Adjusting the Volume on Leadership Demands

Brene Brown’s work on leadership and vulnerability have had a tremendous impact on many of today’s leaders.  In her work, she defines leadership as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  I’m grateful for how she intentionally defines leadership because I believe that’s what leadership should look like.

However, that is often not the case.  There are plenty of people in the world who still view leadership as a position of power, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually following the “leader.”  Unfortunately there are also a lot of vocal people in the world who spend their time complaining and spreading negativity, without the knowledge or experience to back them up and with plenty of followers.

Then there are leaders who fit into Brown’s definition.  They may not be in a position that affords them power, yet they are clearly leaders because of how others respond to them.  Some may have authority and positive intentions, but feel so constrained by company demands and expectations that their investment in people suffers.  I believe this is where the critical mass lies–struggling to lead in a way that aligns with their values because they are bombarded by competing voices, unclear priorities, and unreasonable demands.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  First, consider what the people you lead need in order to be successful.  The bottom line is your organization’s success depends on their ability to do the work.  Next, consider whose lead you are following.  Sometimes we need to pause before we can recognize which voices are leading us astray. Then, turn the volume down where needed.  While we may be bound to listen to some people because of the power they have over us or our personal ties with them, we still can make a choice of what we let in and what we don’t.  Easier said than done…and also worth the effort.

Kicking an Old Identity

I practiced martial arts for almost 20 years. At first, it was a great activity for me.  Martial arts aligned with my need to be active, my love for learning, and my appreciation for discipline and structure.  As time went on, things changed.  I plateaued–not that I couldn’t learn more, but my body just never was going to be able to do much more, especially given the limited amount of time I had to practice.  I had plenty of discipline and structure in my life thanks to that thing called “adulting.”  And, I was just in a different place in my life.  When I exercised I wanted to clear my mind, get in a good workout, and be done with it.  My learning needs were being met in other ways, and I preferred to spend my time alone or in smaller settings, rather than getting knocked around the dojang with all the hustle and bustle of flying feet.  Yet for some reason, I just kept going eventually earning a 3rd degree black belt.

I remember the day of that test.  Testing always started with each candidate having to answer questions on required knowledge–history of the art, number of movements in a pattern, explaining proper body alignment, reciting guiding principles.  After months of studying and practice I was prepared for any question that could come my way.  But then our Master asked “Why are you doing this?”

Suddenly, I was struck with panic.  I managed to spit out an answer, but in my head I kept asking myself the question over and over!  “Why AM I doing this?”  It suddenly dawned on me that I no longer had the desire to practice martial arts and that I was testing because it was just the next step in the order of things.  Now, I had 4 hours of grueling physical exertion in front of me, just to obtain something that really didn’t matter to me!

Over the next few months, I reflected on this realization but still couldn’t muster up the courage to stop.  My identity had somehow become intertwined with martial arts.  People knew me as a black belt, as a stick fighter (look up eskrima if you’re curious), as a cardio kickboxing instructor.  It wasn’t what I did; it was somehow who I was. If I quit now, who would I be?

What people know of us or believe us to be can shape our identity in ways that have no bearing on who we are internally.  It’s part of normal human behavior that happens without our awareness.  We meet a person, learn about them, and then attach a label according to what we’ve learned, regardless of whether or not that person would label themselves in the same way.   As a result, some people struggle with imposter syndrome–the internal fear of being discovered as a fraud or a phony.  And, some people try to avoid being labeled by not sharing parts of their lives or not engaging with their interests at all.  If you’ve experienced this, you know it’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.

So how do we combat this issue?  Start by taking the time to consider who you are.  What are your values?  What impact do you want to make?  What brings you joy?  Live into those things and let your actions show what really matters to you.  And listen for what really matters to others so you can know them for who they truly are.

I stopped practicing martial arts in December 2019.  I appreciate everything I learned and the relationships I formed during the almost 20 years of practice, but I appreciate even more how liberating it was to let go of an identity that no longer suited me.  What would you like to let go of?

Managing Uncertainty

Recently I’ve worked with a lot of people with strong Achiever talents.  Naturally driven and hard-working, people with this particular CliftonStrengths theme thrive when they have a clear picture of a team’s or organization’s goals.  They can easily see the next milestone and are always striving to reach that milestone so they can move on to the next.  They can even help set the pace for their team through their own energy and by monitoring the team’s progress.  But what happens during times of uncertainty?

Many of the people I’ve coached with high Achiever talents work in the education field, where the pandemic has led to daily, sometimes hourly, changes.  Adjusting to sudden moves back and forth between in-person and virtual learning, changing quarantine guidelines, and being tasked to take on new (and sometimes unrelated) responsibilities, while being short-staffed and under-resourced has taken a toll on the entire system.  For those with high Achiever, these changes have been especially frustrating because they are regularly being asked to take on new assignments and set aside the milestones that keep them motivated.  

Two things have been particularly helpful for people navigating times of uncertainty and change, especially those with high Achiever talents:

  1. Reframe Success–When there is a chance that goals will shift or even change completely, it’s important to be clear on what success looks like from one day to the next rather than setting your sights only on long-term goals.  The beauty of Achiever is that every day feels like starting at zero with opportunities to fill your own bucket with each accomplishment.  Use that by reframing your thinking to what it will mean to be successful each day.  
  2. Celebrate Success–Those with high Achiever can have a habit of running to the next step without recognizing what has been accomplished.  This means when goals keep shifting, they can feel as though their efforts were in vain.  By taking the time to celebrate what you’ve done under your current set of circumstances, you will recognize the significance of small steps and better appreciate your accomplishments. 

While we are hopeful that the pandemic will end soon, we are all also probably familiar with Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ saying, “The only constant in life is change.”  In times of uncertainty, knowing your own strengths and how you can use them to adapt will help bring a sense of stability to your own life and those you lead.

The Both/And Mindset

As someone who truly enjoys ideas, I find exploring the middle ground and all of its ambiguities natural and fun.  Unfortunately, I also find it difficult to share these thoughts with others.  I’ve always attributed this challenge to communication being one of my weaker skills, so it resonated with me when Lewis’ pointed out how language demonstrates our tendency for polarized thinking.  Control or empowerment.  Structure or flexibility.  Stability or change.  When we allow ourselves to lean one way or the other, we limit ourselves and our impact.

Take for instance the polarities of confidence and humility.  If asked to define the two, people are likely to describe them as opposites.  Confidence means attributing your own skills, traits, or contributions to outcomes, while humility means downplaying or even denying credit for your impact or influence.  Leaders are often described as either confident or humble.  Emerging leaders often find themselves asking how they want to be or how they want to be perceived.  Do I want to be seen as confident so that people will trust my leadership more easily?  Or will humility make me more approachable and gain me more approval?

The reality is that this either/or mindset does not accurately describe people, situations, or organizations, nor is it what people really need.  Someone who is overly confident will likely be perceived as arrogant, while overdoing humility may lead people to doubt their authenticity or even their leadership.  Instead, we can be BOTH confident AND show humility.  We can give credit to the contributions of our team, and acknowledge the work we put into making sure teams are functional and fruitful.  We can be honest about our shortcomings and worries, while assuring others that we will guide them through whatever obstacles lie ahead.

While we may not have the language to describe an integration of polarities, we can still break the patterns of binary thinking.  Start by noticing when your thoughts are framed with “either/or.”  Either I need to face reality or I need to have hope.  Either I am an expert or I am a lifelong learner.  I will lead with either candor or diplomacy.  Then, consider what it would be like to be both things at the same time.  How would this way of being fit in with who you are at your core?  How might others connect with you if they saw your more complex identity?  And what possibilities open up for you as a leader and for your team?  We can be both awesome and human if we stop boxing ourselves in.

My Bossy Inner Child

I’m a homebody, content to stay home every weekend in my sweats watching tv or reading.  When it comes to hanging out with others, even people I really enjoy being around, a simple dinner can still give me a bit of anxiety.  I am just more of an introvert and need a lot of time alone to recharge.  Still, there are a few social activities that get me excited.  Show me an event that will let me be creative, challenge myself, and work with a team and I’m in!  Game nights, mud runs, axe throwing…essentially anything that is playtime for adults is my idea of a good time.

One of my favorite things to do with friends are escape rooms.  I love being immersed in a creative, interactive experience, the challenge of solving clues, and the teamwork that escape rooms require to win.

The first time I did an escape room it was with my sister, brother-in-law, husband, and two of my closest friends.  We had never done an escape room and had no idea what to expect.  While we waited for our turn, I remember the adrenaline that was already starting to build up in me.  I was determined for us to “win” this challenge. Then I looked around the room at our group, all part of my small inner circle and thought, “Oh crap.  This could be a TERRIBLE idea!”

You see, one other thing you should know about me is that I can be a little bossy.  My family would laugh at that statement, saying that I’ve been bossy since birth.  I believe I’ve learned to temper that characteristic, self-managing so that I can lead rather than dictate.  However, I’ve also found that when people are with their closest friends and family, and especially when they’re having fun and playing around, sometimes self-management goes out the window and their inner child comes out.  And, my inner child can’t help but tell people what to do.

As I thought about being locked in a room and presented with a challenge that had to be completed within one hour, I started to realize that if I didn’t self-manage, my inner bossy child may come out in full force. We could all go in as friends, and come out not speaking to each other.  I decided the best thing for me to do was put everything out on the table.  “Alright,” I said, “I want this to be a fun time, so I’m going to do my very best not to be bossy when we’re in there.”  At that, they all started laughing!  They knew that would be a struggle for me in this situation and thought it was “cute” that I had to set an intention for a fun night out.  

I was able to self-manage, even though I may have still made some strong suggestions while we searched for a way out of the crazy sea captain’s lighthouse.  I don’t remember if we made it out of the room in time, but thankfully we made it out laughing and still friends. So what’s the point of telling you this story? Remember:

  1. There is a difference between being bossy and leading.
  2. We’re all human, and the people we are closest to and most comfortable with can bring out our human nature–the good and the bad.
  3. If you care about your team, maintaining those relationships should come above all else.  Unless, maybe, you really are trapped in a crazy sea captain’s lighthouse.

Using Strengths to Meet My New Year’s Resolution

We’re more than one month into the new year, which got me thinking about my new year’s resolution.  I personally have never been big on making a new year’s resolution but this year I thought of one that would make me extremely happy to achieve–decluttering!  I’ve always been a bit of a pack rat, so the idea of decluttering isn’t really new.  Previous attempts to clean out my house have never worked because I would get overwhelmed by trying to knock it all out over a long-weekend.  I needed to have a better plan if my resolution was going to be successful and decided this would be a great time to lean into my Strengths.  (If you’re unfamiliar with CliftonStrengths, check out the “About” section of my website.)  Here are a few tips that could help you use your own Strengths to meet your goals, whether it’s a new year or not:

  • Consider how achieving your goal relates to your natural talents. Obviously I don’t have a natural talent for getting rid of things, or I wouldn’t have to set a goal around it!  However, I do have two themes that I love and that I get pulled away from using when I see the mail piling up on the kitchen counter, or have too many sticky notes strewn about my desk.  Decluttering would minimize those distractions and allow me to spend more time using my Ideation and Learner themes to think, explore, and create.  Ask yourself–How would achieving this goal allow me to do more of what I love, be more of who I am, or live the life I truly want?
  • Decide how you’ll track progress.  The 34 Strengths are all rooted in research on success, but each theme can look at progress differently.  People who have the Relator theme high might like to have an accountability partner to share their next steps with and report to regularly.  People with Activator high are great at starting things, so chunking large goals into smaller goals will likely be important for them.  For me, I tapped into my Responsibility talent by using a habit tracker to monitor whether or not I’m meeting my expectation which I call the “Tidy 10”–spending 10 minutes a day cleaning out something like a drawer, a shelf in a closet, or old files.  Consider how you like to monitor progress and incorporate that into your plan.
  • Figure out how you can maximize one of your themes to make your goal more fluid or even fun.  For me, I amped up my Relator theme by partnering with my husband to spend one hour every Sunday cleaning up or clearing out.  We work in the same space so that we can talk and joke around, and the hour goes by in a flash.  If you want to lean into your Restorative theme you could start each week by asking, “What’s a problem I can address this week?”  Or for those with Arranger, you may want to look at your schedule each morning to determine what needs to be shifted so that you can squeeze in the next step in your goal.  Think about each of your dominant themes and ask how they can help you achieve your goals in a way that feels comfortable and natural.

Finally, regardless of what your dominant themes are, remember that you are human.  Take off the pressure to meet your goal with perfection.  Instead, acknowledge the progress that you make and appreciate how your Strengths can work for you.

Bought this habit tracker on Amazon. Cute, but I wish it said “Daily Habits.” Oh well, it gets the job done!

Identity Crisis or Natural Reflection?

I coached someone the other day who expressed frustration about their situation and referred to it as feeling like a midlife crisis.  This person was young enough that short of a tragic illness or accident, they were nowhere near the middle of their life.  Their frustrations instantly resonated with me though, and I understood that sense of feeling lost.

When I hear “midlife crisis” it reminds me of a scene from Father of the Bride Part II with Steve Martin.  Not wanting to face the reality that his little girl is now a grown woman about to have a baby, he does all the stereotypical things that we associate with a midlife crisis.  He dyes his hair, buys new clothes, and drives around in a new convertible with the top down.  I used to love that movie and this scene always amused me because of how ridiculous he looked and acted.

Now, 30 years after that version of the movie was released and having been through my own doubts about my life choices, I have a very different view of the concept of midlife or identity crises.  (By the way, I had a momentary meltdown when I did the math and realized how old that movie is, and what that said about me!)  Luckily, my new view is a much healthier one that would benefit others to adopt.  What if we viewed these periods as times when we are reflecting on and evaluating our lives?  And what if we saw that as a natural part of life?  Rather than feeling in crisis, we might be more accepting of times that have passed and more appreciative of who we are now.  We might use these moments as a time to celebrate, learn and grow, instead of feeling as though we’ve lost our way or that our world is falling apart.

Leaders may be even more susceptible to falling into crisis mode.  The weight of responsibility, perfectionism, and other limiting beliefs about leadership can cause us to deny our own humanity.  Then, when we feel incomplete because our lives seem consumed by our role, we can be hit by a sense of loss for “the person we once were.”

How can we keep ourselves from entering into a crisis mentality and instead entering into a time of personal reflection?  For starters, make regular time for self-care.  This doesn’t have to be a huge act that costs us money like getting a massage or taking a vacation, although I’m not against either!  Giving ourselves the grace to feel human, to take time for ourselves, and to allow others to know our struggles are all ways we accept our whole selves.

Second, normalize your feelings.  Having a community of colleagues who understand the challenges of leadership can be a great way to release some of the pressure we build up over time. When we see our colleagues as humans who struggle with the same feelings and doubts, it allows us to feel more human, too.

Finally, appreciate your journey.  We are all likely to long for parts of our youth, whether it’s the good times we had, friends who are no longer around, or the things that once came to us with ease.  Recognizing the challenges we’ve overcome and the skills that we’ve gained can help us look fondly on the past and proudly at the present.

And if you still want to dye your hair, buy new clothes, or cruise around town in a convertible, go for it.  Maybe Steve Martin’s character wasn’t completely wrong.

Cheers to Dreams

One of my favorite mugs says “Don’t Give Up Your Daydream.”  I daydreamt a lot as a kid.  From stuffed animals and toys coming to life as a young child, to my own Indiana Jones-like adventures, there was always something so much more exciting to think about than my everyday life.  Not all of my daydreams were so far-fetched.  I doodled pictures and dreamt of becoming an architect, read Nancy Drew and dreamt of becoming a detective, and imagined one day becoming an American Gladiator.  (Ok, that last one is a little far-fetched.)  

By the time I was a teenager, life’s lessons somehow taught me that my daydreams were unrealistic and petty.  My daydreams shifted to being successful and having a home, and having a husband that loved me, even though I had no idea what I meant by success or love.  Sadly, my daydreams also became less bright and less engaging.

Eventually, “reality” set in and I cursed myself for spending so much time daydreaming as a kid.  I was in a job that was stressful and that didn’t inherently fill my cup each day.  I got married because I thought that was the next step in life and my ticket to adulting, just to end up divorced because that relationship was not what I wanted.  I thought that if I had buckled down and paid more attention–in school and in life– I would have figured out all these answers.

Looking back, I now realize that what I really needed was to foster those daydreams.  Had I understood what it was about them that I loved so much, then maybe I could have turned those dreams into reality.  “Paying attention” would have taken on a more focused and purposeful meaning, studying subjects that I loved, learning more about careers that would have inspired me, and understanding what made relationships healthy and wholesome. When I really started to pay attention to the things that bring me joy, it led me to starting my own coaching practice.

It’s a little scary to be in my 40’s and starting a business, one that will set me off on my own and away from the safety of an organization that has nurtured me for years.  But the fear doesn’t stop me because this new dream is so vivid in my mind that I can’t help but move toward it.  The dream fills my days and nights, waking me up energized and itching to get to work, and interrupting my daily routines with new ideas.  No matter what skeptics might say, I am not giving up this daydream.  And it is wonderful to live in that reality.

On a side note, I hardly use that mug because it is HUGE!  It could probably hold 2 cups of coffee, which is way more than I need, and is much more suitable for my husband’s ice cream habit (if he isn’t eating straight out of the carton).  I knew it was too big when I bought it but let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with having something oversized if it’s meant to hold your dreams.