When I was growing up, we still did Christmas gift exchanges at school. Instead of letting us pick who we brought a gift for, we were paired by drawing a classmate’s name out of a hat. One year, when I was about 6 or 7, I was paired with a boy named Gordon. Even at that age, we were all very aware that Gordon’s family didn’t have much money, and when he gave me the small, seemingly unimpressive gift at our gift exchange, a bunch of my classmates started making fun of him. I hate to admit it, but I joined them.
When I got home from school that day, I showed my mom the gift and told her what happened. She explained to me that the present Gordon had given me was probably far more expensive for his family to buy than the one I’d given him had been for mine. I felt horrible that something I’d said had more than likely really hurt someone and I just couldn’t live with myself.
The next day at school, I found Gordon and thanked him for the present and told him I really liked it. Not because my mother told me I should (she didn’t), but because I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do.
That’s one of those memories that still stings a little bit all these years later because I was so disappointed in the way I acted. You see, my mom was the absolute best example of someone who could always find good in people and worked to build up everyone she came in contact with. Hers were big shoes to fill, so when I failed to emulate her, I was extra hard on myself—not because I let her down, but because I let myself down.
I spend a lot of time talking about how the most important things a leader can do is to look for the good in others and shine a light on their people. But leadership begins with leading yourself. The only way to really do that is to take the time to look for the good in yourself and accept yourself just the way you are—flaws and all.
There is not a single one of us who is perfect and we all have our dark, twisty parts deep down inside. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of and we’ve all hurt people—sometimes unintentionally and sometimes absolutely on purpose out of spite, anger or jealousy. It happens because that’s what humans do. You have to make a conscious choice not to get so bogged down in all the ugly parts that they start to control who you are in the world. Choose, instead, to be a person of honor and character. Acknowledge that those parts of yourself exist and then work really hard to rise above the limitations they create for you. And when you do mess up, like we all do, don’t beat yourself up over it.
That’s much easier said than done since we tend to be our own worst critics. But something amazing happens when you can start to accept all the parts of yourself and truly realize you have good inside of you: You are able to find the good in other people—even people you are pretty certain have no redeeming qualities. That is one of the most important qualities a great leader can have.
We all do stupid things. We all mess up. What I did to Gordon that day so many years ago is a great example of both and I’m definitely not proud of how I acted. But, I know I’m not still the kid who followed the crowd and hurt someone because of my actions. I learned a lesson that day—and every other day I do stupid stuff. We are going to make a million more mistakes and you know what? It’s OK. It means we’re living and learning and getting a little better every day.
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.