This is my first attempt at a blog post, and I hope you find my thoughts on this subject useful in your quest to becoming a better leader. My first attempt at leading a team was at the tender age of 27. A small group of designers and production people began looking to me for guidance and support, which thinking back was two things probably in short supply under my stewardship.
With zero management experience or any sort of training, I was unleashed on the team. I expected everyone to have the same tireless work ethic and commitment to perfection that I had. Your job was to perform to a high level and do precisely what I told you to do, it was that simple. The folly of my thinking believed people are simple, that people like being told repeatedly what to do and that everyone thinks like me. In the end, I had a grumpy team of people ready to mutiny and probably worst of all I had no connection with any of them on a personal level, I didn’t feel it was necessary.
I learned a great deal from those first two years and like anything in life, the more you practice something, the better you become. With leadership, each team you lead, you learn and grow from the experience. For the very best leaders, it’s a journey of self-knowledge, and becoming a better human being. I would like to think that along the way, I too have become a better human being, but I’m still learning about self-awareness and what it truly means to be fully self-aware. The days of the ego-driven and charismatic leader are gone, people are crying out for authentic, real and self-aware leaders that can bring people together around a common purpose.
1. What is Self-Awareness?
To be genuinely self-aware is to understand oneself:
• What you value and what’s essential in your life.
• What’s your passion and what energizes you
• The impact you have on others through your actions or how you communicate
• Self-regulation: emotional triggers and thought patterns
• Being objective about your strengths and weaknesses
Apologies if that’s a mouthful, but I’ll try to elaborate on each by starting with your values. I’ve been involved in branding for over a decade, and every well-defined brand has a clear set of values at its core but I never really realized how powerful having your own personal set of values mapped out could be.
2. Personal Values
Our values reflect what’s important to us in our life, they guide us and help inform our critical decisions. Whatever we need or whatever we feel is important is what we value. They help us set clear boundaries about what we will and won’t accept. It’s the lens through which we filter our decisions; hence the fundamental question ‘does this align with my values?’. After a lot of head-scratching and hair pulling, I narrowed my values down to a set of five below:
Humility is essential for me, I enjoy the company of humble people who are curious about the world and flexible in their opinions. I struggle with arrogant people who are preoccupied with their own self-importance and rigid point of view. Some of the people I respect the most have achieved great things in life, but they never boast about their accomplishments, in fact, they are the polar opposite of arrogance, often joking about their own faults and past failings.
Passion is energy and spreads into everything that it comes into contact with. Once channelled correctly, it’s a hugely positive force. A group of people coming together around a shared passion can achieve amazing things. When recruiting people, I always look for that spark when an interviewee talks about their portfolio, if their face lights up, it’s a tell-tale sign of a person’s passion for their craft.
If I am not moving forward in my life, in my career, if I am not learning new things, frustration starts to seep in leaving me feeling stuck. Making headway and progressing is vital to me and that I am accomplishing something. When choosing a new role, or company, it’s crucial for me that any potential new employer considers the ongoing development of its people as the key to its future success.
Once I make a commitment to something, I am 110% in, no half measures, no holding back, I am all in. Nothing great can be achieved by being committed sometimes. Some of the best designers I’ve had the pleasure of working with had an endless commitment and a relentless work ethic. A dedicated individual with a great attitude beats excellent talent with a bad attitude every day of the week.
The world is becoming increasingly more complicated, we have 1 million exabytes of online information at our fingertips, which is an astronomical number. The world of the 21st century is the world of stimulus overload. To cut through the noise, we need simplicity, only keeping what is absolutely necessary and removing everything else. The best design work strips away the unnecessary and makes things simple, clear and easy to understand.
3. Your Passion
Passion is about the heart, the energy and excitement you bring to a task or project. Passion can emanate from a belief in a cause, a mission or even the boost of energy you feel from performing specific tasks. It is the grit that helps you persevere in difficult times and overcome adversity. Pay attention to what energizes you, passion lies beneath it. Numerous studies of highly effective people point to a strong connection between being energized by your work and high performance.
Early in my career, my passion was design, doing the work. I loved immersing myself in a piece of creative, headphones on, completely present in the moment and disconnected from any sense of time. Engrossed in the task at hand, exploring the endless possibilities of how to bring a piece of work to life.
As I progressed into leadership roles, my passion became helping individuals come together as a team to deliver excellent work. There is nothing more satisfying than witnessing a superb end result when you’re fully aware of all the challenges you and the team have overcome, and the hard work put in to deliver it.
4. How you impact other people
It’s not always easy to understand how other people perceive us, especially when leading a team. We all have blind spots and can be completely unaware that a particular behaviour or communication style might be negatively impacting team members. As a self-aware leader, it’s important to pay attention to how people react to you, get feedback and if necessary adjust your behaviour to get the best outcome.
Feedback is the ultimate tool you have at your disposal, and self-aware leaders are comfortable seeking constructive criticism from their peers and direct reports. Two-way feedback is crucial, it improves performance, encourages growth, aligns expectations and solves problems. Look for themes, repeating pieces of feedback from different sources, and start adjusting your behaviour to correct things. In contrast, people with low self-awareness interpret any type of negative feedback as a threat and sign of failure.
Through seeking out feedback from those around me, I have learned my listening skills need improvement, I need to stop second guessing things, I can be stubborn like a mule, and my expectations can sometimes be unrealistic.
Leading a team can be a rewarding experience, but there are times when it can be stressful, dealing with difficult situations and tight deadlines. We are emotional beings, we feel a range of emotions that can either be a positive or negative influence on our behaviour. Being able to recognize when a negative emotion has been triggered and having the ability to manage your response constructively is an admirable skill that takes time and practice to learn, but it’s a skill worth mastering.
Emotions are like a wave, they are strong at first, and then they subside. Reacting when there are strong emotions at play is a recipe for disaster, let the wave subside and then objectively examine the situation and respond constructively. Easier said than done I know, but practice acknowledging your emotions as they rise up, let things settle and then manage your response. Effective leaders are mindful of their negative emotions but not controlled or caught up by them.
Our past experiences and thought patterns colour how we perceive the world, sometimes it can prevent us from seeing the reality of a situation. For example, an employee starts showing some similar personality characteristics to a problematic employee you had managed in a previous role. Automatic thinking kicks in, without even realizing it, your mind has made this individual the evil reincarnation of that difficult employee. The reality is that no two situations are the same, and no two people are exactly alike. Unhook yourself from repetitive and automatic thinking, seek out different perspectives and points of view, look objectively at the evidence, reflect and challenge your thoughts.
6. Your strengths and weaknesses.
It’s important to be aware of the things you’re good at, your strengths are the value you bring to the world, to your work and to the people you lead. Being mindful of what they are and leveraging them can help you excel in your career and achieve your goals. In my case, some of my strengths include, being extremely organized, being blessed with a wonderful imagination, and the ability to preserve during challenging times.
On the other hand, it takes honesty and courage to admit what we’re not good at, the things we struggle with, our weaknesses. By being aware of them means you know when to reach out for assistance and find people whose strengths complement your weaknesses, great teams are built on this approach. Some of my weakness include interpreting data correctly, public speaking, and self-doubt.
The reality is we can’t be good at everything and worrying about your weaknesses only creates anxiety. Focus on your strengths, build on them, and if there are specific weaknesses, you need to work on to improve your performance, create with your line managers help a development plan, set a timeline and put the effort in.
Stay true to what you believe, be clear about what your values are, be authentic, accept your vulnerabilities and share them with people, preserve, and don’t let the immediate take precedence over the important. Build and nurture caring relationships with the people you lead, seek out the truth-tellers who will give you good and honest feedback and always take time to reflect.