Leadership Development, Career Coaching and Executive Leadership Coaching Blog

Courageous Leadership Blog

Vulnerability - The Leader's Key to Internal Courage

"Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me". We learn this taunt as kids but unfortunately it is not true, nor should it be. Because negative words, as well as actions, can and do hurt us, we learn early in life to reject their influence on us. This reaction to be resistant to what we don't want to hear can be a detriment to good leadership.  An unconscious need to self-protect against hurtful words and actions can create a barrier that prevents leaders from hearing all that is necessary to effective leadership. To lead, it is important to be able to accept all feedback, recommendations, ideas, input without protecting against what is being offered. Accepting requires listening, reflecting and engaging with what is said even if it is critical or contradictory to one's own thoughts. By listening in this way, a leader provides himself/herself new insights into what is being shared.

If open listening is a useful way for leaders to gain support from potential detractors, what makes it so difficult to practice? To listen openly, one must be vulnerable to the possibility of internal change. "What if what I've been asking people to do doesn't work? What if my idea is based on a faulty belief system? What if my experience isn't sufficient to help me through this challenge?" By engaging with our soft spots, our vulnerability, we enter the DISCOMPFORT ZONE. This is the place where there are no quick or easy answers. Hanging out in the discomfort zone may feel like the wrong place to be as a leader, but it is here that the a leader's wisdom begins to emerge. This is the place a leader can try out "what ifs?"  - what if I thought about this plan differently? what if Tom's idea could work? what if I was reacting based on something in my past? What do I need to change about me? By asking these deeper questions a leader gains the inner knowledge that provides the insight and foresight to lead.

If a leader cannot be vulnerable, he/she cannot learn or adjust to the information and knowledge that makes good leadership possible.

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Perfection - the enemy of leadership

Many of my clients in leadership positions express that they have a drive for perfection. When I ask them to give me examples of when they achieved perfection, the list is very short or non-existent. The result of course is the tension caused when you desire something that you can never achieve. This tension can lead to personal dissatisfaction, anxiety, and pushing yourself and others into unproductive work.  However, it is difficult to transition from driving for perfection to accepting less then perfect as "good enough".  Leaders typically put "good enough' in the category of unacceptable. Many leaders equate "good enough" with failure. My coaching experience demonstrates that behind "good enough" is a fear of failure. It is this fear that can prevent a leader from behaving as a leader. If a leader's respect and love for self cannot tolerate failure, then he or she cannot do the work leadership - take risks, confront difficult situations, be visible. Standing in the leadership circle doesn't require perfection, it requires courage. Perhaps courage is "good enough".

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Leadership Beyond Self-Interest

America is being offered an opportunity to evaluate the impact of leadership when it is no longer aligned with the good of the whole.  It is easy to judge our Congressional leaders when they act in ways that appear to benefit their reelection rather then make decisions that threaten their political future. Yet, leaders are often in the position where what they want to do, what advocates want them to do and what is good for the whole are not aligned. Yet, leaders have access to information and dialogue that enables them to see further from their vantage point then any one constituency or interest group. Additionally leaders are expected not to be limited by their own experiences and biases. Good leadership requires stepping beyond limiting belief systems and self-serving agendas. It means understanding the whole as well as the parts and being able to make the decisions that will build both strength and opportunity in a shared entity whether a  country, company or any organization consisting of diverse interests. Standing on a thin limb where there seems to be no one below to catch you and stepping out even further is an act of leadership. We don't need popular leaders in our organizations or public offices, we need courageous leaders. 

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Listening to Influence

Leaders are often choose to influence others through oral or written communication. While speaking is an important attribute of good leadership, listening actually offers a greater opportunity to influence the thinking and actions of others.  Speech communicates what the leader is thinking and wants. Listening enables the leader to understand what others are thinking and want. As I like to tell my clients "you move people from where they're at, not from where you're at". To influence, a leader must first know the motivations, fears, and wants of those he/she is trying to influence.  Additionally, the act of " listening attentively" demonstrates respect for the speaker and creates a connection that begins the journey to trust. However, if a leader is not able or doesn't want to listen in a manner that communicates that he/she cares about what is being said, it is better not to engage with the other person. False listening is a trust buster. My advice to leaders is to choose the times you want to engage in authentic conversations and then listen to be influenced. You will find yourself having great influence.

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The Power of Authentic Connection

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."  Anthoine de Saint Exupery

This French laureate obviously understood that you can't force people into the direction you want them to go. Even fear can fail if the stakes are high enough.  This truth leaves many leaders with the question "how do I motivate my followers or employees to do what I need them to do?".  The answer is to first connect employees or followers with what has intrinsic meaning to them -  their passion, dreams, hopes. Through this connection the positive energy that lies within each person can be accessed and released. A leader becomes the spark and the resulting energy allows for movement. Once the energy is ignited, a leader has the opportunity to influence the direction of that energy.

How does a leader encourage the connection of an individual to his/her own energy source? Primarily through authentic inquiry and listening. Since we live in a culture where listening is generally for the purpose of getting the information the listener wants and questioning's only purpose is to get the information the inquirer wants, these actions are seldom connecting or energizing. To listen authentically is to hear what the speaker wants to convey; to question authentically is to be curious about what the speaker is conveying from his or her point of view. These authentic actions bring the other person fully into the conversation. It is here that the connection is made and speaker and listener begin to move along the same path.

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