I once had a boss who spent a lot of her time hiding away from her team in back-to-back meetings that seemed to go on for days on end. A couple of months, & probably one conversation, into working for her she came to my desk & asked to talk. I was pretty excited to have a few minutes with her (there was so much to catch her up on!) & I figured she'd be treating this little catch-up as a good moment to ask me how I was settling in.
LOL! Oh how hindsight makes me giggle at my youthful optimism. It came with a bit of a surprise when she closed the door of the closest empty meeting room & stated that she wanted to privately give me little bit of “personal brand advice" - as she dubbed it. She'd heard some hallway chats & wanted me to know how I should be acting in our office. WHATTHEACTUALFUKKK...I buckled up for a bumpy ride.
She sat me down, looked me in the eyes, & told me that (in her humble opinion) some people in leadership didn’t like me because I was too positive. "Well, she doesn't mince words..." I thought to myself. Nope, she told me that these "some people in leadership" thought my leadership style was too different. It was too optimistic. And, let's face it, I wasn’t outwardly seen to be hard enough on my team when they made small mistakes. Holy sheep shit, this conversation was getting heavier than an Acme Anvil, & fast.
She said that my positivity wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that people might like me a lot more if I started to share all of my failures. She reckoned that “you’ll be much higher regard in here once people are able to knock you down a peg or two.” I sat silently for a while. Then spoke up: "So, to excel here I must fail to make other peoples's egos feel less shaky? I need to be inauthentic & quiet & not ask questions where I seek to understand? Sorry, but your advice has fallen on deaf ears this time. I won't be part & parcel to a game of knocking me down lower & lower to build your business up."
I’m not gonna lie, I was a bit taken aback by her brazenness. I was shocked by how acutely different my philosophy on leadership & engagement was to her. And, I was sad. Mostly because I operate on the belief that failure is the road through which we chart our path to success. Knocking people down to stand atop them just a wee bit higher each time? Yeah, nah. That's not fore me. It never has been & never will be.
From the moment I left the room of that conversation I promised myself to be a leader who builds others up with kindness & compassion - no other strategy would do. And, in the intervening years this strategy has served me, & those in my care, well. I believe that when we are born, women are told to make themselves small. In doing so we're told that we must chase a sweet-fix personal brand that it built on insignificance. To grow at work though we need to be a threat without being threatening. WTAF is this load of societal BS? I was raised by parents who taught me to be proud of my bigness. I was taught to take up as much space in the world as I needed and wanted to. But parents can only do so much, and culture and society continually sneak in around the edges of the narrative I held of my own self-worth over the course of my lifetime.
Fast forward to all these years later, sitting in that meeting room being told that people would only like me should I highlight of my failures, and I knew in that moment but that wasn’t the kind of profession I needed. I knew then that words as daggers, costumed to look like advice could only wound me if I allowed them to. I no longer allow this kind of crap to enter or stay in my life as a leader.
I can tell you 100% hand on heart that I did not take this woman’s advice. Instead I looked back into her eyes & thanked her for her prerogative. I then I told her that just as my leadership style was one of lifting others & viewing failure as a steppingstone to success But I would not be taking on or heating her advice. I would Continue to comport myself with kindness and I would tell my own story the way I wanted to.
Needless to say, the moment she was able to restructure me out, she did. The writing was on the wall from the moment I saw just how thin her own self-confidence was & how it depended on the failures of others for her to see herself as a success. I wasn’t sad to leave her.
But I am thankful for her.
Her "advice" made me stronger in my belief that I am worthy and worthwhile.
My successes & my failures alike are a part of what makes me unapologetically me. I get to curate the story I tell the world. If you know me at all you know that I wear my heart on my sleeve and that I am as vulnerable as anyone. I’m not afraid to tell people about the hard stuff, and I am proud celebrate the good stuff.
So when you think about leadership, do you think about the kind of advice you give those who work with you? Do you stop to think before you speak? Do you consider the environment you're in, the egos of those "feeding back" to you? If not, this is a strong practice to start undertaking.
With that in mind, I’d like to share three guiding values that help me every single day to balance how I go about leadership with equal parts head & heart:
BUILD TRUST + PARK YOUR EGO Firstly if you’re going to be a leader your soul purpose should be to actually lead. Not to manage. Not to climb. Not to self-aggrandise. To lead you must first understand yourself & those that you serve. Why? Because when empathy and compassion are cornerstones of any leadership philosophy then humans are the winners of all business stories. If you’re working from a place of fear, stress, or anxiety then you’re not leading. Nope, if that's how you're operating, then what you're doing is you're barely getting by. If you walk into each room with a view towards service, compassion, & seeking to understand then you're well placed to lead. I've been told many times in my career that I care too much for my team members & that being so personally invested in their journeys towards growth and success could be a hindrance to building mutual respect. I called absolute bullshit on this. Caring for people does mean allowing them to step all over you. In fact it's the opposite. If you can have open honest and constructive conversations, then you're already leading through change.
RISE BY LIFTING OTHERS Beyond parking my own ego at the door in preparing to serve others (which I fully admit isn’t always easy to do) the next best way to lead through change is by being consistent in lifting the voices & successes of those around you. When we are forced to adapt to new circumstances rapidly most people get scared very quickly. As a leader, this is your chance to ask for & to receive the best ideas of your team. Once everyone is engaging & engaged, once everyone feels heard, then it is time to lift the voices of the best ideas for a collective way forward. Crisis & change are not platforms upon which anyone wants to be paid lip service. When you ask for ideas & innovation, receive the ideas gratefully & then work to apply them. I believe with every fibre of my being that none of us are leaders until those in our care have become leaders in their own right. Workplace cultures vary wildly from business to business because of the people who set the tone for engagement & working relationships from the top. If you choose to be the kind of leader who lifts others & who allows your team to grow - then your work will always be meaningful. Being jealous of or hindering the growth of others is the antithesis of leadership. Protecting your patch is something that people who don’t grow themselves feel forced to do. To lead well, work hard to create more leaders. Lift, lift, lift...
HAVE FUN + BE DRIVEN BY A COLLECTIVE PURPOSE The third thing is to remember have fun. I truly believe that we are more than our titles, output, & place at the table closest to the CEO. We're all than the brands we dedicate our time & energy to. So, even in tough time, don’t be afraid to have fun (when it's appropriate, obvs). I find the most engaged and highly productive teams are those who are able to have open, honest, and trusted conversations. Giggles, LOLZ, ROFLs, & the like only come when everyone feels good about being themselves & working to their strengths. Life is far too short to not have fun and laugh a lot when we go to work.
The times, the are a changin' - & my heart, it's open. Here's to leading with courage. Here's to failing as a positive aspect of our successes.
Here's to servant leaders - may we know them, may we train them, may we be them.