- Steve Nguyen, PhD
Book Review: The Self-Evolved Leader
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
“The Self-Evolved Leader was written to take you on a journey, from making the critical shift in perspective needed to break the cycle of mediocre leadership, to building a foundation for effective leadership, strengthening the disciplines you need to deliver great leadership, and ending with a plan for mastering and sustaining leadership” (McKeown, 2020, p. 10).
In The Self-Evolved Leader, McKeown contends that for too long leaders have mistakenly assumed that the value they bring to their organization is to play the role of the hero, someone has all the answers and swoops in to save the day. However, as heroic leaders, they also swing for the fences (i.e., attempt to satisfy high aspirations that are very difficult to achieve), tend to confuse busyness with progress, and will move from one crisis to another putting out fires. By being/playing the hero, the leader creates a sense of learned helplessness in their team, and as a result, they end up creating a cycle of mediocrity.
I like what McKeown (2020) says about our society’s misguided reliance on heroics:
“We’ve heard time and again in movies, literature, and sports of the lonely hero who embarked on a personal journey of discovery and managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, save the day, and emerge transformed. These mythical stories have infiltrated their way into our perception of an effective leader. Yes, there are times when we need diving catches and acts of heroism, but if that’s what your success as a team or organization is built on, then you have a shaky foundation. There are only so many superheroes you can hire. Instead, it’s more sustainable to build a foundation of great leadership that’s based on shared accountability rather than heroics. Building deep ownership allows your team to have flurries of heroism, without the heroics becoming the defining feature” (p. 6).
“In being an overwhelmed leader who is taking on too much and trying to save the day, you reinforce the belief that your team isn’t quite good enough, that it requires something special or magical from you to make it just so. That in itself puts a brake on your team’s desire to go above and beyond what’s necessary, and instead to sit back and wait for you to bail them out” (McKeown, 2020, p. 23).
McKeown describes a vicious cycle wherein the leader creates learned helplessness in their team, which leads to members feeling disempowered and which then creates a sense of urgency requiring the leader to swoop in and play the hero.
McKeown says, “In the long run, learned helplessness leads to disempowerment. Over time your team slowly cedes authority to you. They subconsciously elect not to make a tough call, so as to defer to your wisdom, to give you the final say” (p. 24).
McKeown argues that, “there’s a way to break out of the Cycle of Mediocrity, with a new set of patterns and behaviors that move toward a new cycle, the Cycle of Excellence” (p. 25).
In the Cycle of Excellence, the building of shared accountability and the development and empowerment of your team will propel you and your team to greater levels of success.
As you empower and grant your team more decision-making authority and responsibility, “you’ll discover that some members of your team will grow through the experience of handling the increasingly more complex challenges and problems you give them” (McKeown, 2020, p. 28).
As leaders elevate their focus toward the important, not the urgent, they’ll find “more time to have conversations focused on team members’ development and more clarity to assess their individual challenges” (McKeown, 2020, p. 28).
The most crucial shift in perspective to become a Self-Evolved Leader is to see “that your value comes not from saving the day but from equipping your people to deliver on the day-to-day tactics and grow into the best version of themselves so that you can focus on the medium- and long-term direction of your team” (p. 10-11).
Before leaders can work on improving their teams they must first work on improving themselves. To do that they have to adopt the characteristics and behaviors of the Self-Evolved Leader.
“Every transformation starts from within, and this one is no different. Before you can make a material impact on your team and organization, there are some internal characteristics that need to be nurtured” (McKeown, 2020, p. 32).
Internal Characteristics of Self-Evolved Leaders (p. 32-38):
1. Push for Growth 2. Demonstrate Vulnerability 3. Practice Empathy 4. Feel a Sense of Connectedness 5. Operate from Locus of Their Control
Developing the 5 internal characteristics bring about the following external behaviors.
External Behaviors of Self-Evolved Leaders (p. 38-39):
1. Set Common Goals 2. Help Their Team Achieve Those Goals 3. Focus on the Development of Their People 4. Focus on the Long-Term Direction of Their Team 5. Move From Pull to Push
What the Self-Evolved Leader Achieves (p. 39-41):
1. More Time and Space 2. More Clarity 3. Better Agility 4. High-Performing Teams 5. Balance
Self-Evolved Leader’s mantra (p. 42): “My focus is to help those on my team achieve our shared goals and in doing so to help them become the best version of themselves.”
After you’ve committed to breaking out of the mediocre mentality and the cycle of mediocrity and have hit reset with your team, you are ready to tackle the Key Elements of Self-Evolved Leadership:
1. VISION: Create a compelling vision to inspire your team — A compelling vision brings alignment, a shared purpose, and a North Star for decision-making. The vision should be clear, excite the team, present your why, and be connected to the organization’s vision.
2. PULSE: Build a pulse for implementation — Building an implementation pulse is a proactive way to protect your own and your team’s time to focus on what’s important.
3. DISCIPLINE: Develop and work through six micro disciplines to dramatically accelerate the impact you have on your team — 1. Take a pause, 2. Exist in the present, 3. Set context, 4. Be intentional, 5. Listen first, 6. Push for clarity. These six micro disciplines serve as the foundation of the five core disciplines of Self-Evolved Leadership: Reclaim Your Attention, Facilitate Team Flow, Support High Performance, Have Symbiotic Conversations, and Build Shared Accountability.
In Part 3 of the book, McKeown discusses the five key leadership disciplines of self-evolved leaders:
1. Reclaim Your Attention — “Allowing other sources to have a hold on our attention is sapping our ability to stay present in our interactions and draining our cognitive ability to make high-quality decisions” (p. 102).
2. Facilitate Team Flow — “is about coming to grips with the numerous inputs to your team from the wider organization or marketplace, assigning a quick prioritization, putting the most appropriate people to work on it, and then passing back the output in a smooth, efficient fashion. The goal is to give your team more authority and responsibility over the projects and tasks that come your way and to keep you focused on those areas that you can impact in the most powerful way” (p. 119).
3. Support High Performance — Supporting high performance, rather than trying to manage it, “involves helping your team identify the root cause of the issues they face, sorting through the solutions in front of them, and then assisting them in deciding on a plan of action” (p. 146).
4. Have Symbiotic Conversations — “Having symbiotic conversations involves assuming positive intent, mapping a path to your desired outcome, and ultimately giving others the choice about what they wish to do next” (p. 160).
5. Build Shared Accountability — “The main characteristic of a group with deep accountability is that there is enough trust, respect, and desire to see each other succeed that they’re able to spur one another on toward achieving their common goals” (p. 164).
“Accountability and ownership cannot be taught; you can only provide the environment for your team to want to take it. Building shared accountability is a natural outflow of setting a clear vision, building an implementation pulse, and mastering the key disciplines” (McKeown, 2020, p. 175).
In Part 4 (Sustaining Self-Evolved Leadership), there’s a 15-week program (Ch. 11) that guides you in charting your own journey to becoming a Self-Evolved Leader as well as implementing the practices within your own team.
I especially like Week 3 “Map Your Pulse” (p. 186-192) where you are shown five different vantage points that you should plan with your team [annual review (50,000 feet), quarterly review (30,000 feet), monthly review (10,000 feet), weekly review (5,000 feet), and daily review (runway)].
McKeown ends the book (in Ch. 12) by extending Self-Evolved Leadership at the team level to the rest of the organization. He talks about building a shared vocabulary, aligning visions across the organization, creating a shared pulse, and having a collective focus on mastering the disciplines.
What I Did Not Like: My one criticism of the book is McKeown’s coverage of the “Self-Evolved Organization” (the last chapter). I was disappointed in the hasty ending and it felt very rushed and seemed insufficient since Chapter 12 is just 8 pages long. Because it summarized the other chapters, it would have been better to label Chapter 12 under the heading “Conclusion” or “Summary” and tie those chapters together and mention how they contribute to a Self-Evolved Organization.
At the end of each chapter is a “What to Remember” (brief summary) and “What to Try” (actionable insights) section. There’s also a URL to a video summaries of the chapters (https://resources.selfevolvedleader.com/). To access the video summaries, you must register on the site.
Takeaway: The Self-Evolved Leader is a short book and even shorter if you don’t count the workbook portion (Ch. 11, which is about 40 pages). This is not a bad thing because it makes for a very easy and quick read. McKeown does a good job being concise and getting to the point without rambling and being long-winded.
Overall, The Self-Evolved Leader is an enjoyable and practical book. McKeown does a fine job providing advice, guidance, and tools to help seasoned executives as well as newly promoted leaders become their best. I appreciate the 15-week road map for implementing the Self-Evolved Leadership philosophy and practices. And I applaud the “What to Remember” and “What to Try” section summarizing almost every chapter. I’ll be using this book for my own development and sharing it with other leaders. Highly recommended!
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
McKeown, D. (2020). The Self-Evolved Leader: Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People In a World That Refuses To Slow Down. Greenleaf Book Group Press.
*Note: The page numbers referenced in this post refer to the Advance Reader’s Copy of The Self-Evolved Leader. For the most part, they are identical to the final copy. However, there are still some errors. For example, in the final print copy, Ch. 12 starts on p. 217, whereas in the advance reader’s copy, Ch. 12 begins on p. 219. Another mistake is on p. 11 in the advance copy, under “Mastering the Self-Evolved Leadership Disciplines,” it states: “This section of the book is a deep dive into six key leadership disciplines . . .” However, it was corrected in the final version to say five key leadership disciplines. This is why I dislike reviewing a galley or advance copy of a book.
Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of The Self-Evolved Leader as a complimentary gift.