The First Step on the Road to Leadership

The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.  ~Lao Tzu

To say that the road to becoming an effective leader is long and difficult is an understatement and definitely not for the faint of heart. And those who have travelled this road also know that it doesn’t end, it’s definitely a journey and not a destination.

There are many characteristics and capabilities that an individual must either posses or develop to become an effective leader and there are numerous books and articles claiming to describe these critical leadership “must haves”. And there is no leader, no matter how far along the road, who possesses all these characteristics. All leaders are, in one form or another, flawed and lacking, yet they can still be effective, but never perfect.

However, there is one thing that all of those desiring to travel the road to leadership must have, and it is actually what allows them to take that important first step.

That one thing is an understanding that leadership is all about CHOICE and the courage and capability to make difficult choices. Making a choice between two rights or between right and wrong is easy, even a child can do it successfully.  But real leadership becomes apparent when we must make choices between two wrongs (by wrong I mean choices that have negative consequences yet cannot be avoided).

Let me give you an example from the classical Greek mythical poem, the Odyssey, often attributed to the ancient scholar, Homer.  The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths), king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War, and along the way he and his crew face numerous hardships.


One of those hardships is that he must sail between two great perils, Scylla, a dangerous outcrop of jagged rocks and shallows, and Charybdis, a huge whirlpool.  These two dangers lay between the west coast of Italy and the island of Sicily in a narrow passage called the Strait of Messina. To reach his home in Ithaca, Odysseus had to choose between sailing close to the rocky shoals or the whirlpool. Either choice meant loss of life and there was no turning back or going around. Choice Time!

Now more than ever business, government, military, religious and social leaders face unavoidable perils. It comes with the territory, although it seems like in the 21st Century the territory is even more hostile than before. Threats of terrorism, social unrest, disruptive technology, mass migration and unstoppable immigration, employee disengagement, widening gaps between the rich and poor, competition coming from nontraditional players, economic slowdowns and rising debt levels are just a few.  The list of perils, and therefore the number of choices a leader must make, are endless.

If nothing else, effective leadership is about choice.

Making hard choices and living with the consequences.  And by the way, not making a choice is actually the worst choice of all.

Effective leadership means learning to live with unpleasant choices, making the best choice possible, learning how to see and deliver the best possible outcome from those choices, and staying optimistic in the face of ever more difficult choices.

Want to grow more leaders?  Then put your up-and-coming talented young men and women into situations where they must make, and live with, hard choices.

Making good choices comes from experience, and experience mostly comes from bad choices.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to The First Step on the Road to Leadership

  1. Great John. Happy New Year.


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