Here are some reflections on leadership that I was better able to realize when looking back on my experiences in various leadership positions I’ve held in business and in life.
1. Your attitude affects everyone
As humans, we have the ability to identify and mirror the emotions and feelings of others as they are experiencing them. So, if you are feeling stressed out and angry over something, that may contribute to how you make others feel. If you doubt yourself and complain more than problem solve, that energy will trickle through to those around you. In short, as a leader, your attitude affects everyone.
I remember one year on the day of a major fundraising event at the organization I ran, the fundraising team was frazzled and stressed out with last-minute to-dos. I was also stressed out from realizing an important detail wasn’t put in place prior to the event. As a result, our entire team was stressed, and this stress marked the entire first half of the day. As a leader, my behavior and attitude was perhaps the most influential to an already stressed group. Luckily, I had a co-leader that was calm about everything and helped balance out the frazzled energy of the crew.
So, when you show up to an event or walk into the office for the day, know that however you feel can set the tone for those around you. It can mean the difference between people feeling excited and motivated about the day vs. unmotivated and grim. You have the power to create the environment you want to create.
2. Vision is a key pillar to success
People need to understand where things are headed. I used to think vision was more “fluff”, and that it didn’t need as much time as the “doing” work and execution. I was once an active volunteer of an organization with dynamic people who were excellent leaders in many ways. However, whenever I asked what the vision was for the work, nobody could really define it clearly. And when they did provide an answer, the vision would change from conversation to conversation, like a moving target. This had a really demotivating effect on me, and I slowly lost interest in what it was I was doing there.
To keep people following, there is an aspect of needing to help them understand the possibility of a future, and what could be different and compelling about that future. As a leader, you have to give people an answer to the question, Why? Otherwise, they will not be able to connect the doing of the present moment to the overall purpose or goal.
3. Do not compromise self-care
The importance of self-care is something we are hearing more and more about, and it is a topic that I have been stressing in my recent posts.
In the non-profit world, many organizations are influenced by the baby boomer attitude. This attitude is very much tied to the idea of having to "fight the fight", and that if you don’t, you are not seen as being really committed to the cause. The sentiment is not much different in corporate America. I often hear complaints from professional women that it doesn’t look good in their business culture to come to work at 9 and then leave a bit after 5 p.m. After all, how are they ever to move up? Many feel that it is expected of them to put in longer hours, even at a cost to their own well-being.
The problem with this attitude is that it sets people up for burning out and for potentially deeply compromising their own energy which they bring to their work (see point #1). Ariana Huffington writes a lot about what it means to be successful and balanced in her new book, Thrive, where she talks about installing sleeping pods at her company so that employees can get rest if they need it during the workday.
If you are not taking care of yourself as a leader, you are not setting a good example for your team members to take care of themselves either. This can result in feelings of guilt, resentment and burnout amongst your team. Moreover, you may start to resent your own situation and the work as well. But if you show up rested and ready to go, you will be that much more empowered to lead and really perform. If you are a naysayer in this department, I assure you that work and proper self-care can coexist. I know many successful women from corporate banking to non-profit that have succeeded in instituting very good structures to honor their self-care. I will be featuring some of them in the blog posts to come.
4. Follow-through builds trust, which builds leadership
Ever have those team members who constantly drop the ball? How do you feel about them? Feel like following them, or pushing them off a cliff? This point is something I learned from a colleague of mine while volunteering for an organization right out of college. She was a very talented person who always said she would get something to me by a certain date. That date would come and go, and she consistently would not meet the deadline. When asked about it, she would get defensive and blame it on her circumstances and her upcoming trip, instead of apologizing and realizing how her follow-through was affecting the next steps of the entire project. She eventually owned her accountability and admitted to the shortfall and openly stated that this was something she was working on.
Contrary to that, I had the pleasure of working with a leader at another organization who always followed through on what she said she would do. It was rare that a ball was ever dropped. And if she wasn’t able to do something on time, she would inform you prior to the date and re-negotiate the timeline. This behavior built great trust between us, and she was consequently seen as a credible and trustworthy leader in the organization.
5. Embrace discomfort
I remember the first time I was asked to teach a dance class for a school I had been learning in for some time. I was only dancing for a few years and did not feel ready at all. I was placed in front of the class with minimal guidance. At first I resented the fact I was in this position. I didn’t feel ready at all. I tripped my way forward and improvised to get through the classes, only to realize in the end that I knew enough to actually teach the content to my students. Not only that, I discovered I was pretty good at teaching.
As it turned out, teaching was something that helped develop my comfort in being in front of people, and later helped me greatly as a leader in my career. It is great to have a plan, and to be properly trained and prepared. However, in the world of entrepreneurship, that mode of working can sometimes seem like a luxury. Learning to make do and move on the fly was one of the most helpful muscles I had a chance to exercise that contributed to me being able to lead confidently through ambiguity. Feeling discomfort stretched me in a way I hadn’t been stretched before. And neuroscience tells us that this kind of stretching builds the neural networks that make it possible (and even less uncomfortable) to maneuver through other changes and unknowns.
What surprising things did you realize about leadership after you became a leader? What would you recommend to emerging leaders going forward? I'd love to hear your thoughts!