Leadership Is An Inside Job

Leslie L Beale
Leslie L. Beale, JD
Executive and Developmental Coach
Profusion Strategies

If you follow the topic of leadership for any length of time, you may start to notice a disturbing pattern – one that reduces leadership to no more than a series of tips or tricks. Stand a certain way, use certain listening techniques, utilize a particular method for running meetings and – voila! – you too can be a great leader. Too often the difficult tasks that are a part of outstanding leadership get reduced to a set of behaviors that we can copy and paste.

Work with leaders or take on leadership yourself for any amount of time, however, and you’ll quickly learn that leadership is an inside job. The most important improvements leaders make stem from the work they undertake in improving themselves on a deeper, more personal level. It’s facing your fears, letting go of beliefs that don’t serve you, moving beyond habit patterns that keep you stuck, and realizing how you impact others and how they impact you that make the most meaningful difference in how you show up as a leader.

There’s a place to focus on specific behaviors – procrastination, interrupting others, time management – but even then, it’s been my experience that the most significant and lasting change comes not in someone telling you what to do, but in you asking yourself the really hard questions. What insecurity am I masking with this behavior? What would I be putting at risk by making a change? What’s most important to me about how I show up in this situation?

Often this work gets dismissed by analytical types as being too touchy-feely or not concrete enough. Even if you believe in its importance, deeper developmental work can feel intimidating. It requires you to take honest stock of who you are, and reveal some parts of yourself that may have been hidden or at least unnoticed for a very long time. It’s the kind of work that nudges you beyond your comfort zone, calling you to find the next evolution of who you are. It requires time, patience, and courage.

If you’re serious about really improving yourself as a leader, however, it’s imperative that you take on this challenge. You can get started by incorporating a few of these practices:

  • Try some solitude. Not long ago on this very blog, Beth Ford encouraged us to embrace the notion of solitude as a key practice for leadership. I couldn’t agree more. There is simply no substitute for the quiet, reflective work that can occur only when we are truly on our own. If you’re ready to really commit to improving your leadership, it requires a commitment to also finding space in your calendar for time alone.
  • Get good at watching. As lawyers, we are trained to be detailed observers. We look carefully at words, at facts, at the behaviors of the people around us. But often, we have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves. We move through life without ever really taking a step back to watch ourselves. How do we respond under stress? How well do we communicate with our colleagues, our clients, our loved ones? What triggers our worst behavior? Careful observation of ourselves, our minds, and our behaviors can do much to help us shift what holds us back as leaders.
  • As you try on new habits, be more intentional. Ask yourself the hard questions as you move outside your comfort zone. What feels difficult about this for me? What seems risky about it? What do I have to give up to make this happen? Doing so will help you uncover the habits and thought patterns that are keeping you where you are. Once you see them clearly, they’re much easier to change.
  • Instead of relying on the latest articles to find the next horizon for your growth, look inside instead. No author, blogger or leadership guru can know you the way you know yourself. So instead of turning control of your development over to the latest trending topic, engage in honest self-reflection instead. What feels like your next learning edge? What is calling to you to be tackled right now? Where are you getting results or feedback that doesn’t line up with your goals?

The best leaders will tell you that the process of their evolution was not brief or easy. They’ll describe a struggle, a journey, or at the least, a gradual uncovering. But, it can also be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.

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