Having good technical knowledge and experience does not always result in great leadership. Having the emotional intelligence to manage and motivate others is an essential part of the job too. A recent study of 5000 C-Suite job descriptions showed that over the last 20 years the need for strong social skills in these roles had increased by almost 30%.
When looking deeper into emotional intelligence and effective leadership I have concluded that the real differentiator is authenticity. It’s about allowing our true selves to be seen and deploying productive vulnerability (a fine balance between being open and maintaining professional boundaries).
Being an influential leader means being approachable and knowing when to share your personal experiences and challenges. Disclosing mistakes, failures, and lessons learned without seeking pity or sympathy, in order to enable team learning is a key part of the remit. It isn’t however burdening others with details of your problems. Authentic leaders hold themselves and others accountable for their actions, decisions and results and they encourage ownership of actions and outcomes within the team.
From my personal experience, spent in many boardrooms over the years, there is a culture of fear around exposing one’s flaws, struggles, and ‘oversharing’ with staff. This outdated need to appear as impenetrable leadership superheroes can build an unrealistic view of the real person, and their true intentions, and portray head-strong “wooden” personas. I have learned that you can achieve better results simply by being available, listening and showing yourself to be the multi-faceted person you are and by having a life outside of work. It’s not always about having to constantly demonstrate your expertise.
Interestingly being vulnerable, according to Stanford University research, has been intrinsically linked with building trust and psychological safety amongst staff, leading to stronger, unified teams across the workforce. The more you open up and share personal experiences that others can relate to and be inspired by, the more connectivity you can achieve.
Showing gratitude and celebrating success is part of the package too and Harvard Business School commented just recently stating that: “When people experience gratitude from their manager, they’re more productive. And when teams believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them, they perform better”.
The Well-Rounded Leader With Work Life Balance
The point I wish to emphasise is this: enhancing your work-life balance and developing more interests outside of your work can positively affect your leadership skills. Make sure you strive to live a full life outside of work and keep workaholic tendencies at bay.
The statistics for work-life balance are compelling: 37.8% of leaders say poor work-life balance affects their emotional and physical ability to lead organisations (GitNux) and 58% of CEOs say they struggle to consistently demonstrate empathy in the workplace (Businessolver). Of course this varies between countries, but the theme is fairly consistent in The West.
It took me a while during my career to realise that “all work an no play” makes for a sub-optimal leader. Working within business cultures which expected 14 hours a day, and weekends too, left me stressed and limited my creativity. After a few life lessons and some health scares I had to confront the fact that I am more than just my work. I needed to forge new boundaries to manage stress and take time for meaningful activities outside of work. Surprisingly I found that the more I focussed on outside interests, as well as work, the more energy I developed, and I was able to come up with more business ideas faster. I gained a verve for life again. Even the fact that I looked and acted more relaxed had an impact on others.
My lesson? Improved concentration and operational performance came from life balance and made for better, relatable connections with colleagues.
If you are stuck on where to begin, why not start with this: many leaders are taking time to understand mental health challenges by volunteering to work with those less fortunate i.e. end of life care facilities and mental health groups etc. This can really develop your empathy by helping those who are struggling, and by doing so enhance your understanding of employee issues. Such acts of service can develop a more meaningful sense of self and purpose too, alongside increased creativity and compassion, plus a finger on the pulse of societal issues.
For myself, outside of my senior roles in procurement and financial management (including an advisory board member), I dedicated specific time to volunteer and offer my help to Marie Curie to help those with terminal illnesses. Volunteering in palliative care can give those struggling to come to terms with end of life (both patient and family members) extra support during such harrowing times. I found that I could provide small moments of hope and joy which helped create relief in someone’s day. This has dramatically changed my perspective on life in general and helped me become a more considerate, empathetic leader with a stronger and broader perspective on workplace challenges and growth opportunities.
Think Laterally – Reinvigorate Your Interests
Alongside volunteer palliative care, I have also in recent years broadened my involvement in educational societies and projects. I am a Freeman of The Worshipful Company of Educators (WCoE) in London, which promotes quality improvement in education and raises awareness of the education profession. Through WCoE I’ve met wonderful people who have been able me to debate leadership best practice with me, which I have deployed subsequently in the workplace. Volunteering in education can also help shape views on leadership skills for the future too.
By taking time to meet new people, access new ideas from diverse cultures and connect with wider causes you can tune into wider societal and community issues.
Harvard Business Review commented recently that “leaders can’t rely on organisational mission statements to inspire employees. They have to help their people find inner purpose”. Find your purpose both inside and outside of work to become a more authentic leader. Consider being more open by sharing personal stories and experiences with your colleagues. It may be the most powerful communication tool you have. That is why Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Graduation Commencement speech is still seen as one of the most inspiring.
Watch out for the workaholic virus which can creep up on dedicated leaders. You don’t need to sacrifice yourself for your senior leadership role, regardless of how hard you worked to get it. Be aware of the distinction between being dedicated to work and maintaining a healthy personal life by checking in with a trusted mentor at work from time to time.
The effective leaders of the future are those who can dedicate time to self-care and remain at optimal performance. This will signal confidence to staff and demonstrate capacity to lead and develop others. The old adage still applies “put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others”.
About The Author – Kathleen Harmeston
Kathleen Harmeston, is a seasoned Non-Executive Director and Fractional C- Suite Advisor, with a 20+ year career holding positions as Group Procurement Director, CEO, and Managing Partner across public and private sectors. Since her early thirties, Kathleen Harmeston has held senior procurement positions and C-suite advisory roles. Ms Harmeston is a Fellow Member of The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) and has overseen large scale business transformation projects for complex organisations across public and private sectors such as The Ministry of Defence, Boots, Caterpillar and Diageo.
Her career focus has been on supplier relationships and profit enhancing strategies for mutli million spend portfolios as a former procurement director at The Royal Mail and The Co Op Group (Co Operative Group) and a former NED for Defence Equipment & Support. Kathleen Harmeston is currently an advisory board member at consultancy firm Breaking Barriers Innovations and works as a Non Executive Director and in management consulting. Ms Harmeston also has expertise in business strategy and transformation, risk management, board governance and large-scale contract and programme management.