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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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Why effective leadership starts with looking inwards

How exactly can a ‘good’ or ‘effective’ leader be defined? How we act, manage, engage with others is how we create the conditions which allow others to thrive. This is why, in leadership, we must devote time to self reflection.
silhouette of person standing on rock surrounded by body of water symbolising self reflection as a leader and in leadership

The Oxford dictionary defines effective as: producing a desired or intended result. But what kind of result are we looking for exactly in leadership?

How do you measure your effectiveness and results as a leader? Do you focus on fiscal figures alone or do you also consider the company culture? 

Have you, for example, helped to create a culture where employees feel a sense of belonging, where they can feel free to engage, are motivated and can be creative?

Meet employees with kindness

As leaders we determine, influence and shape company culture: what we model, how we show up, how we act and how we are. 

We always have an impact on others and organisational life. As leaders, we can create conditions that allow and encourage others to be well, grow, develop and flourish. The opposite is also true. 

The things that arise in this world do so because of the conditions that gave rise to them. And when those conditions change, those things change too.

When we meet employees, peers and colleagues with kindness, interest, curiosity and non-judgement, people can unfurl, open up, feel safe, develop in creative and skilful ways. 

As leaders we determine, influence and shape company culture

What’s going on inside?

As a result, they want to engage and contribute to the success of the organisation. 

As leaders, how we act, manage, engage with others is how we create the conditions which allow others to thrive. 

That’s what I call effective leadership and it’s the bedrock to a successful organisation.

So as leaders, to be effective, we need to start with ourselves. 

In a fiercely complex and challenging world, leaders, more than ever, need to understand how what’s going on inside themselves is influencing their actions in the outside world. 

Instead, most corporate leaders are often doers more than deep thinkers – what’s going on internally is a vast unexplored territory which they haven’t valued much yet. 

Most corporate leaders are often doers more than deep thinkers

Stepping away from tradition

The traditional understanding of leadership is often individualistic, leader-centric and focused on behaviour, performance, success and productivity rather than the inner capabilities or capacities of a leader.

Tony Schwartz, leadership coach and author of The way we are working isn’t working, asks leaders three crucial questions:

1. Why are you the person and leader you are?

2. Who are you capable of becoming?

3. What is standing in your way?

Effective leadership that enables employees to experience freedom, ease and belonging within an organisation is determined by the quality of the inner relationship leaders have with themselves. 

As well as the above vital questions for self-reflection, there are three further important ingredients for effective leadership: 

1. Self-awareness: What have I noticed in myself and others today?

To notice more we need to slow down, listen to ourselves and others and notice what we hear. 

Without awareness and waking up to what’s actually happening inside and outside of ourselves, no change will happen. 

It’s not enough to keep up a vague general awareness. We need to learn how to monitor our states of awareness in much greater detail than we usually do. 

We need to scrutinise our mental states almost from moment to moment and accept that these states of mind will set our intention.

2. Attitude: What has my attitude been today towards myself and others?

Attitude is all about how we attend to ourselves, others and the world around us. Our attitude is determined by our state of mind. 

Our state of mind is determined by our intention and volition. Our intention determines our actions. 

If your intention is to be positive, open, curious and kind, your state of mind is open, curious and kind. As a result, your actions are skilful and lead to freedom, ease, connection with ourselves and others. 

If our intention is to be negative, aversive, hostile, our actions are unskilful and lead to distress, harm and disconnection from ourselves and others.

To notice more we need to slow down

3. Commitment to learning: What have I learned today?

Learning about ourselves and others enables us to develop a learning mindset. 

To learn we need to be open and curious. We also need to celebrate what we liked about our attitude and behaviour. 

We also need to look at what we want to do differently next time, what we want to do more of, where we can apologise and where we can ask a better question. As well as where we can listen more, develop and move forward.

These questions are paramount for leaders to gain greater understanding of what’s going on inside themselves. 

Knowing their conditioned tendencies, unhelpful habits, impulses, reactions, limiting views, fears, anxieties, attitude and mindset, allows leaders to lead with integrity and humility. 

They don’t need to cover up their insecurities and shortcomings by exerting control, power, pressure and excluding behaviour.

To learn we need to be open and curious

Responding right

As Rodney Smith, a renowned meditation teacher and author, puts it so well: We are not responsible for our conditioning but we are accountable for our responses (from Stepping Out of Self-Deception, 2010).

Hence effective leaders know their sour buttons well and don’t react or take it out on others when their buttons are being pressed. 

They know how to respond to what’s happening internally and externally with awareness, curiosity and kindness. 

Effective leaders lead from above the line, with openness, curiosity and a commitment to learning versus being closed, defensive and a commitment to being right (from The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer et al).

Effective leaders know which attitudes and actions lead to harm, distress and disconnection inside and outside and which have the opposite effect. They are their own best effective leader and hence seen as effective by others. How can it not be so?

My hope is that we will see the rise of leaders who act more and more from above the line. 

As a result, these leaders will create conditions for freedom, ease, connection and safety across their organisations where people feel they belong, can be well and take their organisation to long-term sustainable success.  

If you enjoyed this, check out: How to govern and support culture from the boardroom

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Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth

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