We need good leaders. The issues we face are too great and complex, the consequences of thoughtless leadership too serious for us, for future generations of all living beings, and for the planet. Rather than a few chosen on narrow criteria, it will take many to step up and forward. Yet many doubt they have what it takes to lead and so continue to shy away. But we can choose to live our lives reacting to events, or we can put our hands on the wheels of our lives, organization, and communities, using our positive impact to make a difference for the good of the world. In my work as a leadership coach, it’s clear that more than technical know-how, it takes deep emotional skills to lead thoughtfully. Whether you are an aspiring or emerging leader, an established leader in an organization, or wish to develop self-leadership to fulfill your authentic potential, here are five key emotional skills from my experience of supporting transformational leadership to help you feel more confident about facing its challenges, and transforming them into positive, conscious action.
1. Know Thyself
Chances are you measure your own leadership style against others. We are bombarded with cultural messages about what leadership looks like, which generate conscious or unconscious pressure to adopt certain styles – eloquence, for instance, or extroversion. Some doubt they have the right stuff to lead because they internalize such messages and discount what they have to offer. Others try to wear an inauthentic costume of what they think leadership looks like. But thoughtful leadership is about being yourself, the person you were always meant to be.
When any of us live out of alignment with our true selves, we catalyze suffering and blind spots. The impact zone of this can be great for leaders because they cast a long shadow. A leader needs integrity. The dissonance between who we are and how we lead and between what we say and how we act has an outsized effect on those around us. People disengage from a leader who cannot walk their talk.
Start your leadership journey by putting away comparisons and costumes, and align with your values and purpose, so that you know in your heart and soul why you want to lead.
We lead others thoughtfully when we can consciously lead ourselves. At any point on any day, we are either in the self-leadership zone or outside it. Outside the zone, we are on automatic, closed, defensive, committed to being right, tuned out, reactive, toxically stressed, and – if this becomes a default – we risk a negative impact on ourselves, others, and our projects. Inside the zone, we are open, curious, committed to learning, aware, tuned in, responsive, emotionally intelligent, resilient, focused, our cognitive functions are higher, and we feel positively motivated.
Take a moment now to check in on yourself. Are you inside or outside? How can you tell? Notice your stress signs and take action before they become an issue. Even in a busy meeting, you can center yourself in a quick three-step process: relax your belly, release tension in your jaw, visualize expanding a ball of space all around you. This simple practice works through the body to create more openness and space in the mind.
3. Develop Your Range as a Leader So You Can Respond to the Variety of People and Situations You Face
Think of leadership as having four elemental energies. There is no one ideal energetic element for a leader. All four are vital elements we need to harness: to be decisive and directional (Fire), grounded and attentive (Earth), visionary and innovative (Air), and connected and collaborative (Water). None of the elemental energies has a pre-determined strength or intensity; fire can be a furnace or a flame. These are not fixed types, more preferred or habitual energies that you lead with.
Without range across all of the essential leadership elements, we limit our ability to respond to the needs of a situation. Where we know ourselves to be weak with a cost to our leadership impact, we need to take responsibility and develop these areas or ensure we have people next to us who support us with their strength in an area of our weakness. Excess in a leadership element can be equally dangerous. Once you notice, be self-compassionate and consciously commit to developing your leadership range across all elements, if possible.
4. See People as People, Rather Than Objects, Instruments, or Irrelevancies
The notion of separateness is an illusion. Leaders are not alone. We lead mutually interdependent ecologies, within which we have impact, connection, and alliances. When we intentionally build a container with emotional and social intelligence, we sow trust and co-create environments where we, our partnerships, teams, organizations, and communities can thrive. So much of our interaction with those around us is transactional, instrumental, and top-down, which impoverishes the potential of our leadership and those we lead.
What do you believe is the most valuable tool for leading others? Your knowledge, your vision, your determination, your wit? Start closer in: the answer lies in your attentive presence. Whatever the situation in front of you, when you give people (rather than the problem) an attentive presence, you’ll find resolution closer than when you withhold it. Yet, it is one of the hardest gifts to give because it takes slowing down and tuning in, which is made harder still by an environment that entrains us to speed up, do more, distract, and multi-task.
Attentive presence is the core of emotional connection, and connection is the channel through which thoughtful leadership flows, even during times of stress and conflict. The prerequisites of attentive presence are courage, curiosity, and empathy, and its practice is deep listening. Courage to experience, identify and name our feelings and to ask after another’s; curiosity about our own and others’ emotions, rather than making assumptions; and empathy to attend to mutual differences. Approach other people with, at some level, a certain wonder and bring that with you in your leadership system.
Attentive presence is the core of emotional connection, and connection is the channel through which thoughtful leadership flows, even during times of stress and conflict.
5. Develop Leadership in Others to Create the Future Leadership Culture That Benefits the World
Leaders are time travelers: they pay attention to the present and to the future vision they have for their projects or businesses, as well as to the deep time of the culture they are responsible for creating, not just in what they do, but in how they do it, knowing that there are future generations of leaders to whom they owe a responsibility. In taking steps to be a more thoughtful leader, you create the conditions for better leadership for generations ahead. Be open-handed and open-hearted. Give people the opportunity to shine and ensure your organization takes leadership development seriously. Mentor and give attention to making leadership more representative and diverse.
Native American and First Nations people have a profound leadership practice. When leaders gather to make a decision, they light and tend a fire called the Children’s Fire. They consider all their decisions in the light of the Children’s Fire to remind themselves of the impact of their decisions for seven generations going forward, not just of the tribe or even humanity, but for all living beings, including the planet itself. Light this fire and tend it well. Everything each of us does has an impact. For leaders, this impact needs to be conscious and long-term. Build this thoughtfulness into everything that you do.