Leadership Through the Half Full Looking Glass

With October almost a memory and all the Christmas trimmings on the horizon, we are approaching that time when people’s spirits and expectations usually begin welling in anticipation of the end of the year – the festivities, the expressions of gratitude, and, of course, the revelry.

I suppose that would hold true for most years. This year, 2021, will go down as the first full year that we have lived, lost, and loved under the pandemic’s pall and tremendous disruptions it has brought upon us. Yet, despite those impacts, our accomplishments and even our setbacks have proven instrumental in solidifying the foundation for not only how we can do better as leaders but how we can do better…period!

I wholeheartedly believe this, not only from my personal experiences but from much of the reading and discussions I have had.

Not surprisingly, around this time of year, many leaders tend look inward; not only at the organisations and teams they lead, but more so within themselves. As much as change has swept our societies, our businesses, and our people, it has also greatly affected leaders in far reaching ways. Sometimes, we forget that. Or, more accurately, we are not of as mindful of that as we could and should be.

I suppose it could be considered ironic that leaders, who spend much of their lives planning for and managing the changes around them, seldom take into account the changes happening within them. There’s a valid reason why you cannot get water from a dry well. Great leadership is not different. If leaders aren’t able to build up their leadership reserves from within, how can we be expected to serve our people at our best?

These are difficult lessons for leaders because they are not perfectly quantifiable, they will never show up directly in our organisations’ bottom lines, and they are personal. Most leaders will willingly examine every facet of their business or organisation but hem and haw when it comes to examining themselves. If it’s one thing the past year has taught us is that personal strength, in a time of adversity, is one of the single most invaluable resources we can have. How then can today’s leaders build and develop their personal strength to the benefits of their teams and themselves?

Become More Self-Aware, Less Self-Consciousness
A self-consciousness leader is able to understand his or her role within the organisation, and usually, what is required at any given moment, crisis or otherwise, as a leader. A self-aware leader understands the context of a situation or crisis and is able to locate and orient himself or herself within it.

(Confused? I don’t blame you. It took me quite a while to understand this about myself as well).

Remember that leaders are people first and leaders second. Take the pandemic, for example. All of our businesses and the lives of our teams have been on the line for close to two years. We have had to deal with disruptions across the board, and, with a singular vision on making the best of it, leaders persevered. This is what the self-conscious leader does. They are aware that much is happening and they are conscious of the fact that, as leaders, they have a responsibility to act in the best interests of all.

But our businesses’ and our teams’ health and wellbeing, while our responsibility, are not our sole responsibility. A leader has to be greatly aware of their place in the larger scheme of things. Yes, they are a leader helping their people navigate a crisis. But they are also a human being going through that very crisis.

This is self-awareness in leadership. This is the leader who is able to understand what is happening, and, in seeing themselves as a human being AND a leader, is able to act accordingly. Leaders continually ask themselves the tough questions about their organisations but how many of us ask those tough questions of ourselves?

What are the values you uphold in your life? How do you feel about your life? How are the people closest to you handling your handling of adversity? How are you handling it? Leaders who aren’t in strong, stable emotional and mental places pose an even bigger threat to their teams than the pandemic. But by becoming more aware of the areas where we are letting ourselves down, and of who we really are as human beings and leaders, we are better able to make decisions that are more reflective of who and where we want to be.

More than just being self-conscious, self-awareness is an essential trait of a great leader. By knowing your values, personality, needs, habits and emotions, and how they affect your actions and the actions of others, you’ll be better able to manage your stress, make better decisions and ultimately lead others to do the same.

Refuel Often
Let’s face it. With all that has been circling us over the past two years, it is all too easy to succumb to anxiety. As leaders, we are expected to have all the answers. Whether this is a fair statement or not, people do look to you to provide a productive framework of meaning, guidance and, yes, reassurance.

That is the responsibility that comes with the role. However, leaders have a responsibility to keep ourselves in check – mind and body. As we continue to help our teams boost their health and wellness, and better deal with stress, so too must we do so for ourselves.

The same advice we share with our teams, we must follow. As hard as it may be, leaders need to get enough sleep, we need to exercise or be physically active throughout the day, we need to establish clear boundaries on how often we dial into the news and all that’s been happening. Similarly, strategies like conscious breathing during times of challenge, engaging and expressing gratitude, staying connected to our loved ones, and even eating right and well can be immensely beneficial to a leader.

The point is, whatever works for you, as a leader you must have your safe space where you can refuel your spirits and do so often. Let me be clear. I’m not talking here about adopting drastic changes to your day to day. Lord knows the day is long and filled enough without having to add yet another to-do to the to-do list.

I’m talking about dialling into those healthy habits that give you respite. This isn’t so much about starting something new as it is about integrating wellness and stress management behaviours into your work and your lives. By refuelling often, leaders sharpen the focus on self-care, which ultimately contributes to the emotional balance we need to make the right decisions. More importantly, having this ability provides health benefits that can literally add years to your life.

Forgive Yourself
This last one is a tough one. It’s easy enough to write here but the actual practice is far more difficult to implement. As leaders, a great deal is expected of us. Funnily enough, we are not expected to fail. Remember, we are human beings first and leaders after. So it stands to reason that while every single person who has ever lived has made a mistake, so too will today’s leaders be expected to follow suit.

I think it’s because leaders carry so much responsibility with them that the prospect of failure is so intimidating and gives great pause to even the least risk averse leader. But, failure is one thing. Forgiveness another. This past year has been one curve ball after another. Many of us have tried our best to do the right thing and stand up for our people. And some of us have dropped the ball…to significant consequences.

As hard as it can be to look our people and the public in their faces, following a misstep, I’m willing to bet that it’s far more difficult to look oneself in the face. Leaders must learn to forgive themselves when plans don’t go as expected. This, as I said, is easier said than done…but it must be done. I am not just talking about forgetting about what went wrong (that helps no one). I’m talking about owning up to the mistake (as every leader should) and then reaching within to find the peace that comes with forgiveness.

It takes practice but it is always worth it.

Through the Half Full Looking Glass
With each passing day under the pandemic’s pall, it can be hard for leaders to find those sources of strength needed to serve effectively. Leadership, as we have seen, takes into account many dimensions, with self-care being simultaneously the most important and the most overlooked of all.

When we think about it, it makes sense. As leaders, we took a vow (whether spoken or personal) to do the best we can for our people. Implicit in that vow to serve others, however, is the vow to serve ourselves. As I said, you cannot get water from a dry well. Leaders cannot lead effectively unless they embody the very behaviours and attitudes they want to see in others. Conversely, leaders must understand that those very behaviours they encourage must first come from themselves.

In any case, as we leaders plan for the year ahead, let’s start planning (from today, if we haven’t already) for how strong we can (and need to) be – physically, emotionally, and mentally – for the people who look up to us, and for ourselves.

What are your thoughts? How are you as leaders steeling yourselves in preparation for the future? Let us know.

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