn’t. When we exhibit self-control, we again build trust in our followers. They respect us and want to follow us.

Strengthen Your Character

We are all born with clean slates. As we grow, there are many influences that shape our character: our parents, teachers, friends and choices all mold that inner character. The good news is, no matter where you are right now, you can decide that your character will grow stronger. You can choose to be around those people who will challenge you to become better. You can choose to put positive materials into your mind and heart. You can begin making choices that reflect a change in lifestyle, and thus, in character. No one is “stuck.” You can change—if you want to!

Skill Development

As we talked about at the very beginning, leadership is the challenge to be something more than average. That requires developing our skills. Skill development is important in and of itself, if for no other reason than the fact that as humans, we were designed to grow.

Skill development is important because:

1. It brings us fulfilment.

As we grow in our skills, we develop a deep sense of personal satisfaction knowing we’ve learned something new, and that not only did we learn it, but we also applied it successfully.

2. It will advance our career.

As much as many modern-day people would like to believe that there shouldn’t be competition, there always will be. And, believe it or not, the winner is usually the person who has honed their skills. Be it on the field or in the boardroom, the winner is usually the person with the higher level of skills.

3. It will help you help others.

This is what life is all about, isn’t it? One of the things a skilled leader can do is to help people see themselves better than they are. And when you develop skills, you’re able to help others, and that helps you in the long run.

6 Skills Great Leaders Must Master

To close, let’s go over the six skills that all great leaders must master:

1. The Ability to Be Inspirational

A leader needs to be able to inspire others. Yes, we need to hit the mind with our message, but we also need to stir the heart and its passions. The leader who is only rational will have bored followers who aren’t inspired to go anywhere. The leader who is only emotional will have excited followers who don’t know where to go! It takes both. Develop your ability to inspire your followers and make them excited to be with you and the organization. Help them see the big picture that shows they are making a difference.

2. Good Communication

Great leaders are those who can take the vision they have and communicate it in ways that their followers can easily understand, internalize and own. Many leaders have great vision but fail to lead their organizations anywhere. Vision that is only kept in your mind is not vision, but a dream. Vision communicated clearly, memorably and passionately, so that people can grasp it and follow, is what will take your group, whether large or small, to the next level and beyond.

3. The Ability and Will to Delegate

Great leaders know that they can’t do it all on their own. They may be able to do a lot on their own, but they’ll never achieve the powerful impact that is possible until they learn to delegate, and then choose to do so. There is an old proverb that says, “One can put 1,000 to flight and two can put 10,000 to flight.” When we delegate to capable people, we increase our effectiveness and impact exponentially. Unfortunately, too many leaders don’t attain greatness because they refuse to let anyone else do anything. Learn to delegate—to the right people—and you’ll be moving in the right direction.

4. The Ability to Teach Important Principles

When you look at great leaders in history, you see men and women who are able to teach. Christ, the greatest leader in history, primarily led people by teaching them with stories. He knew that he would have to transfer concepts to his followers that they could remember and apply. In fact, they called him “teacher.” A good example of a modern-day business leader who used teaching is Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. When Welch began leading GE, it had a market cap of $4 billion. Before he retired, it had reached as high as $400 billion. Now, that is a return! And what was at the core of his leadership? Teaching. GE had its own university long before it was vogue for companies to do so. He knew that people needed to be taught, and Welch spent many hours teaching there himself.

5. The Ability to Set Goals, Strategies and a Course of Action

The leader is responsible for a few key areas. Vision is one. Setting the goals of the organization is another. They must determine (with the help of others) what the team will shoot for. They need to be big enough to stretch the followers, but realistic enough so as not to discourage them. The leader must also set strategy, again, with the help of others. When they see where the organization must go, they must also plot the map to get there, at least in a big-picture sense. Managers can take care of the rest, but the leader is responsible for giving the general strategic direction. Lastly, the leader must set the course of action, defining behaviors of the organization that will be acted upon. Setting the goals will give your team what it needs to shoot for, defining the strategy will show them how to get there, and setting the course of action will show them what to do while carrying out the strategy.

6. The Ability to Keep People Focused on the Goal

Followers operate on a day-to-day basis. They get tasks done that need to be done for that day or week, or even quarter. Leaders are different. They are big-picture people. They know that the organization will outlive them, and because of that, the perspective must be for the good of the organization, not just the individuals. They must see where the end is. So, leadership involves not only setting a course for today, but also further into the future. Skilled leaders have learned not only how to inspire those following to catch a vision and pursue it, but they’ve also learned how to paint a vivid picture of the results that will continue to motivate them to accomplish the goals of the organization, long after they are gone. And when they have created a beginning and defined the end, then they are ready to plot the road between.

Remember, you can always increase your skills. Even if you just increase them a little bit, you will increase your effectiveness and your impact as a leader significantly. Even the smallest of change in a trajectory will mean a large change in distance.

About Jim Rohn: For more than 40 years, Jim Rohn honed his craft like a skilled artist, helping people all over the world sculpt life strategies that expanded their imagination of what is possible. Jim set the standard for those who seek to teach and inspire others. He possessed the unique ability to bring extraordinary insights to ordinary principles and events. Those who had the privilege of hearing him speak can attest to the elegance and common sense in his material. It is no coincidence, then, that he is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our time and a national treasure. Jim authored numerous books and audio and video programs, and he helped motivate and shape an entire generation of personal development trainers and hundreds of executives from America’s top corporations.


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