The other day, preparing to deliver difficult news to a client, I could feel tension in my shoulders. It was only later that I realized my reaction had to do with my own desire not to disappoint others or make people upset. Yet the client was relieved to hear the assessment, as it reaffirmed what she had been aware of on a gut level for years.
I see how this backstage emotional work plays out with so many of the organizational leaders I work with and coach as well. I have come to believe that one’s psychological capacity and self-knowledge is as important as the tactics or strategies a leader employs to move an organization forward.
For example, some leaders have enormous resilience and creativity under intense pressure, relying, perhaps, on a history of personally overcoming challenges. Others have made courageous individual choices and come to social justice work with a mission to create change that will spare others from these difficulties. Yet, even these most motivated leaders can find themselves inexplicably hurt, angered, or overwhelmed on the job. Our emotional limitations and gifts can show up at work without our full consciousness, and, at those moments, we may overreact, alienate, or limit ourselves by what we believe we can and cannot, or should do.
Does your avoidance of conflict contribute to lack of clarity among your staff? Does a worse-case-scenario mindset create unnecessary anxiety or suspicion in the office? Is it possible to be so invested in being right that you can’t hear or address bad news? These are a smattering of the questions that come up in our lives first as humans, and in the work place as professionals.
From my own observation, here are five ways for leaders to accept their full selves and bring their best to work.
- Invest time in understanding your own quirks, patterns, and points of vulnerability. More than undertaking a 360-degree external review, create a personal profile and review it with someone you trust. Detail your positives as well as the fault lines.
- Talk regularly to a respected coach, advisor, or mentor who will listen to you, truthfully reflect what he or she observes at the work place, and give you a safe place to trouble shoot and be creative.
- Write down your current professional aspirations and goals somewhere – on a workplan or the back of an envelope. Clarity often emerges when leaders review their original written aspirations as guideposts.
- Set up venues for self-accountability – with groups, partners, colleagues – who will support you in your ambitious and well-conceived ideas, and challenge you for your half-baked theories and delays.
- Be open to learning and change. Create space for reflection, listening, reading, and gaining self-knowledge as part of your regular business hours; don’t wait for an annual retreat or vacation to check in.
A colleague recently reminded me that the first and best tool for consultants is to know yourself and your capacities in order to deploy them well. This same assessment is true for authentic leaders – being conscious of your own assets and inclinations allows you to be pragmatic about management and strategy and more aware of everyone’s vulnerabilities when the pressure is on.