I used to think that vision was mere “fluff” - not worthy of much work and time. It was more important to execute and provide products or services because those were more measurable and important at the end of the day. To me, investing time in creating a vision seemed extravagant at best.
After transitioning out of a 15-year career as a non-profit leader and executive, I all of a sudden found myself without a North Star.
I kept thinking of ideas and ways I could make things look different with a business or project, and I’d follow through by getting into full execution mode.
But what I realized was that I was lacking a fundamental vision for my life.
I know, how sad - a life with no vision. Mind you, I generally have lots of ideas – at times too many for my own good! It was as if I was executing projects and ideas, but I wasn’t sure exactly how they all tied in to the bigger picture of things and to my greater purpose. Have you ever had that feeling?
Well, that feeling inspired me to share with you a few things I learned along the way about the importance of personal vision, and some steps you can take to craft yours and bring it to life, even when it seems far off!
Step 1: Believe first.
During my coaching journey, I discovered there was a neuroscientific explanation for the importance of vision. The scientific explanation came from Srini Pillay’s TEDx talk , a resource I have mentioned a few times in my previous posts.
In short, Srini talks about the brain as having its own internal GPS system; our neural tissue actually has the ability to direct us towards our goals and vision as we take in information. This inputting of information into our “internal GPS systems” happens at a subconscious level. He notes that knowing our history and where we came from as well as utilizing our imagination and vision activates this action center in the brain, helping us move from point A to B. It’s no wonder vision is so stressed in organizations and the business world. If you think about it, as humans, we can’t organize ourselves in the right way without knowing what it is we are organizing around, whether personally or for someone else. Our minds work in a similar way.
Pretty cool, eh? When I learned this, my previous assumption about “vision” turned from fluff to form, and certainly gave me something more marshmallow-like to chew on.
So if you haven’t already, I’d highly suggest watching this awesome talk by Srini Pillay, called “The Science of Possibility”. It helped me understand the impact that visioning and imagining into the future has, and how vision can help us achieve our goals.
Step 2: Understand the benefits of crafting a vision.
Have you ever gone to an advisory meeting for a new start-up or a meeting at a place you’re volunteering for, and there was nobody there talking about the bigger picture purpose of the work? Perhaps you found yourself mired in the weeds of the “how-tos”? How did you generally feel? Inspired? Ready to roll up your sleeves and jump in? Lost?
Smart leaders know that to keep people following, they must be able to hold a compelling picture of what could be in the future.
Being able to point towards a North Star or greater mission helps connect and give our tactics and actions purpose. When we are able to hold a vision for ourselves in our lives, we become clearer about our own trajectory and transition. The clearer we are about our trajectory, the more likely we’ll be able to attract the resources we need towards it. Crafting a very personal vision is beneficial in the sense that you are creating an internal roadmap for the way forward; as a result, you spend less time on things that aren’t going to lead you straight to that vision.
Take sports, for example. Growing up as a competitive athlete and member of the U.S. National Karate Team, I trained a great deal for competition. In the summers, I would do intensive training comprised of physical, repetitive regiments to prepare for competition. But when it came down to the pressures of actually competing and performing, it was the visualization and meditation work that paid off the most. Seeing myself go through my katas (forms) and winning matches was critical in helping me achieve and meet my goals. What I was doing was training both my body and mind to see the goal. Without the visioning, it would have been very difficult for me to succeed with just technique alone. So you can have all the skills in the world, but without personal vision, you may not succeed in achieving your purpose.
Step 3: Employ visualization.
Finding clarity in a vision is one of the hardest things for people in transition. Visualization can be a helpful tool in this realm.
Very often, it’s necessary to go through a process, either with a coach or in a workshop setting, where you can experience a guided visualization process for what you want your future to look like.
I remember when I was starting my coaching business and I was trying to reach a very broad base of entrepreneurs and leaders. I was struggling with how to market my services, as it felt like I was reaching out to so many different groups of people. My coach at the time had me do an exercise. She asked me to close my eyes and to imagine myself 5 years into the future. She asked me where I was working, how I was working, and by whom I was surrounded . I saw myself living in something akin to a very cool, somewhat Bohemian-looking treehouse, with all the amenities of a conventional house (yes, that’s really what I saw!) by the beach. I was running retreats, surfing and coaching executive women leaders. It was that clear.
That’s when it hit me that I needed to really focus on integrating surfing more into my work coaching clients. This shifted things enormously for me. I went from feeling scattered to knowing who to target and what to communicate to my clients. There is a saying that you should start with where you want to end up. The benefit of getting clear on your vision is that it can tell you precisely where to start.
In my work with clients, I often have them close their eyes and ask them to envision where they are working 3 or 5 or 10 years into the future, however far they are willing to go. I ask them to envision who is around them, and what those people are saying. This exercise helps them to gain more clarity on where they see themselves. I highly recommend engaging in a process like this.
Step 4: Break it down, day by day.
It’s not enough to have the vision; you have to find a way to break it down into daily to-dos, while always keeping the vision front and center.
One of the practices I employ during my daily routine is listing the things that are going to make me the most happy and productive for the day. I do this with the intention of executing on my action items. I first start by writing down all that I am grateful for that day about my business and life. I then list what I want my dominant feeling to be that day – examples are happy, sad, determined, focused. And then I list the 5 or 6 things that I need to focus on that will make me the most happy and productive on that day. Like an athlete, I set my intention for the course and regiment of that particular day. This is followed by a process of setting a wild intention - an ultimate dream - which I write down as well. I learned this from a fellow coach and it has done a lot to help me get me focused in my days and proactively working towards my vision.
When I started thinking about offering a Surf Life Executive Coaching retreat, I was somewhat terrified of doing it. What if it all goes wrong? What if I don’t get people to sign up? But holding to and returning to that vision each day and including steps in my process above is what helped me eventually launch the program here in Northern California. Step by step, I broke the vision down, and I slowly completed the planning and logistics necessary to hold the retreat, keeping my ultimate vision for it in mind the whole time.
I can't stress enough the importance of vision in our life and business transitions. It can pay off innumerably to spend time crafting your North Star. Now that I've shared my thoughts on vision, I'm curious, where has vision played a major role in your life or transition? What tactics and resources have you used to help get clarity for your vision? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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Some of my first experiences with leadership began as a 14-year-old, when I started teaching martial arts classes for adults. I learned the importance of leading by example. I learned what it was to be in front of adults who were relying on me for guidance and support to grow their skills.
In my 20’s, my leadership journey further expanded after founding an organization that gave me the opportunity to not only grow and exercise leadership in ways that continually stretched me, but gave me the honor of working alongside some of the greatest, most courageous people I’d ever met in my life, from fellow scholars, small business owners, to social justice leaders, to corporate CEOs.
After really thinking about this journey of leadership, and some of the characteristics of great leaders I met along the way, it was hard not to think of surfing. The similarities are uncanny, actually. Who would have ever thought surfing could be such a window into greatness? Below are 11 great leadership qualities I have seen in action over the years.
1. Great leaders commit to their word and follow through: In the way a surfer commits to a wave at the time of takeoff (the point where the surfer catches the wave and pops up on the board), when great leaders say they are going to do something, they actually do it. They commit to their word. When something changes on their end, they communicate it out or give advance notice. Doing what they say they will do builds absolute trust and confidence in their word.
2. They have balanced energy: Balance is at the foundation of surfing and is a quality I have observed in the greatest leaders I have met. They have a calm, balanced energy about them and are able to be fully present with you in the moment, even if they are extremely busy. They possess a balanced and inviting way of doing things. Many of them have a practice (yoga, running, meditation) or something that keeps them grounded. That energy is felt when you are with them.
3. They know when to be old skool: Great leaders are skilled in the art of relationships, and more importantly, they just know when to pick up the phone, old- skool style. They don’t send long, diary-like e-mails expressing their feelings and frustrations with a laundry list of things you did wrong or how they feel wronged. When shit goes down, they pick up the phone. They are courageous. They confront things head-on and know when a face-to-face conversation is warranted. Relationships matter to great leaders, and they know how to manage them.
4. They choose creation over victimhood: Great leaders have a creation vs. victim mentality. This means they focus on the ride – the art of carving through the wave - even if the wave is monstrous and gnarly. They are self-accountable and don’t blame others for their situation or their wipeouts. If something doesn’t go as planned, they regroup, try again, shift strategies and embrace a growth mentality, learning from the process.
5. They possess a passion for their craft: Much like a surfer, great leaders have a passion for their craft. They put the best intentions of the issue, cause or organization before their personal agendas.
6. They understand the greater powers at work: Like surfers who understand the power of the ocean, great leaders understand they are minute in the big scheme of things. They know when to be humble and lead from behind, and how to manage a healthy ego while being at the helm. They know how to use their ego selectively.
7. They are courageous: Like a big wave surfer tackling the world’s scariest waves, great leaders are courageous in their ability to confront uncomfortable situations and have those difficult conversations. They face their fears, and by standing in their power and speaking their mind, they are able to come to new understandings with those around them.
8. They are versatile: A surfer can be versatile in her ability to surf many different types of surfboards through many different types of conditions in the ocean. In the same way, great leaders tend to have broad experience in various aspects of their craft, and are versatile in what they do. Some of them may have started doing the most menial thing, but learned the ropes along the way and know what it feels like to be in the shoes of the people they are leading.
9. They respect others: As surfers learn to have a healthy respect for the ocean, great leaders operate from a baseline of respect for people, including their rivals. They are not the type who go around making up names for a colleague or boss, or talk badly about someone behind their back. They hold respect for others and know how to communicate their position, even if it is at odds with someone else’s.
10. They are able to see trends through multiple perspectives: A surfer goes through many perspectives – from assessing conditions on the beach, to being in the water taking the drop, to being in the ‘zone’, to duck diving under the wave. They are able to be in all perspectives. Great leaders are also able to be in a range of perspectives, understanding that not everyone will see something the way they do, but knowing how to cull the “trends” from varying perspectives around them.
11. They are curious: Just as surfers cross borders, curious about the next kind of wave they will encounter on the horizon, great leaders are curious. They never assume anything, and know how to approach issues from a place of curiosity. They know how to ask the right questions from this rich place of curiosity.
What are some of your observations of great leadership?
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(Part One of a Three Part Series on Anxiety)
I’m not an expert on anxiety, nor do I claim to be. But I do have some nuggets of insight to share. What I do know is that feeling anxiety is part of our neurological wiring; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Then there’s the anxiety present in situations that can preoccupy you and keep you from functioning to your best abilities. And then there’s debilitating anxiety – the kind that some may treat with prescription drugs. My experience and sharing is geared more towards the first two kinds of anxiety. Specifically, I want to share what I’ve discovered in study and in coaching leaders that have grappled with anxiety. I’ll share one example.
I once coached a senior leader who struggled with anxiety on a daily basis. It was present to the point that she would avoid confrontation due to discomfort and anxious feelings. Somewhere in the middle of our 6-month engagement, she confided that she had tried therapy, somatic bodywork and even working with horses as ways to help her manage the anxiety she felt. However, she felt our coaching process was the thing that really worked for her. So, what exactly did we do that was effective for her?
First, let’s start with a little context. Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author of How Emotions are Made, has done some groundbreaking thinking and research in the realm of emotions. In her book, she asks us to consider a new way of thinking about emotions, which I’ll apply here to help us think about anxiety. Based on her research and findings, emotions are predictions we make as we go through life. In other words, we predict how we are going to feel versus simply reacting to the outside world. Our predictions are based on prior learned concepts for feelings, our biology, and our experiences. We make the prediction of what is going to happen, and signal our body systems to allocate the appropriate energy and resources in that moment. This then translates into a concept or name of an emotion based on our past experience and how our culture and society helped us define this sensation. Our brain then engages in correcting for the prediction, based on what actually happens. This all happens very quickly. And hopefully, we then begin to predict more accurately based on past experience.
However, according to Feldman Barrett, “Anxiety sufferers, for whatever reasons, have weakened connections between several key hubs in the interoceptive network, including the amygdala….These weakened connections likely translate into an anxious brain that is clumsy at crafting predictions to match the immediate circumstances, and that fails to learn effectively from experience. You might predict threats needlessly, or create uncertainty by predicting imprecisely or not at all.”
So, if we view anxiety as an issue of prediction, we may understand our natural regulation system to be out of balance. From a coaching standpoint, the process then is about equipping the leader with sufficient tools to predict more accurately, lessening the gap between prediction and prediction error.
In the case of my client, we first started out by helping her define a different way of being. We helped her define a powerful, internal, confident voice. We even gave it a name and a personality. In other words, I asked her, “What would your XYZ powerful voice say in such a situation?” so she knew how to call on that voice when she needed it. In coaching, it’s really important to separate out the many different voices and narratives that run through our minds, and to develop or strengthen the voices that serve us the most. Because, as you guessed it, different ways of being take in and process the world differently and predict different things! Then, we identified the thread of the negative, critical voice that aligned with memories of some of her anxious predictions. She recently shared with me in helping to edit this piece of writing that she felt her anxiety was not the result of any one relationship or given thing, but rather, a result of the complex combination of circumstances and environment in which she grew up.
In one session, we practiced asserting herself more so she could effectively lead her team. I pretended to take the role of someone in her life she had felt anxious about with respect to meeting his or her expectations. I wanted her to confront me, to speak directly to me as if I were that person. So I asked her to step into her more powerful voice, to really feel it first. I stood in front of her. As she spoke to me, I pushed back with words that this person might have said to her. I asked her how she was feeling in her body. As she checked in with her feelings, we noticed her tendency was to want to physically move away from the interaction. With her permission, I asked her to step closer in front of me, and to pay attention to what was happening to her body. Then, I asked her to speak from her empowered voice to me. With awareness of her body, the more forceful, confident voice emerged. She stepped into her new, powerful way of being, moving towards me with courage vs. anxiety.
In a session following, we practiced what she would say to a real person - one of the team members she needed to confront. In her logical, matter of fact way, she took a stab. I could feel the hesitation and fear in her voice and body. She was back to predicting self-doubt, anxiety and fear. We practiced some more, in her more powerful voice and went through various “what ifs.” What if he gets angry? What if he reacts this way? What if he says this? By going through various scenarios of what ifs, and checking in with her body, we worked on getting her comfortable with and expanding the possibilities for what she might predict from such an interaction.
Before, she was stuck in an emotional prediction cycle around confrontation, based on her past experiences and who she was being at the time of those experiences. By stepping into a different way of being, as well as simulating scenarios for different possible outcomes, she started to alter the prediction her mind was so used to making around confrontation.
It’s not that we got rid of her anxiety, but we gave her the tools to interrupt the prediction cycle she was so used to being in with respect to confrontation. So the next time she had to confront someone, she could do so predicting a different outcome.
Our emotions are wired to concepts we are taught from the time we are infants, to old beliefs and to stories about our self-worth and ourselves. By exploring what we are predicting and paying attention to where emotions are felt in our body, we can start to empower ourselves to shift our feelings. Add to that a few coaching tools and simulation to help clients see other outcomes are possible, it’s possible to empower leaders out of their anxiety prediction loop. It does not happen overnight, and also takes great trust and safety within the relationship, but it is possible to start to change the way we predict, and in doing so, change our predictions around experiences that would have caused us anxiety in the past.
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Oftentimes, you are able to see and make sense of things after the moment has passed. As someone who is passionate about leadership and change, these are topics I naturally reflect on when I have the space and time.
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!
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