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When I was fairly young, I was a pretty decent communicator. The upside to that was that I received some great opportunities to speak. The downside, however, was that I was often in over my head at these events.

For example, when I was 33, I was asked to speak at a youth conference at a state university campus. A few aspects of this engagement made me very nervous. For one thing, there would be 14,000 kids in the audience.

For another, I had never spoken in such a big arena. And to make matters even worse, I was following a speaker who was much better and much more experienced than I was.

I well remember how I felt when I was preparing to go out on stage. The lights were bright and I couldn't see the audience. I knew there were 14,000 people out there, but all I saw was a big black hole.

As someone who communicates best when I'm eye to eye with people, this made me very uncomfortable. I felt completely inadequate.

Not surprisingly, I bombed. It truly was one of those speeches that only my mother could have applauded.

Looking back, it's easy to see how my self-image—how I viewed myself—had a direct bearing upon my effectiveness—or lack thereof—that day. After that experience, I began to understand that leaders must believe in themselves before they can ever hope to believe in their people. I also realized that, as a leader, if I've not bought in to myself, no one else is going to buy into me, either.

Each one of us has an internal mirror that reflects how we see ourselves. And what we see in this mirror determines how we act as leaders. In other words, our self-image determines our behavior. That's why it's impossible for a person with a poor self image to produce consistently on a high level.

It simply can't happen, because we cannot conduct our daily affairs in a way that contradicts how we see ourselves. On the other hand, when a leader believes he can do a good job and views himself as successful, his actions will show it.

Have you ever gone to a funhouse at a carnival and looked in one of those distorted mirrors? From one angle, you look as skinny as a rail; from another, you look bigger than an elephant. That's not how you really are, of course, but because the mirror is distorted, your image also is distorted.

Sadly, many leaders don't have an accurate picture of themselves because their internal mirrors are distorted. Because they're unable to see themselves as they really are, they're forever trying to find the right image to present to others. Some project an image that is bigger than they really are; others project an image that is smaller than they really are. Either way, the result is internal confusion.

A key to effectiveness—in life and as a leader—is to project a true image of who you are. The only problem is that we all carry with us four images of ourselves that can cause us to act differently with different people. These four images are:
  1. The image that others have of us. This is how the people around us?the ones who observe us at our best and our worst?see us.
  2. The image that we project to others. This is how we want others to view us.
  3. The image we have of ourselves. This is how we actually view ourselves. Many times, this image does not match what we project to others.
  4. Our true self. This includes our character and gifts; it represents who we were created to be.
When these four images don't match, we know it. This awareness might be subconscious, but it's there nonetheless. And it weighs us down.

The solution lies in making sure that these four images are as closely aligned as possible. You see, we can be emotionally healthy only when the image that other people have of us, the image that we project to others, the image that we have of ourselves and our true selves all match.

The more distortion there is—among any or all of these images—the less healthy our self-image is, and the less effective our leadership will be.

Marcus Aurelius said, "I often marvel how it is that, though each man loves himself beyond all else, he should yet value his own opinion of himself less than that of others." As I learned so many years ago, when it comes to leadership, the first person you must believe in is yourself. The mirror reminds me that I must read myself well before I can ever attempt to read others.

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's
free monthly e-newsletter: Leadership Wired
available at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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