I talk with every client I have about three fundamental leadership skills. This isn’t the only way to think about leadership, but I find it an incredibly useful way to help leaders see how they tend to shoot themselves in the foot. (Because we all do this, right? If we’re lucky, we have good friends and colleagues who are willing to tell us how.)
These are the three fundamental leadership skills that I’m talking about:
Let’s look at each one a bit more in depth.
As a leader, you have to take stands. Otherwise, what are you leading toward? The challenge here is that it’s easy to take stands in an aggressive way that leaves people feeling bruised and unheard. It’s much harder to take clear stands that define your position while you continue to include and stay in relationship with people who may disagree with what you’re saying. I have also worked with leaders who struggle to speak up and take a stand with their peers, or their boss, particularly if their perspective is different or challenges the prevailing view. And yet, without this capacity to courageously and non-aggressively define yourself, your power and influence as a leader will be limited.
Staying connected simply means remaining open and accessible to others. I don’t mean that you have to have a personal relationship with everyone at work, or know what’s going on in people’s personal lives. But, for you to be able to effectively lead others, they have to experience you as someone who genuinely listens, even when the message is hard to hear. They have to know that, if they think you’re about to drive them over the cliff, they have the opportunity to influence you, because you are connected enough to be open to influence. Without this, you may take your stand and head in the chosen direction, but you won’t have a seamless and motivated team behind you.
At first glance, taking clear stands and staying connected seem contradictory. After all, every time you take a stand, you risk losing a bit of connection with people who disagree. And, the easiest way to stay connected is not to put forward an opposing viewpoint. And yet, it is possible to do both of these things at the same time and be skillful about it. The trick is to develop the capacity to manage your own reactivity.
Do you know what I’m talking about here? We all have triggers – situations, types of people, certain behaviors – that tend to raise our anxiety or our blood pressure. For example, I recently worked with a leader who reacted with anger in situations where he perceived people as behaving unprofessionally. It was so much of a trigger for him that he struggled to stay open to their perspectives, and so risked missing important information that was buried under the unskillful delivery. When we’re triggered, our bodies respond in ways that literally close down the amount of information we’re receiving, and we tighten in order to be ready to protect ourselves by either fighting or fleeing.
This isn’t such a great foundation for listening well when someone on your team is questioning the direction you’ve just laid out. Nor for staying relaxed and open when you’re delivering hard feedback. This is why being aware of your triggers and having the capacity to manage your reactivity skillfully is so important to effective leadership.
Your turn: What about you? What’s your natural tendency, taking clear stands or staying connected? How do you manage your reactivity so that you can balance these things and be an excellent leader?