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Great Leadership Starts With Personal Mastery

Start By Looking Within Yourself
Yeo Chuen Chuen
BY Yeo Chuen Chuen


  • There is no fixed, secret formula for leadership.
  • Successful leaders are more likely to have looked within themselves, not outside, for inspiration and answers about their unique leadership style.
  • Leaders need courage to embark on their self-discovery journey.
  • Soft skills are important to navigate today’s complex business environment.

Years ago, I worked with Penny, a senior director who had wanted to become more influential in her job. When I asked her how I could help her succeed, she said, “I want you to give me the recipe to become the inspiring leader I believe I can be.” I understand that she wanted a quick fix, but this way of thinking is what makes leadership difficult for many people nowadays.

While it is true that you can learn to be a great leader, some folks have gotten the wrong idea that there is a fixed, secret formula for leadership. That is probably why Penny wanted me to give her the formula. However, from my experience, what sets successful leaders apart is whether they keep looking for answers outside themselves, or have the courage to go on a journey within themselves.


Leaders like Penny remind me of the movie Kung Fu Panda. To keep it short, I will focus on three parts of the story: the special scroll, the snow leopard, and the panda.

First, the scroll. It was not just any scroll. It was called the “dragon” scroll, and it held ancient martial arts secrets that had been hidden for thousands of years. It was meant for the Dragon Warrior, the bravest and most skilled warrior who proved his worth by overcoming many tough challenges.

Now, let us talk about the snow leopard, Tai Lung. He wanted very badly to be the Dragon Warrior. He trained hard and endured a lot of pain, but he did not get chosen. Instead, he ended up locked in a dungeon, guarded by many skilled warriors. He was deemed unworthy despite his skills.

The point is this: having amazing skills does not automatically mean you are ready to be a leader. Just being really good at something and being the best at it does not mean you are prepared for leadership.

Let us stop and think about ourselves. Were there not times when we had worked really hard to become skilled at something, so that everyone could see we would be a great leader – the very best leader – like the Dragon Warrior?

When we are striving for leadership and success, sometimes, our determination can turn into a strong desire. If we do not pay attention to feedback in the form of challenges and obstacles, and we keep pushing ourselves in the wrong direction, it can drive us a bit crazy. That is how people end up feeling stuck.


If you ignore feedback and do not pay attention to the signs, you will quickly find yourself stuck. For Penny, that was the case. So, for the leaders I work with, I first help them understand that if they want to be great leaders in today’s workplaces, they should be less like Tai Lung. Skills, intelligence, and thinking abilities are important, but what are even more important are soft skills, like understanding people, different cultures, emotions, and contexts, especially in the current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) work environment.

This is where Po, the panda, comes in. He was not very graceful and did not seem special at first, but he had hidden talents. Po worked hard, overcame many challenges, and eventually was named the Dragon Warrior, winning the right to get the Dragon Scroll.

Then, there was a big moment: when Po opened the legendary scroll, instead of secret martial arts techniques, all Po found was a mere golden mirror. All Po got for all his hard work was his own reflection.


What does this story tell us?

For Penny, the senior director, to become a great leader, she needed to first look inside herself. To help her begin her journey of self-discovery, I asked her some questions, starting with, “What does leadership mean to you?”

At first, there was complete silence. Penny had a hard time explaining what leadership meant to her. It was the first time someone had cared enough to ask her about her dreams and aspirations as a leader. She had been stuck in an antiquated system where her overarching KPI (key performance indicator) was to meet the standards set by the higher-ups.

No matter where you are on your leadership journey, you can begin by answering the following self-evaluation questions:

  • What is leadership to you?
  • What values guide you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • Where and how do you contribute your strengths in a meaningful way that will make your heart sing?
  • What is that result, effect, or contribution – both tangible and intangible – that will make your life and career feel worthwhile?

If you do not understand yourself, you cannot become your best self. The most important thing for being a good agile leader is to know who you are. Instead of searching for answers from others, start by looking inside yourself.

When you become an agile leader, you will know. It is the ability to lead with authenticity and a sense of ease even when things get complex and volatile. You will be relevant and effective regardless of shifts in the context, because you will be watching the winds of change, and responding to them. You will be calm and steady because, intuitively, you know what the system requires of you.

Yeo Chuen Chuen is Founder and Managing Director of ACESENCE Agile Leadership, and an award-winning leadership coach. The content for this article was adapted from her Penguin-published book Leaders People Love.

Personal Development and Wellness
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