There is a way to recover from bad leadership behaviors. It is found in the 12 steps.

Yesterday I wrote about the three leadership lessons I learned attending a recovery group. Today I want to share the seven lessons for leaders and aspiring leaders that the 12 Steps give us.

What are the 12 Steps exactly? I list them below along with the lessons. Essentially, they are a systematic pathway to recovery or improvement. And they work. If you work them.


Are you willing to take the steps necessary to improve your leadership, even if they are painful? (Click to Tweet)

Here are the steps along with the lessons:

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.

This step is applicable to every area of life.

This is, by far, the hardest step for leaders to admit. You got this far on your own. You are strong and in control. People look up, and often fear, you.

But you have a compulsive habit of snapping at people with bad ideas, or reacting harshly to criticism, or over-working. If you have dealt with anything like this for more than five years, it is out of control. It is unmanageable. The first step is to admit that.

Leadership Lesson 1: You must first admit your problems and acknowledge that you cannot fix them alone.

Step 2: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God.

Leaders can gain strength from admitting they are not God and need Him to help them fix their problems. If you have a bad habit at work, pray daily for guidance and commit to doing what God says every day. Over time, your habits will subside and you will find more joy in work.

Leadership Lesson 2: No leadership problem is too big or too small for God. Ask for help.

Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 5: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Scripture says,

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:40)

Leaders can gain clarity and vision by taking an inventory and admitting their wrongs. You have to take a lot of time to do this though. You may need to think back on hundreds of instances when you wronged others with your negative comments or the many times that you habitually told an off-color joke in a leadership meeting. Or all of the times you backed down from holding people accountable or lied to cover yourself in a meeting.

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Spend time searching.

Be fearless.

Go where you don’t want to go.

It will be painful, I promise.

And it will be worth it.

A great place to start is by asking your team for feedback.

Leadership Lesson 3: Admit your problems to God, to yourself, and to someone you trust.

I can assure you that while you are not done yet, this step will bring a feeling of freedom and hope.

Step 6: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 

Step 7: We humbly asked Him to remove all our shortcomings.

Leaders can improve in every area by asking God to remove defects and believing that He can. Asking without belief is useless.

Leadership Lesson 4: Believe that God can fix your problems and ask Him to do so.

Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9: We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Do you want loyal followers? Make a list of people you have hurt, and then apologize to them if practical.

Leaders can improve relationships and gain immense loyalty by constantly listing people they have harmed and making amends. Your bad habits always hurt others. Rather it’s sarcasm, negativity, or a tendency to not pay attention to others, your problems become others’ problems.

Leadership Lesson 5: Take the time to list the people and times you have hurt others and let them know that you are sorry and are working to not do that again.

Go as far back as you have to.

Step 10: We continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Step 11: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us, and power to carry that out.

Repeat steps 1-9. You are not going to be better tomorrow. You can apologize to everyone on your list in one day, pray harder than you have ever prayed, and grit your teeth…and tomorrow you are going to slip up. You are going to fail. You are going to make more mistakes in life. So you keep doing it.

But do not give up! Keep at it. The steps are a lifelong commitment.

Leadership Lesson 6: Improvement is ongoing. Take an inventory every day and make things right immediately.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.

Leaders can build a culture of great leadership by sharing these principles.

The leaders under you, the leaders alongside you, and the leaders above you can all learn from these things. They will see your improvement and they will ask how you did it.

Leadership Lesson 7: Share your experience with others. Build up other leaders around you.

Question: Are you willing to take the steps necessary to improve your leadership, even if they are painful?

8 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from the 12 Steps

  1. Dan Erickson says:

    I’ve never officially been in or used a 12-step program, but have used many of the strategies that are included in the steps. Yes, this kind of change can be painful, but in the end, you become a better, stronger, and more healthy individual. So, bring on the pain!

  2. Jon Stolpe says:

    I really like number 6. I love to ask team members how I could do better the next time. Getting their feedback is so important to continuous improvement. Sometimes things shared are painful to hear, but the feedback can be so valuable in improving my leadership.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      It’s also the hardest, not because it is difficult, but because it requires commitment and time. Who wants to take time to take inventory and improve when there are widgets to make and sell?

      But those who do take the time are the ones who get promoted and succeed.

      1. Jon Stolpe says:

        Yes, Matt. I’ve definitely seen that in my own career. And I always encourage employees – especially new employees – to take on this attitude of asking lots of questions. Find out from others how you can do a better job.

  3. Joshua Rivers says:

    Number 1 is often difficult – just taking that first step to admit that you don’t have control of it. Releasing the control you think you have requires a humility and vulnerability that many people can’t handle. It is also one of the most powerful ways to help us overcome.

  4. Kent Julian says:

    Good job, Matt!

    Bottom line…good leadership “runs at” both opportunities and problems. Poor leadership “runs away” for both.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Thanks Kent. I would add that good leaders look for problems rather than react to them.

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