John Addison: How I Stepped Up to Be a Leader

UPDATED: January 22, 2016
PUBLISHED: January 11, 2016

As I was thinking about writing this column for SUCCESS—my first as Leadership Editor—I wondered how some people become leaders in the first place. What makes one person step forward to hone those skills when others don’t?

In my case, there might have been a few signs in my childhood. We lived in Georgia, way out in the country, and I was my own best playmate. I had to be creative! I couldn’t get on my bicycle and ride over to visit the kid next door. He was too far away. So I developed the ability to be absolutely fine by myself. To this day I still have it. I travel by myself, I have dinner by myself, but most important, I am comfortable with myself.

That was very helpful when my own path toward leadership became clear. Twenty-six years ago I worked at a financial services company, A.L. Williams & Associates, which was renamed and underwent a host of other changes before, eventually, I went on to serve as co-CEO. In 1989 our company was sold to Citigroup, which was then headed by Wall Street wonders Sandy Weill and Jamie Dimon, and it was a big sea change for us. Suddenly we were owned by these guys from New York who really didn’t know anything about our business.

During this trying time, I stepped forward. There was nothing mysterious about what I did. It was as simple as building relationships with the people sent down from New York and being strong enough to take a stand and talk to them without kowtowing and being intimidated. I earned their respect.

For me that experience underscored the importance of sheer likability.

It’s a skill: the ability to take positions without being a jerk. It’s about being honest, friendly and approachable, having a perspective on things, and being able to win people over to your way of thinking. If you boil leadership down to one word, it’s influence.

Going forward, I’m using my influence to help people. As a leader, I have done what so many of you are trying to do. My ideas are not theoretical or formulaic. I don’t follow affirmations posted on the refrigerator. And I didn’t wake up one day and say, I’m a good communicator; let me write books and columns on leadership.

I have been a leader when times were terrible and when times were great. I’ve been baptized by fire. I believe leadership is a verb, not a noun—and I have done it.

You’ll find my column in SUCCESS magazine every month. I’m going to share my experiences and give practical advice on what works and what doesn’t to help you grow, lead and realize your goals. Because you need to develop your leadership skills before you have a position that requires them. That’s how it was for me, and that’s how it will be for you.

Life is a process. We’re getting better every day. We are growing, changing—we are always stepping forward.

Let’s do it together.

To give you a little extra inspiration on your leadership journey, read 4 quotes from people I consider to be among the most influential leaders of all time.


This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.  

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.