We all know the expression about oxygen masks on airplanes: “Before assisting others, put your own mask on first.” It’s a saying that rings true for multiple aspects of life, including leadership. Before leading others, you need to start by leading yourself.
Dr. Joshua Spodek is an adjunct professor at NYU, the host of the Leadership and the Environment podcast, and has five Ivy League degrees. He's done over 100,000 burpees in his life and swam across the Hudson River. He's visited North Korea twice! And perhaps most remarkably, he's reduced his consumption and waste enough to throw out his garbage less than once per year. His new book is Leadership Step By Step: Become The Person Others Follow.
I recently interviewed Dr. Spodek for the LEADx Leadership Show, where we discussed how to become the kind of person others want to follow, and how he personally leads for a better environment. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: What kind of leadership advice would you give to a first-time manager?
Joshua Spodek: The main thing I've learned is that, no matter how much people think that other people are just born with some skill, everyone learned it from experience. It wasn't just reading things, they had to practice. And, so any time you see someone with a skill that you wish you had, remember they learned it from something. Find out how they learned it, and practice what they learned, or practice what they did to learn it, and you will develop better as well. So you can never look at anyone and think, “They have something that I can't possibly get.”
It may be hard, it may take time, it may take practice, but you can get it. So, that mindset is one of the most important things in my opinion.
Kruse: Describe some of the leadership exercises you offer readers in your book.
Dr. Spodek: You can learn effective leadership skills, but if you don't have self-awareness you can lead people in circles, or go in directions that aren't interesting. Self-awareness is a big piece of it. So in the beginning, there's a lot of work on how your mind functions, including your self-talk. It’s the voice that's going on inside your head all the time. And what that self-talk leads to are beliefs that color the perception of everything around us. We have access to that through the mental chatter that's going on inside our heads.
So I have some exercises for you to become aware of it. You can get the same thing through months of meditating, but this way is really fast. And for leaders you get that value right away, that access to how your mind works, how you process everything around you, everything that comes in, how you perceive other people, and it starts leading into how you express yourself, how to find ways of improving yourself.
A lot of how we interact with the world is through the beliefs that we have. Usually, you describe most people through five to 10 adjectives. Yet there’s so much more to a person than 10 adjectives. But that's how we work—we can't process everything all the time. Our brains can't handle everything. And so, being able to recognize the beliefs and how we interact with people mediated through them. It's a big lever into how you lead yourself.
Kruse: So I have to ask, how in the world are you only producing one bag of garbage a year?
Dr. Spodek: The short answer is practice. I was born into a world that had a lot of pollution in it, and I don't want to pollute the world. I don't want to leave it any worse than I have to. Of course, you have to pollute some.
When I first started avoiding packaged food, I didn't know what to do. I went to the store and started looking at the stuff I normally get. I thought, Well, that's in a box, that's in a bag, that's in a can, that's a rubber band, that's a sticker. And it was really hard.
And so, in the beginning, it maybe took two weeks to take out the garbage. Then it was a couple months. And it took a long time to work up to a year.
I'm really passionate about leadership in the environment because there's a lot of environmental stuff out there that's based on guilt, blame, and gloom. Spreading facts and people expect that facts are going to change behavior? It rarely does.
So what I'm trying to share on my podcast is that it's about joy, it's about discovery, and it's about growth. That's the leadership. Meaning, purpose, and value.
Dr. Spodek’s approach to leadership starts with self-awareness. The chatter in your mind dictates how you see the world and those around you, and without tapping into that self-talk you may end up leading yourself (and others) in circles. Start by accessing your inner monologue, and lead from the inside out.