I am forever trying to hone my communication skills because my effectiveness as a leader is directly correlated with the effectiveness of my communication – in all its shapes and forms. For example, I’m continuously working to improve my ability to write and speak succinctly and clearly. Being a non-native speaker that is a life-long challenge and effort; I also proactively work on my ability to engage others in constructive dialogue rather than discussion because dialogue is so much better at surfacing different perspectives and options. Lastly, I’m very aware that how I show up daily – my moods and emotions – hugely impacts others. So I’ve become a student of mindfulness to try and better manage myself amidst the everyday pressures of being a leader.
I’ve always had an appetite for innovation & change, so throughout my career, I’ve frequently been attracted by jobs and projects that required me to develop new ideas and novel approaches to problems. Over time this has allowed me to hone my innovative thinking and creativity, which I now think of as two capabilities that define the type of leader I am: I am a change-maker
In my early days as a leader, I struggled with delegating. I wrongly believed that I had valid reasons why I couldn’t delegate much. I thought it was quicker to do it myself, and I also didn’t yet trust my direct reports to do a good job on those tasks. However, I soon learned that as a leader, I was held responsible for more things than I could personally deliver. So, to succeed as a leader, I had to shift from doing the job to managing the job – which meant getting part of the work done through others.
I had to take the leap of faith to trust my direct reports’ abilities to take over some of my responsibilities. Moreover, I needed to invest the time to explain why, how, and by when I wanted them to complete these tasks. It required a mindset shift to not hang on to any tasks or responsibilities that weren’t critical and that my direct reports could do 70 percent as well as me. And when I did, it was a total game-changer. Not only did I become a much more effective leader, but I also enjoyed it much more – and so did my team because they then got an opportunity to grow by taking on next-level tasks and responsibilities.
From the ages of 9 to 15, I attended the royal ballet school in the Netherlands. I had a ballet teacher there, who used to shout, “no one else is going to lift that leg for you” as we were doing our développés, a move whereby you extend your leg either high up to the front, to the side, or to the back. It is a phrase that has stuck with me throughout my life as a mantra to remind me if I truly want something, I have to put in the effort to achieve it. As a leader, this means I’m never someone who watches from the sidelines. I’m in the arena. I’m all in. That’s how I operate.
First, I would advise my younger self that there is no fast track to becoming a great leader.
No amount of speedreading leadership books or binge-watching leadership training videos will turn you into a great leader overnight. The only way to become a great leader is to actively reflect and learn from the experiences you have as a leader – the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, in the good times and the bad.
Secondly, I would advise my younger self that becoming the best leader you can be is not about becoming perfect. It’s not about mastering every possible leadership skill. Instead, it’s about embracing radical self-knowledge to know yourself inside and out, warts and all – so not just your socially acceptable thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, but also your flaws, primitive negative emotions, and impulses, such as envy, selfishness, desire, and striving for power. Only if you can be brutally honest with yourself about who you are will you be able to identify what you have to learn or unlearn to become a great leader and who to hire or which peers to partner with to compensate for your weaknesses.