Recently I was working with a group of managers in a large, complex organization that was going through big changes. There was lots of learned helplessness, victim thinking, and riding the Bitter Bus into Pity City.

As we challenged each other and explored our fundamental choice to lead, follow, or wallow we discussed the implications and application of each approach. An exercise on how everyone was using their time showed that a vast majority of participants wanted to increase the time they spent in Leading mode.

“Why aren’t you spending as much time leading as you’d like to” was the question posed to the group. Our culture, my boss, the economy, shortage of good people, too much e-mail, lack of financial and other resources, no time, not given enough authority, poor communications, and bureaucracy was some of the list they – all too quickly and easily – shot back.

They weren’t getting it. Those are all external factors that do play a part. But this was mostly “blame storming.” I was emphasizing that leadership is an action, not a position. That’s not how true leaders act.

I vaguely recalled something I’d read from Jim Collin’s work (author of the landmark books Built to Last and Good to Great) about looking in the mirror versus out the window as the beginning point for leadership and change. “So those are factors happening out there – through the window,” I challenged the response. “What about the factors that you can control by looking in the mirror?”

The analogy connected big time (window versus mirror has quickly become key language in their organizational language since this session.) Our conversation shifted to what we can control or influence; how we frame problems, our skills, upward leadership, time management, taming the e-mail beast, courageous conversations, seeking the information you need, taking the initiative, asking forgiveness not permission, put up or shut up, and continuous personal growth was part of what’s on the leader list.

I knew I’d over-simplified Collin’s original analogy so later I went back and pulled from my database:

“The emphasis on luck turns out to be part of a broader pattern that we came to call the window and the mirror. Level 5 leaders, inherently humble, look out the window to apportion credit – even undue credit – to factors outside themselves. If they can’t find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck. At the same time, they look in the mirror to assign responsibility, never citing bad luck or external factors when things go poorly. Conversely, the comparison executives frequently looked out the window for factors to blame but preened in the mirror to credit themselves when things went well.”

It’s really about courage. Courage is the foundation of leadership. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed courage was the foundation of all human virtues, because it made the others possible. Our progress up the leadership stairway is strongly determined by the extent of our courage. Are we continually stretching our comfort zone? Are we ready to address personal and professional obstacles blocking our growth? To truly lead we must listen to our inner voice and act on the courage of our convictions.

Do we have courageous conversations? Do we seek feedback that we don’t want to hear? Are we open to opposing views or approaches? Do we speak up? What about our courage to address team or organization issues that are impeding progress? It’s much easier to be quiet and just go along. And the silence can say it all.

It takes no courage to helplessly point out the window at external factors as the source of our problems. It’s classic Wallowing. It takes courageous leadership to look in the mirror. That’s acting like a Leader.

Go to Attitude and Outlook for a selection of articles around this broader topic area.