How to Become the Best Version of Yourself
THE SHORT COURSE: Do you want to become an exceptional leader? Then, become the best version of yourself first.
Exceptional leaders show us what can happen when someone shifts their focus from climbing a ladder or walking the stage at the awards banquet to becoming who they were created to be. Before leaders do extraordinary things, they become exceptional people. They become the best version of themselves. By starting with themselves, they’re less obsessed with their heroic status and more interested in their contribution.
These individuals become people of influence – in arenas of business, politics, education, and the broader community – partly because they weren’t seeking influence. They were seeking to become their best selves, to step into their calling. Influence came as a bonus. And because it wasn’t sought for its own sake, that influence is actually purer, brighter, more useful. You won’t become one of these unusual leaders by accident. It takes intentional effort. But you can turn your everyday life into a masterclass that transforms you into the person you were created to be.
5 Steps to Become the Best Version of Yourself:
Ted Harro, Founder of Noonday
Ted helps people and organizations climb higher and shine brighter. Before becoming a strategy and leadership consultant, he led the professional services division of Wilson Learning Worldwide. More
Introduction: What Leadership Is And What It Is Not
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of all the talk about leadership.
A while back, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler in the TSA line at O’Hare Airport. He was on his way to Kansas City for the day. I was heading to Minneapolis. In the few moments we had together, he mentioned he owned a business. When I told him what I did, he asked me, “What’s your favorite book about leadership success principles?”
I was tongue-tied. Leadership and leaders are among the most overexposed topics in our world. Is there anything more celebrated and sought in our world than to be that person, the leader, the hero at the top? It’s the topic of the best-sellers this man wanted me to recommend, and the legions of best-seller wannabes right behind them.
If I had been snappier that morning, I would have told my fellow traveler of my real favorite books about success principles. Books like Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece whose messages include the redemptive power of forgiveness and the ultimate triumph of willing the good for others, even enemies. And how true success quite often involves abandoning your own ambition for the sake of others in invisible but revolutionary ways.
My aversion to leadership books may seem odd for someone who has spent most of his career helping to develop leaders. But after swimming in that stream for decades, I’m ready to say out loud that much of what we seek and admire in “leadership” is bankrupt. It’s ego and grandiosity behind a veil of high-minded cliche. Most of the real people, the “followers,” aren’t fooled. That’s why Dilbert continues to run on the front page of the comics after all these years. It exposes the nonsense that we so often celebrate as leadership for what it is.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are exceptional people, examples of those who exert the kind of influence only available through a human being whose life has been shaped into a thing of beauty and strength. I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with some of these people in my work.
Examples of Bright Leaders
Take Dr. Foluso Fakorede. He’s an interventional cardiologist who specializes in saving peoples’ arms and legs from unneeded amputation while providing preventative cardiovascular care. He was raised in Nigeria until the age of 12 when his mother brought him to the US so that he and his siblings could have a better education.
After his medical training in the Northeast, Dr. Fakorede had plenty of options on where to practice his craft. Rather than set up shop in a well-resourced part of the country, he decided to move to the Mississippi Delta, an area with vast economic challenges and the highest rate of amputation in the country. It’s also an area with very few limb salvage experts.
He faced major obstacles, not least the refusal of local banks to loan an African American from up north money to establish his practice. Undaunted, he sold his house and used his personal money to get his practice off the ground. He pounded the pavement, introducing himself to local doctors and nurse practitioners who could refer at-risk patients to him for assessment. He tapped into the established network of local churches – “the real social network of the Mississippi Delta” as he calls it – promoting heart and vascular health. He dispelled myths that made some people assume that amputation was not just an unpleasant possibility, it was their destiny.
Dr. Fakorede’s goal was to reduce amputation rates by 25% over five years in his area. Instead, he reduced amputation rates by 88% in just 3 ½ years. As he applied his learning, one might say, “experimented,” along the way he has become a tireless advocate. He speaks to Congress and wherever he can find a platform for addressing Peripheral Arterial Disease, a disease that disproportionately affects the poor, the elderly, and minorities with catastrophic social and financial consequences.
Why does a person do something this extraordinary instead of following a traditional path? In Dr. Fakorede’s own words, “I’m all about addressing inequality in healthcare. It’s the best and right thing to do.” Dig a little deeper into his story and you’ll see that he had formative life experiences that gave him a seemingly limitless reservoir of energy for that mission. It didn’t just shape what he did. It shaped who he was.
In case you’re wondering whether someone can act with this sort of impact even in a huge public company where profits are expected by demanding shareholders, the answer is a resounding yes. Chelsey, an executive at UnitedHealth Group, used an unusual approach to engage a large call center operation in saving lives and money through the Save a Life campaign. In this effort, Chelsey’s team helped call center agents to see that for every 100 colonoscopy screenings her team could get members to complete, a life would be saved. For every 556 breast cancer screenings performed, a woman’s life would be saved. All they had to do was to encourage the people who called them every day to do something that might just save their lives.
By switching the focus from saving a jumbo company some money to saving the lives of real people, Chelsey’s team changed everything. Call center agents began to view themselves as advocates who were saving the lives of their members. Screenings went from 450 per month to a whopping 38,000 per month. Meanwhile, call center agent engagement rose by 10 points on a 100-point scale. It was a win-win-win for customers, employees, and company.
This initiative is a textbook example of someone rejecting the notion that profits and common good are mutually exclusive. Perhaps, even more, it’s a perfect example of what happens when leaders invest all of themselves in their work instead of holding back, when they think and feel and act humanely with those around them. Chelsey’s team saved hundreds of lives and millions of dollars while helping call center agents find meaning in their work.
Like Dr. Fakorede, Chelsey’s success story didn’t start with the Save a Life campaign. It started long before when she decided to become a different kind of person.
This is how people do exceptional things. They become exceptional people. When that happens, they’re less obsessed with their heroic status and more interested in their contribution.
I’m drawn to those people. I’m interested in becoming one of those people. Maybe you are too.
Turning Points: How Leaders Are Called to Become the Best Version of Themselves
Leaders like Chelsey and Dr. Fakorede aren’t perfect. They have their detractors. Many leaders like them would prefer I don’t tell you their names, that I don’t write up their stories. They’re not about becoming famous. But they show us what can happen when someone shifts their focus from climbing a ladder or walking the stage at the awards banquet to becoming who they were created to be.
They have become people of influence – in arenas of business, politics, education, and the broader community – partly because they weren’t seeking influence but they were seeking to become their best selves, to step into their calling. The clout came as a bonus. And because it wasn’t sought for its own sake, that influence is actually purer, brighter, more useful.
These people are all around us. They might not get the credit you’d expect. In a credit-obsessed culture where your influence score is almost as important as your credit score, we find this jarring. But exceptional leaders aren’t obsessed with the presence or absence of credit and accolades. They simply don’t care that much. The mission – and their contribution to it – is what matters. That’s why they don’t engage in false humility, often a socially acceptable form of fishing for compliments. They just do their thing and move along.
Look carefully at someone who has become this exceptional person and you’ll usually find triggering events that spurred them to choose growth instead of stagnation.
- Julie, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, was promoted into a leadership role for which her technical training hadn’t prepared her. She realized her schooling had left her inadequate to the task before her. This triggered her to grow in how she led her team of scientific wizards for the benefit of patients and her company.
- A hard-charging executive named Steve received feedback that his colleagues think he doesn’t listen to them and doesn’t even care about them, that there’s probably a good person in there whom they rarely see. This cognitive dissonance, brought on by the feedback held up to him like a mirror, spurred him to dig deeper into how he influences colleagues.
- Dana, a sales leader with a leading technology company, was passed over for a promotion. She was disappointed and confused. Rather than indulging depression, she used this setback to explore a new era of development in her current role that may open up new frontiers for the future.
All of these triggers prompted moments of self-reflection. They caused each person to stop, to think, to talk with friends and advisors, to say to themselves, “Maybe this is a turning point for me – or at least it could be.”
Intention: The First Step To Becoming the Person You Were Created to Be
Whether you’ve had your triggering event or not, you might be wondering how to move toward becoming that kind of exceptional person, your best self. The good news is that there is that there is a process you can cooperate with to become an exceptional person with the potential for exceptional impact.
That path starts with a vision. Exceptional people have a vision for themselves well beyond the usual ladder-climbing dreams of normal leaders. They know themselves well enough to see the innate talents they’ve been given and they know the world well enough to see how those talents could be applied to serve others.
In real life, they’re often inspired by someone else – a teacher, a parent, a priest, a historical person – in a way that puts flesh on the idea of the vision. My dad ended up as a doctor serving marginalized people in the United States as a result of the vision given to him by an older brother whose preparation for a career as a missionary doctor was cut short by his death in World War II. My dad’s life trajectory was never the same because of that vision.
No one becomes an exceptional person by having a vision and waiting for it to magically materialize. Vision must be followed by moments of intention, of choosing, of saying “I’m going to be different, not just appear different so that I score better on the 360 feedback or win some popularity contest at work.” That choice sets off an intentional set of actions fueled by a conviction to move forward, often through significant adversity.
Here are 5 steps to become the best version of yourself.
1. Shape a Real-Time Class: What do I need to learn to become the best version of myself?
Whether you know it or not, class is in session in your life. Every day. Learning masters like Peter Drucker knew this. They milked every era of their lives for more growth and learning. Intentional learners seize this reality in structured ways. They shape the usual chaos of daily life into “classes.”
A Class is a time-limited opportunity to grow your capability in some focused area. In a Class, you get the opportunity to experiment, learn, and grow more toward who you were created to be.
Sometimes these classes happen in formal educational settings. But many Classes I’m describing are available to all people, all of the time. Many require little or no financial investment. All require personal investment.
Here’s an example: I know a super-smart executive who is probably created to run a company someday. He loves being in control and directing an organization to efficiently achieve results. When I was working with him, he was in a challenging role that required him to influence many people without formal authority. He had a choice: he could endure this assignment until it was over or he could use it to help him develop influence muscles he will need even when he’s the CEO. He realized that even CEOs can’t only use power to get things done.
Smart people look at their circumstances and figure out what Class they’re enrolled in. Rather than fighting it, they work with it. They’re thoughtful enough that they consciously identify the season they’re in as a development opportunity. They place a name on it.
Here are a few Classes I’ve seen offered up to people:
- Influence without authority, aka Being an effective consultant or business partner
- Bringing others along, aka Change leadership
- Humility aka Listening more, talking less
- Developmental leadership, aka Giving feedback that not only doesn’t destroy the other person, it helps them soar
- Grounded leadership, aka Seeking help vs. being defensive
- Courageous leadership, aka Engaging difficult situations vs. withdrawing
- Responsible followership, aka Speaking truth to power
- Catalytic leadership, aka Starting/Optimizing/Reinventing/Ending an important initiative
- Focus, aka Saying no to good things so that you can say yes to great things
Once you choose a class, be sure to get very specific with your learning objectives over the next six months. Paint a picture of what will be different after that timeframe. Be sure to note why it matters to you.
2. Identify the Cast of Characters: Who Can Help Me Become the Best Version of Myself?
The good news – and bad news – is that few classes are entirely self-study. There is usually a cast of characters involved in any great learning experience.
Teachers and Mentors: Most of us can easily identify people who invested in us in past eras. They shared their experience, encouraged us to take risks, helped us to glean lessons, got us back on our feet when we failed, and occasionally gave us a swift kick up the backside to get us back on track. Some we love and admire. Others we only appreciate long after they’ve left our lives. But these people are indispensable gifts.
Thoughtful people carefully identify and place themselves under the influence of mentors and teachers at all points in their careers. They know that choosing teachers and mentors dramatically affects who they become.
Some of those mentors and teachers will be people with whom they interact regularly. My mentors have included bosses (thanks Dan, John, Carol, Mike, and Gayle), colleagues (Suzy, Dave, Mark, Barbara, Marcus, Ken), and clients (Deb, Ralph, Jim, Laurel). We may watch other teachers from afar, including people no longer living. Among my mentors is Peter Drucker whose writings still shape how I think about everything from strategy to personal development and Dallas Willard whose work influenced how my beliefs on how people change.
Along with Teachers and Mentors, we often have Classmates who walk with us through the current class of life. They sometimes hold the mirror up so that we see ourselves better. They encourage us to keep going even when we want to give up. They provide healthy competition so that we get the best from ourselves.
One of my coaching clients made one of the biggest breakthroughs of his career when he enlisted a peer from another department to provide him with regular feedback. He regularly gave me excited reports on what he was learning from this person and how much he valued her input.
In the real world, many Classes also contain Nemeses. These people seem to exist for the sole purpose of making your life difficult. They’re the ones who annoy you, thwart you, and make even atheists pray to God for patience. They may also be some of the best assets in your learning process. The friction they create will often surface growth areas for you.
One of my clients had the surprise of his life when a nemesis suddenly became his boss. But because he was seeing his life as a Class, he got curious and started seeing his new boss as a learning partner in disguise.
Of course, don’t confuse Nemeses with Predators. Being challenging or difficult is not the same as being dangerous. Embrace the one despite its prickliness. Flee, fight, resist the other.
I’ve seen Nemeses come in many shapes. It’s the boss who expects perfection from you in all areas, whose 360-degree feedback you dread because you just can’t measure up. It’s the colleague whom you depend upon but who won’t follow through on commitments. It’s the person who steals glory shamelessly and gives blame generously. It’s the person whose style of interacting makes you want to stick a fork in your eye because you find them so annoying.
You’ll rarely like Nemeses, but you can learn to appreciate the learning you get from bumping into them. After all, you’ve probably been someone else’s Nemesis. Maybe you are even now. So when you appreciate your own Nemesis, in an indirect way you’re extending generosity to yourself.
3. Welcome Tests: How Do I Get Feedback on Becoming the Best Version of Myself?
No rigorous course would be complete without tests that stretch us and help us see how far we’ve progressed. Tests are moments of truth where you must do something differently from your default approach. They take the learning objectives of your Class and shine the bright lights on them.
When you can pass the Tests in any given Class reliably, you can move on to a more advanced Class. You get closer to becoming the person you were created to be. When you are unable to pass Tests, you often get stuck at your current level. Some have to re-do Classes until they can pass the tests.
Here are a few tests I’ve seen people face on their way to becoming who they were created to be:
- The Conflict Test – Can you tell the truth with grace so that it enhances outcomes instead of destroying them?
- The Integrity Test – Will you be consistent with your deepest principles even when it might cost you?
- The Stewardship Test – Can you set aside your personal relationships and do what’s best for the organization and its customers even if it makes you unpopular with your team members?
- The Courage Test – Can you ignore the barking dogs of fear and desperation and instead focus on doing what’s best?
- The Abundance Test – Will you share with others even when it doesn’t appear to be in your short-term interest?
- The Authenticity Test – Will you avoid hype and instead be no more and no less than you really are?
- The Cohesion Test – Can you keep your team together when the going gets rough?
It’s normal to resist tests when they come. They challenge us. They… well, test us. But smart people welcome tests. They see them as clarifying moments that help us know exactly where we are in our development. They know that failure is not fatal, but simply an indicator that we’re not done yet.
4. Engage in Experimental Practices: How Do I Master Becoming the Best Version of Myself?
Smart people incorporate experimental practices before, during, and after Tests. They’re practices because you repeat them over and over, aiming for a degree of mastery and comfort that you don’t have when you begin. They’re experimental because each time you apply them, you approach them with a curious mindset and the willingness to continuously adapt.
Most experimental practices have an Inner Game and an Outer Game aspect to them. The Inner Game helps you prepare to be your best self in a challenging situation. The Outer Game allows you to see how your environment responds to what you try. The two work together.
So if you realize you need to pass the Conflict Test in your current class, you may realize that your required skill is to listen better. Listening well is a practice, one not exercised very much or very well in our world. Listening is generally practiced less the higher you get in an organization. Just watch an average executive team interact and you’ll see what I mean.
To practice listening, Your Inner Game practice may be to start by noticing – and quieting or redirecting – your own inner chatter when talking with others. Especially that other. You know, the one about whom you roll your eyes almost every time they talk. You’d start by simply noticing your inner chatter. Then learn to quiet it. Then work to redirect it from eye-rolling to asking a useful question internally. One like, “What might lead this person to this point of view? What reasonable outcome might they be trying to achieve?”
As you continue to work on listening, Your Outer Game practice may begin with simply stopping counterproductive habits like checking your devices when this person talks, fidgeting or saying snarky things about them to others after the meeting. It may be asking a useful question. Something like, “I can imagine you’re trying to achieve _______ but I don’t want to assume anything. Can you help me understand?”
The point is that you won’t be able to just muscle your way into performing well in Tests. You have to practice your way to that level of capability if you want to be ready when you’re on the spot. You have to do things when the lights aren’t shining on you – “off the spot” as Dallas Willard says – so that acting the way you want during the Test is absolutely natural when you get to it. The new way of thinking, feeling and acting is now part of who you are, not who you’re pretending to be.
5. Level Up: Reflect, Celebrate, Begin Again
At some point, you’ll start to realize that you’ve made significant progress in your Class. You’re closer to your best self. With any luck, those around you will notice too.
You won’t feel smug or self-satisfied. Like any learning endeavor, you’ll be more aware of what you don’t know and your natural limitations than before you started. But that doesn’t take away the satisfaction of having reached a new level.
At that moment, take time to reflect on what you’ve learned. Thank the people who have contributed along the way. If you want to be super courageous, even thank that nemesis.
Then, begin again. Ask yourself what’s next in becoming who you were created to be. Shape a class. Gather your people. Embrace tests. Engage practices.
Because you’re not done yet. None of us is done yet.
How Do I Get Started?
I’m not a cynic. I want to use every day of my work as a master class that is turning me ever so slowly into the person I was created to be. I want to join those who are becoming bright leaders, people like Dr. Fakorede and Chelsey. How about you?
Why not enroll now and move toward the best version of yourself?