Buzzwords are like old sweaters. They’re familiar and comfortable but eventually the yarn gets frayed and their shape falls apart. We have perhaps saturated the concept of leadership beyond recognition. It used to be sweater and now it’s a tattered blanket. Leadership used to refer to management, the people in power, and how we bossed each other around in the workplace. Then it had a transitional phase when we chatted about consensus building and creating cozy teams that makes decisions together. But in the current paradigm of emotional intelligence inventories and personal branding workshops, leadership has taken on a much more expansive meaning. In some ways, it’s an image management game about appearing open and seeming collaborative. But the authenticity revolution has asked us to step up our game, to cut the bullshit, and come clean with who we really are. This is a new era and it calls for a new kind of leadership. It starts with you truly knowing yourself.
Let he who wants to move the world move himself first. –Socrates
When we talk about leadership, we are talking about how YOU lead YOU. And we are talking about real change on a deep and personal level. The bad news first: it’s really stinking hard. Development of this kind is intimate and often painful, and it requires some heavy emotional lifting. The good news is that when we start to lead our lives with more intention and integrity, we are actually happier and more fulfilled in our relationships. It’s like finally have a roadmap after years of wandering and continuing to find yourself at dead ends and dark alleys.
Here’s the simplest truth about leadership: when we are genuinely happy, emotionally stable, and attending to our relationships, we naturally and effortlessly attract others. All mammals are able to detect stable leadership and will, out of survival, gravitate to it.
There is no clearer or simpler definition of leadership:
Others want to be with us.
Here’s a personal leadership checklist of sorts. Regardless of how creative or free-spirited we may be, we all need structure. When we are doing the difficult work of our own growth, it’s especially comforting to look at things through a framework.
1. Know Yourself
A radical awareness of who we are and how we tick is the holy grail of personal peace. I had a mentor who used to say, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Our big reactions are usually rooted in our past. We need to be in contact with our personal histories so we can know our triggers. Our emotional reactivity is like our kryptonite. When our feelings get the best of us, we can’t make good decisions or behave the way we truly want. The more we know of ourselves, the more we can use our gifts and strengthen ourselves around our liabilities. It’s like knowing you have an old knee injury from your college soccer career. When you exercise now, you do strength training to support it. You wear a brace. You choose your activities wisely. Also true is knowing how to care for our unique talents. If I have a real knack for being a good listener and helping people to open up, I better be mindful of how and when I use that gift. Burn out happens to people who take their natural capacities and run them at 6000 rpms and never check the oil.
2. Practice Feedback
If you do that painstaking work of getting to know who you are and how you operate, the most caring thing you can do in your relationships is to share that information with others. This is like publishing your own personal instruction manual. You have preferences! When you teach others about who you are and how you want to be treated, you are giving them some very important information! Some people refer to this as expressing boundaries or giving feedback. And those terms often make us shiver. We are a culture of nice and have been socialized to eat the crappy food, thank the host, and complain about it later in private, or worse yet, in gossip. Spend a few minutes with a herd of horses and you’ll see just how important and prevalent feedback is. Groups actually flow with much greater ease and less dramatic conflict when the feedback system is open and ongoing. If you think about it as loving to be transparent, it can help motivate you to get started. Asking for and receiving feedback is a whole other skill-set and made much easier by doing that initial work of accepting your own shortcomings or vulnerabilities. When we know ourselves really well, there are fewer surprises when others give us difficult or painful feedback. “I’m sorry I was so quick to criticize you and pick at the faults in that presentation. It’s a problem for me that dates back to the stone ages! I am working on it. But I’m glad you told me you were hurt by it.”
3. Attend to Relationships
Your relationships are perhaps the most sacred thing in your life. All of your relationships. You touch the lives of others and how you show up becomes part of another person’s life story. This is true at work, at home, in the school parking lot, at the grocery story. Our leadership is made noticeably more robust by a commitment to how we notice the changes and shifts in relationship AND what we do about it. Walk into a room and you can feel the energy if it’s tense or playful or half asleep. As leaders of our lives, it’s extremely important to pick up on those cues and consciously decide how we want to handle the circumstances. When we are either unaware because we are distracted, numb, or self-absorbed, our leadership is profoundly compromised. Tuning it and deciding to speak up is an act of courage and kindness. I’ve watched people be the first to tell the truth about how a meeting feels and witnessed the gratitude and admiration as others felt equally uncomfortable but were too afraid to speak up. It’s essential in all our relationships to have a fluent language ABOUT our relationships so that we can shape how we do things and adjust when needed. This level of meta-communication is rare but golden. It can look as simple as a check-in about an everyday task or as complex and heart-felt as a request for a more gentle tone.
4. Build Community
Horses are great teachers about community. They remind us that there is safety in numbers and that common welfare of the group comes first. The survival of most mammals is reliant on togetherness, closeness, and social bonding. We don’t get this from Facebook and we don’t get it sitting in a cubicle. We need a community of people who know us and see us, who will tell us the truth and love us. And we need to do the same for others. I was recently listening to a Silicon Valley executive talking about his own personal Board of Directors. It is a great concept. Form a group of trusted individuals who you go to for support, guidance, and feedback. You want to make sure you vet these folks and that you are selecting others who are willing to challenge you. In this day and age, it’s hard to find cohesive groups like this so your community members may or may not be connected to each other. The important thing is that you feel surrounded by people who support you in the many areas of your life. I have business mentors, spiritual friends, animal buddies, parenting gurus, writing companions, etc. All of these people constitute my make-shift herd. Once I was able to own how high-maintenance I truly am, I could start to ask for help and support, allowing others to be part of my life and offering to be part of theirs.
5. Teach Others
Teaching is one of the best ways to deepen our own learning and to bond with others. It’s also a lovely way to build our self esteem. Did you know you have something to offer? You do! You have walked through something or have a unique skill or a wisdom that could benefit someone else. We seem to forget this. But mentorship or apprenticeship has been a human-to-human practice for thousands of years. From a leadership perspective, others want to be connected to us if the relationship feels like a safe place to learn. Our knowledge is like an heirloom and this tradition is how we pass along what has been generously given and taught to us. Think about the people in your life who have been most influential and you will easily see they acted as a teacher in some way. It is an intimate relationship when one person is willing to be in a learning mindset, admitting a need to learn, and another person is kindly sharing without judgment or without a dominant expression of power.
6. Be of Service
Noticing the needs of others and offering a hand of support is a powerful way to connect to the rest of humanity and practice kindness. This is how we transform our internal compassion into outward empathy. We become activists in our own lives. Empowering others empowers us. It also keeps us connected to our own struggles and challenges, which is an important avenue to our own humility. With busy lives, we can become numb and even apathetic without even realizing it. Committing to service creates a natural accountability to staying grateful, present, and out of our own heads.
7. Practice Self-Care
It’s not a trip to the spa! Well, it might be. But it can and ought to be so much more. First, you have to slow down and start to ask yourself the question: What do I need? It can start with little things like a longer night of sleep, a slower wake up ritual, a hug. But it very well may turn into a personal needs make-over. We give ourselves a lot of material support but often deprive ourselves from more fundamental needs like moving our bodies, fresh air, companionship, fun, quiet time. Start with something simple like your morning routine or how you arrive at work. Look at places in your daily life when you have been treating yourself with a scarcity mindset. Last year I realized that my daughter was greeting each morning with her bright and cheery and very very chatty energy at my bedside. Charming? Sure. Sustainable? Absolutely not. I realized I needed a more low key start to my day. My personal leadership kicked in and it was time to practice some feedback and teach little Emma how Mommy wanted to be treated. Practicing feedback as a parent is just as hard as it is with a direct report. But once we started working on it, I realized I had more needs and desires for my morning. I’ve been adding some lovely morning practices like lighting candles, putting on nice music, watching the sunrise, looking for something beautiful out the window. They are simple things and they help my personal leadership awaken.
8. Get a Spiritual Life
Did you know that your thoughts are not always true? Did you know that your personal leadership can lead you down the drain? Your ego is not your amigo! My goodness, do whatever it takes but get yourself some force or power outside of yourself to help guide you. Some people find this through religion and others through nature. The bottom line is this, our primitive human system needs all the support it can get. All of us, and I mean ALL of us, can lose our way, so we need something to help us get grounded in the connectedness of all things. Our fundamental human goodness runs through all of us. On a daily basis, we can forget this. Our ego, our thoughts, our nasty emotional reactions can all lead us astray. Having a spiritual practice, as simple or sophisticated as you want or need it to be, allows you to get out of your own way and back to your higher self. When all else fails in personal leadership, we need divine, mystical, unexplainable leadership.
I like to think of this like an imaginary river of goodness or godliness running below the ground. When I am lost and pissed and hating whatever reality is coming my way, all I have to do is stop and dip my feet in that river. I may not know what to do right away but I will find calmness or a sense of peace. I may not have answers right away but I’ll start thinking who in my community can help me. I may still feel pain but the suffering lessens. In leadership circles, we don’t do a lot of open discussion about our spiritual lives. For me, my spiritual life sometimes feels like a secret super power. It’s secret only because I don’t talk about it. But it’s certainly not exclusive. You can have it too.