What does it take to succeed as a leader today?
I have spent a lot of time working, researching, and really digging to uncover just what it takes to really succeed as a leader. Of course, having influence is important, as is a deep satisfaction in the effectiveness of your efforts and life. It is rewarding to feel in sync with your values and to have the energy, creativity and focus to guide your people and your organization in the right direction. And, you need to be truly present in your life, for yourself and for others.
However, Barbara Kellerman, the James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, points out that there is no real evidence that the 30+ years and 40+ theories of “leadership development” have prepared leaders for today’s challenges. We know where we want to go, but we aren’t prepared to get there. So what is called for now?
Do For Yourself First and Learn How to BE
To lead well you have to find your own light. Our world is constantly changing (and it is changing quickly!) and our lives are full of uncertainty. So effective and sustainable leadership requires different skill sets than what were taught in years past. Today’s leaders need a deeper understanding of human behaviors and capacities, and most importantly, an ongoing commitment to self-care and self-development, to “wholeness.” It is much more being than doing. So find your light, do not be afraid to let it shine, and to use it to illuminate the way for those around you.
Sustaining your brilliance demands an ongoing practice to develop awareness and align your work and life with who you really are, with a commitment to regular exploration of what that means for you—what keeps you feeling whole, what values, strengths and purpose you want your life to represent. You must hone the skills of how you live, not just what you do. When you learn to create and renew the energy to be who you want to be and do what you want to do, you exercise your greatest freedom: choice.
You don’t need to spend every moment in deep contemplation of the impact of your every move. That would be exhausting and counterproductive! But when you develop deep reflection and tap into that on a consistent basis, you capture your wisdom, you can better assess and utilize your energy, reconnect to your purpose and refocus on your goals. You then make less work and less stress for yourself. To succeed as a leader, you need to feel more aligned so you can operate with ease, no matter where you are or who you are interacting with. Like the tires on your car, when you are out of alignment, there is excessive wear on the system of you.
Knowledge + Adaptability = Fit to Lead
Next, you really have to embrace being “human,” instead of trying to defy it. Support and leverage the most of your miraculous system. Like all efficient systems, to be at your best, you need a proactive strategy to manage your energy in all domains—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This holistic version of energy management or multi-dimensional fitness is the secret to finding your peak performance sweet spot, where you feel like you have what you need to handle most challenges put before you, yet stretched enough to be excited to tackle them.
This attention to energy management affords you the bandwidth to choose emotionally intelligent responses, access deep creativity, and develop the leadership presence that drives engagement and innovation. And it is the underpinning of true mental and physical health.
What are the keys to getting there?
- Identifying your core drivers and strengths- grounded in values and purpose
- A regular system for monitoring your “wholeness,” your energy, and your gaps—building awareness
- Regular rituals of perspective setting—the “Broaden and Build” positive psychology advantage
- Strategies to build your capacity to choose your mindset, and skills to shift in the moment
- Strategies to “tweak” your habits to balance your energy needs = fitness
- Willingness to be vulnerable, take risks, speak your truth, and make connections
- Compassion, especially for yourself!
- Courage to ask for what you need to be your best and to create a culture where the best of human potential is supported
- Willingness to accept there is no perfect, but with curiosity and an open mindset, there is constant opportunity to make small adjustments that reap disproportionate rewards
- Skills to light the path for others to be their best
- The emotional intelligence and grounded wisdom to create perspective and emotional safety for others to exercise their curiosity to learn and grow
Time to Reframe
Our educational system and business culture have been so focused on content and external rewards that we wind up overwhelmed learning the “what” at the expense of learning our best “how”—how to live and lead ourselves and others. The fine arts of grounding, self-awareness, mindfulness, leveraging intrinsic motivation, and finding meaning are picked up by too few. And many of the common practices on the path to “success” actually sabotage your brainpower and drain critical energy—they are human un-friendly!
The result is far too many out-of-balance lives—hard-working, high achieving, bright people compromising some aspect of their physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being to “succeed.” The stress of being out of alignment manifests in many different ways:
- A wide range of physical symptoms or the smoldering inflammation underlying chronic disease (70-90 % of diseases are initiated or exacerbated by stress!)
- Compromised focus, brilliance or creativity—taking far too long to complete tasks, over-thinking, missed brilliance, mistakes, lost innovation
- Frustration, irritability, poor emotional regulation, depression, anxiety, substance abuse (or some other version of “numbing”), burnout, suicide
- Compromised relationships, reduced “presence”, lost meaningful moments with loved ones, divorce, disconnection from a sense of community or belonging, disconnection from the “bigger picture”
The really good news is this conversation has finally started. Many fine leaders are emerging, and a growing number of companies are discovering new ways to support their greatest investment: their humans! They are finding deeper satisfaction and profits in paying attention to humanity and heart. Conscious Capitalism has become a mainstream. Mindfulness and meditation are business strategies for a growing number of hugely successful leaders, including Bill Gates to Bill Ford. They credit meditation with improved clarity, focus, creativity, and productivity.
Embrace the Art of You
This process is an art, based in science. There are universal needs for any human to thrive—rest/sleep/nutrition/hydration/movement/connection. And it is remarkable how few meet these basic needs on a daily basis.
But the rest is quite individual, making it even more important to figure out what makes you tick, and tick smoothly. You bring a unique background—nature and nurture—to your present context, distinctive personality traits and strengths, ways of processing and seeing the world (your story and perspective), individual ways in which you are energized and motivated or challenged and drained. Your situation always bears similarities and differences—this context matters.
When you pause to consider what is working and what is not working in your life, leadership, or organization, it can be easy to get discouraged by possible gaps between your busy, complex reality and this “ideal,” grounded, aligned version of thriving leadership. But beware “ideal” as fodder for perfectionism. There really is no one right way to translate aligning your world—that’s where the art comes in. Oscar Wilde said it pretty well,
“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
Now, this process is not intended to generate greater stress. Resist the urge to create list of “should”s” and keep a broad perspective. There is an art to the inquiry as well. Choose a mindset that will help you explore with curiosity and compassion. Vulnerability and compassion are core leadership attributes, just now receiving the attention they deserve. (Need convincing? You are not alone! Watch Brene Brown’s and Kristen Neff’s powerful TED talks.)
It is natural to focus more on the gaps—you’ve been trained to do that for decades, but that misses the opportunity to leverage your successes fully. Reflecting on what you have done well not only clarifies the strengths in your tool belt, but it also reinforces your neural wiring for future success.
Use the science of behavior change to set yourself up for successful goal achievement. Far too many well-intended, smart people miss their targets and reinforce old behaviors (and inner critics) merely because their set-up was not brain-friendly. Knowledge is not motivation. You need tools and systems far stronger than willpower—willpower depends on your frontal lobe, the first of your brain to go “offline” during stress.
Know that small “tweaks” in a system can deliver huge payoffs and are usually much more successful than attempts at major overhauls. Consider working with a coach to translate your vision into staged strategies. Invite outside perspectives, tap the wealth of ideas in your own people.
Thinking about what drives you, what you care about most, and what direction you want your life to take, helps you create your “G.P.S.” Decisions become easier when you vet them against a clear vision. And sometimes, it is enough to realize you need more clarity. Chaos is a valuable part of the creative process. You just need some structure and support to work to stay in inquiry until clarity comes.
What can you do now to make a difference in your leadership, your company, your life? Get curious! Play with refreshing your mindset. This is all research, so there are no “wrongs.” Start new conversations. Question status quo. Notice whom you admire and why. Read outside your industry or comfort zone. Get outside more. Give yourself permission to put you on your calendar.
Set aside some time on your calendar for your most important meetings: meetings with yourself to reflect, process, capture your wisdom, check your perspective, reacquaint yourself with your values and strengths and sense of purpose, and plan your future using your core G.P.S. Move out of automatic and reactive to intentional and responsive—it works and it feels better! Successful organizations do this routinely, so do outstanding leaders.
Yes, You Need Help, Too
Beware the shadow sides of your strengths. High achievers are known for being resistant to seeking or accepting help. It is impossible see yourself objectively, and thanks to your neural wiring, very difficult to be as open and creative in the middle of stress. Your frontal lobe is too busy keeping you safe. This is why HELP is the wisest decision for you and your organization. Of course, no one holds the secret key, but in professionally guided inquiry you will find your own answers, your own alignment, greater health, and resilient brilliance.
What would you like to tweak to support your brilliance and resilience? What’s calling you? And how do you want to use your powerful mind and heart in this world? How would you like to light the path for your fellow humans?
Please, never hesitate to reach out with questions, thoughts, ideas, or any comments! We are all in this together, figuring out how to create lives of meaning with more ease.