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Leadership Unveiled: Navigating the Path to Self-Discovery

When leaders come to me for coaching, there’s usually a source of their pain:

  • They’re not getting promoted
  • They are not invited to the strategic meetings they would like to be a part of
  • They’re buried in work and have little to no free time

While this is the stressor they want to address, what I find is these are symptoms of an underlying problem.

The underlying problem is usually they haven’t spent time in leadership self-discovery- getting to know who they are and what they stand for as a leader so they try to adjust to accommodate everyone else’s needs.

Let me give you an example- I had a client, we’ll call him David.  David had been a successful and well respected marketer in his previous company but for all the right reasons, he decided to leave to join a start-up.  He was having trouble finding his footing in this new company.  Although he was in a senior role, he wasn’t being invited to strategic meetings, he didn’t have a strong relationship with his boss, he was being pressured to move from a management role to an individual contributor role.  This left him feeling lost, isolated and trapped.

But he loved the strategic discussions, he loved managing and developing people and he felt like his skillset was being underutilized.

His confidence had taken a major hit.

When leaders reach out to me with challenges like this, they have usually been simmering in their pain for awhile.  They have been hyper-focused on the problem and have forgotten what their strengths are. They haven’t spent time in leadership self-discovery.

I highlight this because it’s normal for us to want to problem solve the challenge at hand.  That’s what got us where we are.

But there comes a point where, if you don’t know who you are a leader, you can lose yourself in the process of trying to solve all the problems around you and neglect staying in touch with what makes you unique among the pack.  This is an easy way to get lost.

How do you get the right foundation in place today to prevent you from losing yourself in the leadership journey?  Or, if you can relate to David’s story, how do you solve for a challenge that has been keeping you up at night by approaching it with a new perspective?

The thing that worked for me when I was a leader, and the approach that has worked with my leadership clients is starting with better knowing and understanding yourself through leadership self-discovery.  There are three areas that can help you with this.  One- understanding your strengths.  Two- knowing your top values.  And three- knowing your stress triggers.

The Path to Leadership Self-Discovery

Know Your Strengths

Let’s first explore how to get to know your strengths.  I’m often surprised at how many leaders have trouble listing their strengths and I find it’s because their ascent to the top has been through the lens of focusing on their deficits and overcoming them.  Once they achieve what they want, they set the bar higher and the climb focused on their deficit starts again.  That’s an effective way to achieve goals but it’s a painful path usually riddled with self-deprecation, comparing oneself to others, rumination and regret.  Instead, focus on your strengths and leverage them!  What do you do better than anyone around you?  Usually- this is a skillset people seek you out to help them with.  It’s something you enjoy doing (it gives you a burst of energy) and it’s something that comes really easily to you.  If you get stuck trying to determine what this is, ask around.  Ask friends, family, co-workers what they think you do well.  If this feels like an exercise that’s too far outside your comfort zone, you can take a StrengthFinders assessment online through Gallup. 

Another way you can do this is by reflecting on your past accomplishments.  What are some things you’ve accomplished that you’re really proud of?  Now, think back to that time- what did you do that helped you achieve success?  One of my favorite parts about working with corporate leaders is that they have a history of success and a strong drive.  There’s a reason you got to where you are today- now spend some time getting familiar with the recipe you’ve applied in the past that’s helped you get where you are today.  The great thing about this is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  You just need to get familiar with how you built the wheel in the first place.

Identify Your Top Values

The second step to getting familiar with who you are as a leader is to identify your top values.  When you make decisions, what are you unconsciously or consciously prioritizing?  There is no one uniform way to make a decision.  We go through a number of variables as we think about the right path forward.  Getting really familiar with your top values helps you understand what you force prioritize when you make personal or professional decisions.  For those of you who are analytical, it’s the same concept as getting to a weighted average.  The best way to understand your top values is to go through a worksheet that has a number of values listed.  As you compare one to the other, which one would you prioritize if push came to shove?  You’re already prioritizing values daily, this worksheet just helps you crystalize the filter that you’re already using and helps you to pressure test if you truly are prioritizing your top values as you make decisions.  This will also give you a compass in times of uncertainty and help you make daily decisions, small and large, with your top priorities in mind.  When we make decisions that don’t honor our top priorities, that’s when we experience regret and ending up with commitments that take us further away from the things we value. 

Understand your Stress Triggers

The third step to really understanding yourself as a person and a leader is to get familiar with your stress triggers.  When we get triggered, we move into an emotional response and lose the ability to think logically.  While displaying an emotional response can be effective to incite the action we want to see, it’s usually followed by regret and can cause us to lose trust and credibility.  Think about times when you’ve flown off the handle with a boss, a direct report or a colleague.  Those of you who are parents, you’ve likely experienced this stress response along the way too- I know I have.  We are human- and we are wired to move into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode when we are stressed.  This is biologically programmed into us and we can’t fight nature.  So this exercise likely won’t eliminate these stress responses entirely but it can significantly decrease the occurrences of a regrettable emotional response and allow you to maintain control most of the time. 

To really illustrate this point- have you ever worked for someone who nit-picked everything you did, down to the font or colors you used on a PowerPoint?  It was probably really maddening, wasn’t it?  Or someone who would lose their cool and have outbursts in meetings that put everyone around them on edge?  That person would have benefitted from better understanding their stress triggers so they could remain in control of their emotional response and drive the agenda forward in a way that maintained trust with those around them.  Building trust is something we’re talking about in leadership more and more in the past ten years- and even more since the pandemic.  But studies show us that there is a relationship between trust, motivation, and retention, which all leads to a healthier workplace and bottom line. 

How do you go about understanding your stress triggers?  A really easy way to do this is to notate every time you feel stressed and record, whether it be in the notes section of your phone or in a journal, what your initial thought was that pushed you into a zone where you felt triggered.  Then, I’m going to give you a coaching secret to help you unravel this one- Once you know what the thought is triggering you, map out the accompanying feeling and then the action that followed.  You see- any feeling or action first starts with a thought.  Our thoughts are created by first going through the filter we use as we interact with the world.  It encompasses our assumptions, our interpretations, our limiting beliefs, and the deep dark destructive thoughts we secretly hold as truth about ourselves.  This filtering process that develops these thoughts happens in a matter of nanoseconds.  The key is to become aware of your own filter- and tracking your stress triggers is one very effective way of doing this.  Once you’ve tracked your stress triggers over a period of time and you have 10+ examples, look for themes.  Is there something that keeps bothering you that you can reframe to help you feel less triggered when it happens again?  Or do you need to create a change that will decrease the amount of triggers in your life?    The overall goal is to decrease the emotional reactions you have under stress and move to more logical stress reactions.

This exercise can also start to illuminate the important ingredients that you have in your life that keep you operating at your peak.  If you’re an extravert, are you getting enough time to connect with others?  If not- you might find yourself getting triggered more often.  If you sit at a desk all day, is your body getting enough opportunity to move?  If not, understandably you’ll lose it from time to time.  Are you getting enough sleep at night?  Are you appropriately providing your body nutritional meals throughout the day?  This stress trigger exercise will help you to start noticing trends as well. 

In the past, I’ve had leaders do something as little as incorporating two ten minute walks/day and their stress reactions significantly decreased.  It all starts with creating awareness around what triggers your stress and then identifying what assumptions, limiting beliefs, interpretations, dark false beliefs about self, daily practices or perhaps life changes that will lessen your occurrence of emotional stress reactions throughout the day.

Once you’re familiar with your strengths, values and stress reactions, you have the foundation needed to approach leadership and life challenges with a newfound awareness that will help you show up the way you want and navigate a path that leads to great success, however you define that.

When my client David went through this exercise, he found that his strength was in taking a challenge that no one else wanted to touch and finding a solve for it.  This was when he was truly in the zone.  He identified this challenge in his start-up- they were bleeding money and by interviewing key stakeholders- he determined why and how to solve for it.  After a couple of months, his boss was let go, he was promoted, he had a seat in strategic discussions and a weekly standing meeting with the CEO.  In parallel, he found another job with a significant raise, more opportunity to problem solve, and a promotion.  All because he started to focus on what he could do instead of feeling like a victim in his current circumstance.

If this speaks to you, carve out some time to devote to identifying your strengths, values, and stress triggers and see what small but meaningful changes to your mindset and your surroundings you can start to employ to set you up for greater happiness… and success.

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