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Leadership from the inside out

4 min read


There is an interesting story about the shortest letter sent to an English newspaper. The editor asked readers to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” The following response was reported to have been received from C.K. Chesterton, a well-known writer in the last century:

Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours Sincerely, C.K. Chesterton

When I learned of that story, I wondered how many leaders realize that the impact they make begins with what’s inside of them. The good “human” qualities that are expressed outwardly by leaders — courage, respect, restraint, empathy, compassion, generosity, etc. — start from within.

What that means is that when we look inside to develop these qualities, they can then manifest and become expressed through us to make an impact on the world around us.

So you, as a leader, have the opportunity to impact what’s right with the world through the positive qualities you express.

Stop and think about your favorite leaders. What human qualities did you see in them that you admired, besides the obvious ones we often associate with strong leaders (“getting results,” “strategic,” “direct,” etc.)? I’ll bet something beyond this list was exhibited that increased their effectiveness as a leader.

Perhaps they showed kindness toward you or respected your opinion. Maybe they exhibited compassion when you had personal troubles, or they displayed courage in supporting you when you took some heat from others at work.

Some leaders I know have been told they need to develop one or more of these “softer” qualities. Perhaps you do, too, and you might wonder if that’s possible. I’m happy to report that it is.

Surprisingly, these qualities can be developed using a strategy. This is how you might begin:

Reflect: Spend some time thinking about what qualities you know you need to develop. Ask yourself: “Is this quality one that will make a positive impact on the way I lead?”; “Do I deeply desire to improve this quality in myself?”; and “Do I believe that this quality is something that I can develop?” If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then you’re ready to make a commitment. When you fully commit, you can be successful.

Get ideas: Read about the quality you want to develop (there are books, blogs, and research on almost all of them). Discuss your thoughts with those close to you. Reflect on how you’ve shown (even snippets) of the quality you want to develop in yourself. It’s always surprising to me how creative we can be in finding specific ways to develop ourselves. It’s not always a direct route; just because you want to develop a specific quality doesn’t make it happen. For instance, I once worked with a leader who learned to empathize with others by listening deeply to them. Another developed compassion by working with the poor in her city. Experiment and find what works for you.

Create a plan: Now that you’ve got some ideas about how to proceed, create a plan. Create a written development/action plan outlining the steps you’ll take, how you’ll take them, and the people around you that can assist in holding you accountable. Check in with your plan frequently to assure that you’re still on track and make any changes you need to make. I can’t resist suggesting that you might also hire an executive or leadership coach to help you to stay accountable and provide structured reflection time on your plan.

Practice: Look for opportunities to practice your new skills. Adjust as necessary if they don’t work well. Be patient because you are replacing old habits with new ones, and that takes time. Make sure you get feedback from others on what they’re noticing. At some point, the new behaviors will become automatic and a part of you.

It’s important for you to be strategic, direct, and to get results. But there is more to being a great leader than that. Think about developing the human qualities that will make you a great leader, and commit to working on them.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

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