Stepping into powerful leadership is an inside job–leadership from the inside out. Nothing is more powerful than someone who knows who they are. Here’s why: The more self-awareness we have, the more we trust ourselves in knowing what works and what doesn’t work.
For many of us, the only concept of powerful leadership we learned was very traditional—whoever had the most power won. Think about it. Our parents, teachers, and bosses provided answers, and many of us were convinced, deep down, that people above us always knew what was going on. We equated power with control and authority.
Until we tried it ourselves, and found it didn’t work. When we try to form-fit ourselves into a model that’s not us, we lose ourselves. Our challenge becomes defining powerful leadership in a way that makes sense to us.
You won’t find this in a dictionary, but my version of powerful leadership is this: self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-management. If you know what you’re all about and lead from that place, you become authentic, confident, and clear. There’s no beating around the bush.
If you know who you are, people trust you because your private conversations are the same as your public conversations.
If you know what matters and what doesn’t matter and lead from that place, you become a person of integrity.
Anna Quindlen captured this idea well in a famous commencement speech she gave years ago, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. More difficult because there is no template to follow, no masks to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave…And then look every day at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them find this answer: it works for me in this situation.”
When we give away who we are, usually out of fear, we give away our ability to lead powerfully. As Eleanor Roosevelt said so eloquently, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I remember clearly the day I looked fear in the face and did the thing I had never done before. It was a watershed moment for me in claiming my own ability to lead powerfully. I worked at Miller Brewing Company and was the point person in my department to work with a national consulting company who had been brought in to restructure parts of the company. I was a recovering workaholic and as part of my recovery, had made a commitment to myself to attend all of my high school freshman son’s football games.
The consulting company scheduled meetings almost daily, and these meetings had become notorious for running over their assigned time limit. They scheduled one on a football game day. Since I was running the meeting, I knew if we adhered to our agenda we could accomplish what we needed to. I handed out the agenda and let people know I needed to leave by 4:00 p.m., the end of our meeting. I also told them why I was leaving. I was one of only a few women in leadership who had children, and I wasn’t aware of anyone who left for kid’s events. These days that is a common practice, but in 1992 it wasn’t.
As I feared might happen, the meeting was not done by 4:00. However, I stood up, asked one of the managers to take notes and brief me the next day about what happened, and walked out of the room. You could have heard a pin drop. My heart was pounding while everyone sat silent, staring. I don’t think they expected me to really leave.
In retrospect, I thought I wanted to hear somebody shout, “Way to go, Ris. Way to have your priorities in order.” And yet. This was an inside-job decision. I knew my priorities, so was it really about the group blessing my decision? No. This was my trial-by-fire in trusting myself to know what could work for both me and for the company. And it was new territory for me. I was learning to lead my life vs. it leading me.
As it turned out, I got briefed the next day and life moved on. It wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar. I came to realize it was my own fear that almost stopped me, not them. It had always been my own fear that stopped me from powerful leadership.
Something else happened in that moment. A year later when I left the company to move to Montana, one of the partners from the consulting company came to say goodbye to me. She was pregnant and bid me farewell with this beautiful comment, “I want to be a mother like you. I want to be able to stand up and go to my child’s important events and make it work for the company, too.” I smiled with deep gratitude at hearing I had helped another parent know they had a choice they may not have realized before. Learning to lead her life…
Fear does not have to stop us. The more room we give ourselves to be, the more room we give others to be. It’s never too late to have a conversation. It’s never too late to try something differently. As author George Eliot offered, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”