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:
- the ability to take a stand
- the ability to stay connected
- the ability to manage your own reactivity
Let’s look at each one a bit more in depth.
Taking Clear Stands
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.
Managing Your Own Reactivity
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.
Action Steps: How to Cultivate the Three Fundamental Leadership Skills
- Know your natural tendency. Every leader I’ve ever worked with has naturally been better at either taking stands or staying connected. Even if you think you know your tendency, observe yourself for a week or two with real curiosity and see – when and how do you take stands? When and how do you stay connected? See what you gravitate toward most naturally, particularly in stressful situations. This is your pattern.
- Deliberately practice what doesn’t come naturally. If you find it easy to listen and stay connected to others, even in challenging situations, then practice taking stands. If clearly and assertively saying what you think happens naturally for you, practice being curious about what others think. (If you want suggestions for specific ways to practice each of these things, I invite you to take advantage of my complimentary consultation.) Being able to balance the capacities for taking clear stands and staying connected requires working the muscles that are weakest.
- Have a practice that helps you manage your reactivity. If you don’t already have one, look for a practice that offers both opportunities for noticing your reactive patterns and tools for managing your response. Mindfulness meditation is one great tool for this. Many people find a physical practice useful, such as yoga or a martial art like tai chi or aikido. The centering practice that I teach in my Leadership Embodiment workshop is another great tool. Whatever it is for you, make sure you’re interested in it enough to actually do the practice. It won’t help you at all, otherwise.
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?
Karen works with mid-career leaders, typically in their 40’s and 50’s, who are dissatisfied with how their teams are operating and not getting the results they want. She has been the Principal of Still Point Leadership, Inc. for the past 12 years, and in that time has helped clients from front line supervisors to executives, in a wide range of organizations, lead their teams more effectively. She is a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, and has an MA in Applied Behavioral Sciences from the Leadership Institute of Seattle. Karen brings a results-focused and somatic orientation to her work, and through a combination of 1:1 leadership coaching and live action team coaching she helps clients build teams that communicate directly and openly, manage conflict skillfully, engage in highly productive meetings, and achieve great results.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on Karen’s blog, Still Point Leadership, on February 4, 2013. It has been republished here on RethinkingComplexity.com with her permission.