Are we born leaders or is it a skill that we cultivate? Strong leadership is a lot like resiliency. Although we can be born with qualities that may make it a little easier, it develops in relationship with others. It is truly cultivated by building our individual skills, having the support of others, and being willing to do our own work. Being a leader means you know Who you are, you get that How you do the work matters, and you are intentional about What you do. Combining these three essential ingredients has been critical to my growth as a leader.
I’ve been waist deep in leadership books lately. It seems that my list is growing faster than I can read… each book pointing me to another great resource. I’m sure many of you can relate to the stack of books on my night stand, each suggesting that they hold the ultimate key. And as I snuggle in with my coffee and dive into the books one by one, each offers a gem or two that I have tucked into my toolbox. I have combined those with the pearls I’ve picked up along the way leading and being led by others… pearls that have developed through reflecting on what has worked, as well as the biggest ones that have developed from reflecting on mistakes.
Recently, I decided to sort through these gems to see what story they told when they were all laid out. As I began looking for themes, I found that many of the gems I have collected fall into the “What” bucket. These are critical in helping us be intentional abut the work we are doing. They offer us clear strategies to ensure we are getting results and supporting our team members. For example, Cy Wakeman (Reality Based Leadership), Mark Horstman (The Effective Manager), and Michael Stanier (The Coaching Habit) each have taught me tangible ways I can do my work in order to support healthy communication, growth, and accountability. They offer great questions, clear structure, and helpful tools to use when I am stuck. As many of you know, having that one key phrase you can pull out can be a game changer in a tough moment! My time working in a Child Advocacy Center taught me the phrase “Tell me more…” a phrase that has opened the door to many meaningful conversations.
A second pile of gems fell into the “How” bucket. These dig deeper into the questions of how one leads. There is no doubt that how we do something is as important, if not more important, than what we do. We can have all the tools, but poorly executed, we will be left shaking our heads in frustration when we don’t get the outcome we wanted. Picture the organization that proudly shares that they have a bereavement policy to support staff so they could attend funerals. Sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, in order to get approval, staff must provide a copy of the death certificate. The resulting impact is a far cry from the staff support they were aiming for, making what they did ineffective. Effective leadership means looking at how we create safety, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of value amongst our team. SAMHSAs Trauma Informed Organization guidelines offer a strong framework for doing just that. Brené Brown’s work around Daring Leadership builds upon this by supporting leaders to embrace courage and vulnerability. This is imperative, as so often when we move away from activities that support empowerment, safety, and belonging, it is due to our own fear and shame triggers. It takes courage to give space to team members to solve their own problems, to rumble with difficult ideas, and to work through change. How we do this is the stuff that staff culture is made of.
The final bucket of gems I discovered may be the most important bucket of all. In here, you will be challenged to truly know yourself… your strengths, your bias, your values, your purpose. You will be encouraged to build your own emotional regulation, recognizing it is your most powerful tool. You will be inspired to embrace a growth mindset and continually learn and reflect. Finally, it is among these gems that you find the diamond. Building your own resilience - through self-care, self-awareness, setting boundaries, letting go of what isn’t in our control, being grateful for what we have, checking the stories we tell ourselves, and not taking ourselves too seriously – is essential to being a strong leader. Who we are as a leader impacts how we lead and what we do. As the saying goes “Wherever you go, there you are.” Doing your own work means you bring your best self to the team in everything you do. You also know when you are getting in your own way. By practicing regular emotional regulation skills like mindfulness and breathing, you are able to stay calm in a crisis. You are able to remember the tools you’ve learned. And by modeling these skills, you support your team in their own leadership path. I have found inspiration in the work of Elena Aguilar (Onward), Brené Brown (Daring Greatly), and many resources around Emotional Intelligence as I have started this journey of getting to know myself better.
For me, this holistic approach to leadership has helped me to see the many moving parts of being a leader. It gives voice to the need for trauma informed leadership, by recognizing the critical importance of doing our work in a way that creates safety and connection. It values the tools that leaders need to pull from, many that have developed out of years of research and experience. But most importantly, it reminds me that the factor I have the most control over is myself. By knowing who I am as a human being, by recognizing my human imperfections, and by compassionately challenging myself to grow, only then can I fully embrace the how and what of being a leader. Additionally, this framework has informed my approach to educating and supporting the next generation of leaders. By utilizing reflection, coaching, and skill building, I am able to support others in their leadership development. These gems have come together to create a complete design. But of course, there will always be room for more gems.