Insights February 2020

Leadership is Personal

Hugh MacLeod


Every leader is unique, for we all stem from our own circumstance. I chose not to mirror or mimic leadership personas, and instead opted to blossom the leader within me. My passion for this idea started early. As a young boy, my job in the family was to bring peace at times of great tension. I learned how to listen, see around the obvious, interpret, and take risks to de-escalate potential explosive situations. In the process, I took personal responsibility to shape and define my personal persona and way of being. Lucky for me, my mother and grandfather were present to provide support, to build me up, and to honour the role I was playing in our complicated home environment.

At seventy-one years of age, I see how my early experiences organized my entire personal and professional life, and after years studying, living, and breathing leadership, I still continue to evolve as a leader. Every new experience presents an opportunity to reflect, adjust, and grow. I have an extensive past to look back on and assess. I know the pressures that can hamper genuine leadership, such as career promotion, politics, short-term gain, and stubbornness. I have also been granted many years to get to understand myself better.

Creating my personal and “living” definition of leadership affected how I thought about my roles, choices made, how I acted, my relationship with others, and ultimately, personal and organizational results. As I began to immerse myself in the narrative of my personal leadership definition, I found myself questioning and challenging my perspective on long-held beliefs and views. A transformation occurred as I reflected, and it moved me to reframe my own thinking. Reflective replies to my personal leadership questions came from a compassionate, experience-based perspective of what is needed to achieve organizational dynamic wholeness: cohesiveness; flexibility; inter-connectedness; cost-effectiveness; values; and the commitment of people above all else.

At times, my leadership journey was like living on a three-dimensional chessboard. On one level, multiple product lines and business units, a diverse workforce, and networks. On another level, shifting customer demands, sustainability issues, regulatory systems, and geopolitics. On the last level, there’s financial performance, the twenty-four-hour demands of the Internet, and the menacing self-interested parties. There’s also another complexity to the three-dimensional chessboard: Do we know if we are playing the right pieces at the right time, and did we set the right table before dining? This may be the truth behind the saying “the stronger you become, the more life challenges.”

To ensure my personal values and goals matched the vision, culture, and direction of the organization, my human hard drive and personal-value maps got tested continuously. Deep down, no matter what leadership position we occupy in a group, a team or an organization, sooner or later we are all going to be put to the test. Over time, when tested, I moved beyond my complacencies, embraced the current realities, and believed in my abilities to lead. In order to align these elements, I needed to go inward and spend sufficient time in reflection to be alone with my thoughts, anxieties, and quiet victories, and assess myself in order to bring forth placidity and composure to cope with the brutal realities I faced. 

It’s only as you examine your life that you are able to identify the changes you need to make in order to develop your leadership. To quote Warren Bennis, pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership…”Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be; until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes.”

About the Author(s)

Hugh MacLeod is the author of the self-help book Humanizing Leadership. An experienced educator, speaker and consultant, he is currently an adjunct professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.


Reprinted with permission from


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