Embracing leadership: Responsibility, growth & learnings

Leadership encompasses a continuous journey of growth and learning, blending theory with practical experience. Embracing diverse leadership styles, such as Servant Leadership, while being open…

Leadership is a lucrative topic where a multitude of material has been created to support, develop, upskill, and shape leaders. Numerous books have been written, courses created, and assessments developed to guide leadership. While these are highly valuable tools, there is also a crucial practical element in leadership, ‘on the job’ experience and putting the theory into action, so to speak.

To some, leading comes naturally, to others it may require more intentionally guided behaviour and responses. Either way, it is useful to see leadership as a continuous work in progress; something that requires awareness, reflection and adapting.

While I am no expert in leadership, the work I do interacting with leaders from across the globe, plus my recent shift into a leadership position, has given me a unique window into the world of leadership. The perspective from which I speak is through a lens of novelty, incipience, and growth. My journey, perhaps like many others, involves navigating the mindset shift to working with and through others, figuring out a leadership identify, and identifying what tools and skills are particularly valuable in navigating the unchartered territories a little more smoothly.

So, what does it mean to be a leader?

Being a leader can mean different things to different people in different situations. One fairly standard definition I came across was: “the action of leading a group of people or an organisation” – Oxford Dictionary. Another described “leadership is about taking risks and challenging the status quo” – McKinsey & Co. Yet a third definition was “leadership is a process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal” – Forbes. There are lots of ways to look at leadership and many different ways it can be carried out, both successfully and less successfully.

One thing I’ve often thought about is that we don’t always need a title to lead. We can lead unofficially, influencing others through our daily interactions and leading ourselves. There are many different types of leadership styles. Leaders who lead assertively from the front, or quietly from the back. Leaders who lead by example or lead by giving directions. Leaders who strategise and those who operationalise. It’s through experience over our careers that we’re exposed to different leadership styles and the aspects thereof that we may like to avoid or emulate.

One style of leadership I’ve always held in high regard was that of Servant Leadership. Rooted in empathy, humility and service, there is a focus on prioritising the needs and growth of others above one’s own. Servant leaders empower, upskill and fostering an environment of trust, mutual respect, and collaboration. The achievement of goals is directed through serving their team and organisation, leading by example, encouragement and guidance. 

An authoritarian leadership style is one that I resonate with least. It is usually characterised by a clear hierarchy and strong direction from the leader. Authoritative leaders set clear goals, standards and guidelines and expect strict adherence to these. While it can be useful in situations where clear direction and decision-making is needed, it can also lead to low team morale and feelings of being disempowered and undervalued. Surprisingly, an authoritative or dominant leadership style feels less people-focused to me, and I consider people an elemental aspect of leadership and working with and through others.

This shift to a strong people-focus from an individual task-focus has been an interesting mindset shift for me. It’s been moving from individual responsibility and delivery that is under my own control to responsibility and delivery that remains mine but is being done through others. There are still tasks to take personal ownership for of course, but it’s managing the completion of tasks, projects, and deliverables to the correct standard without doing the work yourself. Consequently, this can free up a leader’s capacity to focus on other deliverables, tasks, and leadership in general. Bridging this gap and embracing a new leadership role and identity can be daunting and exhilarating. Along my journey, I noted a few areas below that I found valuable in supporting me through the transition.

Being comfortable being a beginner

“An expert in anything was once a beginner” – Helen Hayes. While stepping into a leadership position brings with it certain responsibilities and expectations, it is also a profound opportunity for personal growth and learning. Learning, however, takes time. Like many things, we start off from a place where our reservoir of experience, knowledge and skills is limited, and it is a journey to learn as we go. Yes, you can complete management courses and read leadership books, however, there is immense value gained through experience and day by day ‘learning on the job’. Learning also requires a certain vulnerability in acknowledging gaps and being willing to ask for help. Trying to view leadership as a journey, a work in progress, a foundation upon which to continue building, has been a valuable approach for me. It’s inevitable that sometimes I do and will get it wrong, but how I respond to that will make all the difference. We can choose to use such moments as reasons to return to our comfort zones, or as cornerstones for growth in the bigger picture. Learning and development is bound to have teething issues; be patient, fail forward and trust the process of growth.

A strong support system

As my leadership journey is in its early growth stages, having resources, structures and people that I can turn to for support, advice and guidance has been of paramount importance. Absorbing the knowledge, expertise, advice, and guidance of my mentors and Lead Partners has been an immense support. Leading does not have to mean doing it alone and we aren’t always going to have all the answers. Rallying with others internally can instil confidence, provide perspective, be a source of comfort, a soundboard, a reservoir of help or an injection of energy.

Setting clear expectations

I think this is particularly valuable both from an individual expectation point of view as well as providing clear expectations to those you now lead. Having expectations that are known and aligned can set a good foundation for an effective partnership. Most roles have a job description that can be a good framework to start with. Re-contracting in conversation and having discussions about KPIs and role requirements can also be valuable. Not only does it provide some structure and guidance to a new position, but it also provides a framework for performance management, understanding what success can look like and provides an opportunity for awareness, reflection, and focused growth.  

Active Listening

Listening is a crucial skill we learn early on. However, so is talking. An important distinction is highlighted by The Dalai Lama “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new”. In onboarding someone new, imparting knowledge and skills has been an important part of my process. I have found that there is also potential to be unlocked through ‘fresh eyes’ that bring different perspectives, opinions, and approaches. Listening to others can be a source of teachings, knowledge and exposure. When talking and listening are used in tandem and in-balance there can be an equilibrium of both expression and understanding in interpersonal interactions.

Communication

I have naturally been more of a listener than a talker over my career. That’s not to imply that I didn’t have things to say and opinions to share, but rather more often choosing to hear other people out. When taking up a leadership position, I found in it a quiet requirement to have and voice an opinion, give firm direction and share information on knowledge, processes and structures. Interestingly for me I found myself thinking more about the way my message was packaged than the contents of the message itself. Of course, the content is important, but what I mean by this is that the same message can be crafted and delivered in different ways which will elicit very different responses. In many of my conversations with leaders globally, influence, communication, persuasion and gaining buy-in are often pivotal aspects of development. While there are multiple communication styles that can be effective in different situations, here are a few aspects I have found useful to think about in crafting my message: clarity, kindness, honesty, tone and understanding the intention or purpose of the communication.

Practical management

It’s one thing self-organising and managing your own time, tasks, resources, and deadlines; it’s a slightly different ball game overseeing this for others and yourself. Practical management is not only organising and monitoring work, but it is also allocating or delegating resources and tasks effectively. One thing I have been acutely aware of in my journey so far is finding the balance between having a finger on the pulse without having a thumb in the pie. There is a fine balance between giving support and guidance while also giving room for ownership and empowerment, while ensuring that work is completed timeously and to high quality standards. This particular area is one that requires frequent consideration through different projects and operational tasks.

Shepherd / Developmental leadership:

What has helped me specifically manage the transition of leading through others was setting up an in-depth training programme for the first few weeks. This reflected what I have come to know as a Shepherd or Developmental Leadership style. Investing time and energy into sharing knowledge, upskilling, supporting, mentoring, and guiding others can empower them to take on more challenging assignments. Inadvertently, having a hands-on role to play in training and teaching was an incredibly rewarding part of the process.

Leadership, like an iceberg, has so much more to it below the surface. While I have only touched on a few aspects in relation to my relatively short leadership journey, the experience and exposure has led to immense self-discovery and personal growth. Although it is a personal journey, it need not be navigated alone; developing a leadership toolbox that includes practical management skills, active listening and communication skills, resources for guidance and support and a growth mindset, among others has made all the difference. And finally, a reminder that the impact we can have on others can be both a big responsibility, but also a wonderfully rewarding gift.

Author

Sarah

van Zyl

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