A Holistic Approach to Leadership

Navigating leadership: a holistic approach to growth

Leadership is a complex and dynamic endeavour, and as such it demands a multifaceted approach to growth. However, “complexity” doesn’t always mean “complicated”. Children can grasp leadership, which means we can too. When pondering this, I thought it would be helpful to pare back some of this complexity and delve into some of the more practical pillars of leadership, weaving together some of the theory I’ve digested as well as some real-world anecdotes to provide a more holistic perspective on leadership growth.

Self-awareness: a personal reflection

In the mines of the modern workplace, self-awareness is a headlamp, illuminating the path of an authentic and effective leader. It is not a static characteristic but a continuous process of understanding personal strengths and weaknesses. Drawing from my own experiences, I have come to realize that leadership is not about projecting an artificial (and false) image of infallibility but about embracing openness and authenticity as part of the process. You don’t have all the answers, you make mistakes, but you’re openly working on it. You’re asking the right questions, seeking the right answers, and leading the people who work with you to do likewise. “Modelling the way” as Kouzes and Posner put it in their The Leadership Challenge (2002, 2017).

Early on in my leadership journey, I was told by my managers that image was everything - “you are the expert”, “never admit ignorance”, “fake it till you make it”. These might be valid images to portray externally, as with sales and marketing perhaps. However, with people you work with every day, this at best portrays you as misguided or delusional, at worst it’s disingenuous and erodes their trust. The managers who gave me that initial advice saw admitting limitations or lack of knowledge as revealing a critical weakness. However, this is not true. Humility is not incompetence, but a strength. When a particular project some years ago faced some unique challenges, and the team looked to me for guidance. Instead of assuming the role of an all-knowing command and control leader, I chose transparency, openly admitting that I didn’t have an immediate answer. I instead pushed the challenge into what I later learned to be an Adaptive Leadership moment (Heifetz & Laurie, 2001), putting the onus of a solution on to the team themselves – they were the experts of their corners of the project and they were best equipped to come up with workarounds or solutions. As a consequence, my leadership was humanized and the team itself was galvanized, the problem acting like a pressure cooker to bring the most out of their collaboration. They felt empowered to contribute their insights and provide some much better solutions than I could have some up with on my own. Ultimately, the project outcomes were superior, but from a leadership perspective my “open book” approach to leadership yielded real dividends for the team, and that’s ultimately the work of self-awareness (knowing myself and my place in the team), and building my emotional intelligence (knowing my team).

Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work on emotional intelligence (2013) was formative for me not just in developing a better approach to understanding people, but how to value authenticity in myself and others. Regularly reflecting on emotional responses to challenging situations helped cultivate a deeper understanding. This self-awareness refined decision-making and collaboration but was also mirrored positively within the team. Everyone works better together when we’re comfortable in their own skin, leaders too.

Empathy: nurturing a positive work environment

Empathy, the ability to comprehend and share the feelings of others, stands as the bedrock of a positive work environment. It extends beyond professional achievements, encompassing a genuine understanding of individuals' personal experiences. Brené Brown's insights from “Dare to Lead” (2018) on entering into other’s worlds have been instrumental in shaping my approach to empathy in leadership.

As a man who currently works in a female dominated workplace, I’ve had to adapt to different ways of doing things than in the more male-dominated world of Information Technology. One significant instance involved a team member facing personal challenges that inevitably impacted on her work. Instead of adopting a transactional approach to getting tasks done, a management approach which Martin Moore coined as “The Nike Boss” approach (“just do it”), I stood back from the workplace issue itself (i.e. unusually poor performance) and instead addressed the issue from a wellbeing angle. It turned out that the team member in question was going through a rough domestic situation, and this conversation acted as a helpful catalyst to seeking help with it. To this day, and coming out of that situation, she remains one of the standout performers. Taking a step back from keeping the operational machine running and recognising the human in the room is incredibly important when it comes to people management. This experience reinforced the idea that acknowledging personal challenges fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty within the team. Brown's emphasis on daring leadership aligns with the belief that creating a space for open dialogue, even about personal challenges, contributes to a more empathetic workplace.

Empathy, as explored through the lens of resonant leadership by Boyatzis and McKee (2005), goes beyond acknowledging challenges to celebrating individual achievements. Recognizing birthdays, work anniversaries, and personal milestones, even strange skills or abilities has helped created a culture of camaraderie within the team. This resonant leadership concept, centres around mindfulness, hope, and compassion, has been instrumental in cultivating an empathetic leadership style that extends beyond professional achievements to personal well-being.

Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day a business is a business and work still need to get done; deliverables need to be created and presented. However, I’ve learned that in optimizing for how, and the manner in which, those things get done is a long-term strategy for team success.

Continuous learning and development: a journey of innovation

Anyone who says they’ve arrived as a leader is trying to sell you something. Leadership is more like a long journey, demanding a commitment to continuous learning and development. Staying abreast of the latest trends and best practices helps, but the mindset and consistency in constantly looking to improve is the most important part of self-development. James Clear’s "Atomic Habits" (2018) and more recently Shane Parrish’s “Clear Thinking” (2023) have emerged as roadmaps for personal and professional development that have significantly impacted my own leadership journey.

One notable application of Atomic Habits involved a strategic planning session that included a significant workplace change and restructure. Envisioning the desired outcome and collaboratively working backward with my leadership teams, we identified key milestones and tasks, streamlined the planning process and instilled a shared vision among team members before the key changes were even made. You can change a structure of an organisation all you want, but if the culture (the raw way in which things are done and valued) isn’t first addressed, changes will be superficial at best. Clear's planning philosophy goes beyond professional development; it encompasses a holistic approach that transcends the workplace, influencing not just change management but personal growth and effectiveness. These ideas from Clear and Parrish have become a guiding philosophy in fostering a culture of experimentation and adaptability within the team. To paraphrase Barack Obama, leaders have to be the change that we seek in our teams to be in the world. It’s really the only way to be authentic, respected, and eventually perhaps admired.

Encouraging a mindset of continuous improvement, we can also borrow from Nathan Baird’s Innovator’s Playbook (2020) ideas and treat the team and its outputs as minimum viable products, allowing for rapid iterations and responsiveness to changing circumstances. Baird's emphasis on rapid experimentation and customer feedback has become a cornerstone in our approach to change management and keeping a team innovative. This has been a particular challenge in Australian higher education and libraries, a legacy sector with few traditional incentives to innovate and do things differently. Keeping the team customer-centric and building a culture around value creation has been difficult but rewarding.

An integrative approach: weaving theory and experience

Just like a diverse and varied diet is the best way to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs to be effective, reading widely of the wisdom of others and rigorously applying and testing that in your professional experience is the diet of leadership and development. Although it’s hard to reduce the complexity of modern leadership in modern workplaces, in my experience the intertwining of self-awareness, empathy, and continuous learning really encapsulates the essence of leadership growth.

Ultimately, the imperative for leaders is about fostering an environment where individuals can thrive and teams can achieve their full potential. This is done through giving agency, instilling a sense of maximal ownership/accountability and empowering teams to drive each other to realising that potential. By intertwining theoretical foundations with real-world anecdotes, leaders can navigate the complexities of their roles, continually evolving and contributing to the growth of both themselves and their teams.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the integration of anecdotal insights into the key aspects of self-awareness, empathy, and continuous learning and development reinforces the practical applicability of these leadership principles. Self-awareness becomes a journey of embracing vulnerability and authenticity, empathy transforms into a tool for building a positive work environment, and continuous learning evolves into a dynamic process of innovation and adaptation.

As stated, leadership is not a static destination but an ongoing process, where each iteration represents a lesson learned, a challenge overcome, and a milestone achieved. The real-world applications of theoretical principles not only validate their relevance but also breathe life into leadership concepts. As leaders navigate their journey, the synthesis of theory and experience can become a powerful leadership narrative, shaping the future of both individuals and organizations.

Disclaimer: some of the above article links are affiliate links. Thank you for supporting my blog.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.