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The leader within

When you think about leadership, managers and CEOs might come to mind first. But what exactly is a leader? In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the
potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential”. Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, says, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

You don’t need a title to lead. Leadership is about the relationships you’re in and your desire to support people and ideas. Chances are, you might be in a leadership position, either in your team at work, in your community and in your family, especially if you’re a parent.

People-first leadership

Standout leaders are those who put people first. Sinek says, “The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”

Influential leaders are those who foster trust, empathy, connection and collaboration while also staying humble, open and willing to be vulnerable. They are self-aware and emotionally intelligent, and have great people and communication skills. Great leaders understand others because they have done the work to understand themselves. As Brown says, “Who we are is how we lead.”’

Building self-awareness

To lead others well, you first need to know how to lead yourself. To explore this further, I spoke with Sophie Bretag, human resources and workplace consultant, self-kindness expert and CEO of Metta Leaders. She says, “Without truly knowing and connecting to ourselves first, how can we possibly try to lead others effectively? If we aren’t aware of how our behaviours, words and energy impact those around us, then this is a big issue.”

She says, “We need an awareness of who we are, why we do what we do and in what manner we do them. If this is missing from a leadership toolkit, then they will find that people will not connect with them or feel safe to be led by them. The more aligned we are in ourselves, the more grounded and supportive we can be for others. Know yourself first, then help others to know themselves.”

8 ways to develop your leadership skills

Whether you want to develop your own leadership skills in the workplace, in your community or at home, there are eight steps you can take to develop the leader within.

1 Build your self-awareness

Bretag says, “The best place to start with self-awareness is to have conversations with people you trust and ask them things like ‘When I am at my best, what do I do/say/how do I act?’ Similarly, asking them what some of your blind spots are can give insight into where your areas of growth might be. Get curious and go from there.”

Journal prompts to build your self-awareness

• What are your core life values?
• What makes you feel energised?
• Why do you want to be a better leader?
• What do you need to work on?

2 Connect with empathy and kindness

Great leaders are empathetic, imagining what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They consider how decisions might affect others and they get beside them to understand their perspective and insights. Getting alongside the people you lead, either in the workplace or at home, helps them to feel seen, heard and validated.

As a parent, I see my role as a leader to my son, helping to nurture his potential and teaching him important life lessons. Part of that role has been helping him understand and regulate his emotions. Learning to communicate with empathy has been essential in this process. When my son gets upset and I acknowledge what he’s going through, his emotions de-escalate. When he shares his struggles with me, and I say, “Wow, that sounds tough” or “That doesn’t sound very fair to me,” he calms down more quickly. By asking empathy-led questions, you can find out how people are thinking and feeling so you can respond with more kindness and understanding.

Empathetic questions

• How do you feel about this?
• How might this affect you?
• How might we approach this better?
• What support do you need to feel OK about this?

3 Stay calm

As a leader, others look to you to lead the way, especially in difficult, stressful situations. To be a good leader, you need to manage your own emotions first, so you can help others. Whether that’s helping your team stay calm in the face of tight deadlines or calming down a toddler in the thick of a tantrum.

Staying calm and managing your stress response also helps you to be empathetic. When you’re in your survival, fight/flight/freeze response, your ability to think clearly and to empathise is greatly affected, as your amygdala takes over your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for these functions. This is why people may say things they shouldn’t, and become reactive and more self-focused when under stress. To develop your leadership skills, learn to manage stress well with the following steps.

• Spot the stress: Notice what makes you stressed. What thoughts are you having? What situations are you in? Find your common stress triggers.

• Listen to your body: Stress shows up in your body, such as tense shoulders, aching jaw, headaches or sleep troubles. Pay attention to your signs.

• Deep breathing: Calm your nervous system with deep breathing exercises. Take 10 deep breaths, focusing on a longer exhale.

• Get moving: Exercise helps you feel calmer and more clear-headed, as it lowers your stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.

• Journal: Get your stressful thoughts out on paper to stop them staying stuck in your head and keeping you in a stress loop.

• Talk it out: Share your stress with a friend or family member. Talking about problems often makes them easier to manage.

• Mindset reset: Challenge the truth of your stressful thoughts and look for solutions to your challenging situations. Take control of what is changeable.\

4 Be a good communicator

Brown says, “If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured, whole hearts — so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people — we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, heard and respected.”

Good leaders are great communicators. They help people feel understood, respected and involved. Develop your communication skills by:

• Asking open-ended questions that move beyond “yes/no” answers

• Listening mindfully and without distractions

• Encouraging quieter ones to speak up

• Learning about personality styles (eg DISC or Myers-Briggs)

Being a good communicator also involves reading body language. What someone says and how they are really thinking or feeling are not always the same. In my client one-on-one sessions, I look at body language for clues that a client may be feeling uncomfortable about an idea or situation. I can then gently ask, “What part of this approach are you not sure about?” This opens up a deeper conversation and helps them move through subconscious blocks.

5 Be open and vulnerable

As a leader, you won’t always get it right or know all the answers. That’s OK. Sinek says, “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”

Being open and vulnerable as a leader isn’t always easy. Bretag says, “We are human. Leaders are human too, however, so often people in positions of power either feel like they will be seen as weak if they don’t have all the answers or that people won’t respect them. The more leaders can show their humanness, the more they can connect with the people they lead. Connection helps to create safety and trust, which are imperative for an engaged and productive workforce.”

This works as a parent too. I’ve asked my son how he would have preferred I respond when I didn’t deal with a situation as well as I wanted. Hearing his perspective and ideas has allowed me to learn what he needs and how I can better regulate my own emotions. Open communication has helped us develop a stronger relationship. You can learn to be open and more vulnerable by:

• Sharing your own challenges: Talking openly about your difficulties and how you’ve overcome them makes you more relatable. This gives others permission to speak up and be authentic.

• Admitting mistakes: If you have missed the mark, admit mistakes and be open to feedback.

• Asking for input and feedback: Asking others for feedback and ideas shows you value their input and trust them. With more input, ideas and approaches evolve and improve.

6 Be adaptable

Change can be hard for people to embrace. Great leaders don’t just manage change but see it as an opportunity for growth. Organisational change specialist and CEO of The Change Hub, Dr Lydia Moussa, says, “During change, the best types of leaders are Situational Leaders. They adapt their style and levels of support according to their people’s needs,  capabilities and capacities.” There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Navigating change as a leader is not about leading from top down, but getting alongside others. Moussa says, “Leaders need to change the old saying ‘Build it and they will come’ to ‘Let’s build it together and they will stay.’” To develop your leadership skills, Moussa says, “Adapt according to your team’s and organisational needs. This means shifting from power to empower. If someone needs extra support, they empower them with support. If someone needs more autonomy, they empower their autonomy.”

Question to navigate change

• What obstacles are you facing at the moment?

• What do you need to be best supported?

• How could this change be a positive experience?

7 Share your vision and inspire others

“There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it,” says Sinek in his book Start With Why. Influential leaders have a clear vision of their goals and a plan to achieve them. They can communicate their vision with passion and purpose and include others in the decision-making process. You can develop your ability to be a visionary leader by reflecting on what drives you. Consider the following:

• What are your personal values?

• What is your vision?

• How do you want to get there?

• Why is this important to you?

• Why might this be important to others too?

8 Prioritise your own wellbeing

You can’t pour from an empty cup. Being a great leader takes deep inner work, self-awareness, emotional regulation, empathy and exceptional communication skills. You can’t lead if you are burnt out. Ensure you’re keeping your own energy tank topped up, giving back to yourself and asking for the support you need.

Wellbeing check-in:

• Are you getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night?

• Are you eating a diet that includes lots of fresh produce?

• Are you moving your body daily?

• Are you getting enough downtime?

• Are you getting the support you need?

Being a great leader is a skill you can develop and nurture. The world needs more self-aware leaders who embrace kindness, empathy, authenticity and vulnerability to empower others to thrive. By becoming a great leader you can create the positive changes you want to see in the world.

Article featured in WellBeing 208

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is a speaker, writer and business consultant. She is the owner of The Spark Effect and is passionate about sharing neuroscience-based strategies to teach corporate teams and businesses how to better use their brains to reduce overwhelm and stress, while boosting productivity, creative problem solving, wellbeing and communication. Get in touch with Jessica at jessica@thesparkeffect.com.au, on +61 424 358 334 or via thesparkeffect.com.au.

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