Early on, most of my leadership training came on the job through trial and error, with emphasis on the error part. Knowing I needed to do things differently, I spent years studying with prominent psychologists in the field of human behavior, became a board certified behavior analyst and committed to my own inner work. In 16+ years, I’ve made discoveries about what motivates and hinders successful leadership.
Here are the three steps I’d recommend to any professional who wants to set themselves apart as a leader.
Become highly self-aware. Research by Dr. Tasha Eurich shows that self-awareness is the most important skill for work success in the 21st century. People who see themselves clearly are better performers, have stronger relationships, and are better communicators and influencers. Self-awareness is not the same as introspection. The skillful solicitation of valuable feedback is more effective than introspection, because we all have blind spots. It’s hard to be objective about one’s own behaviors. Building self-awareness requires feedback from others who can point out what we can’t see.
When I was in my early 30’s, I received two bits of feedback from a mentor that jumpstarted my self-awareness: 1) that I tended to put my head in the sand around conflict and 2) that I needed to be more succinct in my communication. I’d been unaware of these behaviors and subsequently unaware how these behaviors were limiting my leadership abilities. But once seen, I couldn’t unsee those habits, and I had a chance to improve in these areas. Whether you use a professional coach like Warehouse Twenty One’s Dave Teubner does, or create ongoing feedback loops with team members, developing your self-awareness has a high payoff.
Get comfortable with feedback. There’s a popular expression we like to use at Crafted Leadership, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Becoming excellent at receiving feedback gives you a competitive advantage: you reduce your reactivity. Research shows that when people are in a reactive state — which is where people tend to go on the heels of tough or surprising feedback — they’re actually cognitively disabled. But if you master an openness-to-feedback mindset, you can respond rather than react.
Added bonus: As a Harvard Business Review article points out, leaders who develop intentional feedback systems can feel the heartbeat of an organization much more directly and can circumvent the rumor mill.
To become skilled at receiving feedback, we suggest adopting these behaviors:
Cultivate a hunger for feedback, regardless of how it’s delivered. Commit to dropping defenses and becoming deeply curious about the feedback you’re receiving. The undefended approach is a trust-builder with teams. It’s also an effective strategy, because if you’re not at the mercy of your reactivity to feedback, you’re more likely to make changes in yourself or in the organization.
See everything as feedback and learn from it. Whether it’s a surprising review your company received on Glassdoor, silence from a prospect after sending a proposal, or a presidential election result, it’s all feedback. You can look for what you’re meant to learn. In this way you train yourself to see everything as a learning opportunity, not simply good/bad or win/lose.
Look for the grain of truth in any feedback and make changes to your behaviors as appropriate.
Create and live out stories from above the line. What we emphasize with leaders we work with is that the negative and self-doubting stories we subject ourselves to are just that, stories. Stories are different from fact or events. Facts or events are neutral, measurable and/or verifiable; they are neutral until we add our opinions and judgments. Humans tend to create long and sometimes agonizing stories about facts and events. Those stories – and the dense energy that accompanies them – become entrenched in our bodies and lead to limiting beliefs that hinder our leadership capacity.
Here’s an example: a friend of ours tells the story about receiving all As and one B on her fourth grade report card. Her father focused on the B. The story she made up as a child was that she was stupid. Decades later, this woman is a senior scientist in a major research lab with a PhD in biochemistry and a long list of peer-reviewed publications. Her limiting belief — I’m stupid — has trailed her, even in the face of copious evidence of her brilliance.
Our approach to these limiting stories is to have clients create alternative stories. The alternative stories must be grounded in a more expansive mindset, from Creative Brain rather Reactive Brain. We have clients write turnaround statements to counter their limiting beliefs. We have them look for supporting evidence to validate their new stories. And by visualizing and incorporating the body into exercises to anchor their above the line stories, clients start changing their physiology. The difference is palpable and neurological. As research points out, we can create new neural pathways through “taking in the good” through an intentional practice and integrating sensations, emotions and mind.
Here’s the moral: Stories you create from a positive mindset are just as true as those you create from a negative mindset. From which state do you want to create your stories?
If you want to make an impact as a leader, you’ll want to consider building your self-awareness, your capacity for receiving feedback and living from your above the line stories. The steps listed above are both critical and timeless.
If you want support to be a maximally effective leader who approaches challenges from a place of ease and trust, contact Crafted Leadership. We’d love to talk with you. You can reach us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.