Leading from the inside out

Written by
Emily Johnston
May 13, 2021

The times are certainly changing, and leadership is too. We have been faced with a lot of change and uncertainty in the past year and it has taught us a lot about what is and isn’t working in the way we lead.

The kind of leadership which worked in the past — from the top down, in centralised organisations — is no longer the most effective method of leading in many kinds of organisations. The world is simply changing too rapidly, the levels of uncertainty are too high and both the flow of communication and accessibility of information have become decentralised.

So if the old kind of leadership isn’t working, what kind is?

One thing’s for sure: there’s no one, single right answer.

The options for how to lead and be a leader are as diverse as the contexts we are leading in and as unique as we are.

So for us at Unity Effect, leadership begins within. With getting comfortable working in uncertainty and complexity, with getting to know ourselves and who we are as leaders. Leading from the inside out is about empowering and supporting those around us so that we can work together towards a higher purpose.

Getting comfortable with uncertainty

As leaders in a complex world, more often than not we are dealing with challenges and questions which actually don’t have a single right answer. Yet we often feel pressured to come up with the ‘right’ answer to maintain our authority. We are quick to jump to answers, because we feel that’s what is expected of us.

There’s a lot of power in shifting our focus away from the answers and instead towards working and getting more comfortable with questions. Questions can support us to access our curiosity, our creativity, to think outside the box. To move outside our worn-out, familiar frame of reference. To discover answers which might really surprise us — which take time and openness to arrive at.

It’s a big step to share when we don’t have an answer. Yet having the courage to share when we don’t know something opens up the space for others to share their ideas, to tap into the collective experience and wisdom in a group.

Perhaps a totally unexpected idea will come from another corner of the organisation, or from someone who doesn’t normally get a say.

At the same time, by doing so we show others that it’s ok not to know everything. If we can own the things we don’t know, we can be proactive about learning so that we can bridge the gap. We create the space in a group to learn and explore together.

This is crucial to work in complexity. Often the most effective way to work towards an answer is not to get lost in over-analysing the issue at hand, but to take small steps, see what effect this has, and then figure out the next step. In the language of design thinking and agile development, create small experiments, get feedback and then iterate. This kind of approach opens us up to emergent practice — for something new to emerge as we go.

Leading from within

For us, leadership starts from the inside. It’s about who we are and how we show up as people — because who we are is how we lead.

Leadership starts with getting to know ourselves, our core values and what’s important to us.

These values are not connected to any specific role we fulfill, in our professional or personal lives, but the underlying values which we carry with us in all aspects of our lives. The values which, often unconsciously, underpin our decisions, influence how we show up with other people and how we react to challenges and conflicts.

Getting clear on what is important to us includes our passions, our inspiration, our drive. Connecting to our purpose, to what and whom we want to serve and the impact we want to create.

To step into our leadership potential we also need to get to know our strengths as a leader. At the same time we can identify our areas for growth and learning and take a proactive approach to developing ourselves.

Getting to know ourselves also means getting to know our blind spots. As leaders it is crucial to practice the capacity to reflect on ourselves and our beliefs, behaviours and how we show up in interactions with others. To have an awareness of our internal stories and assumptions we make, as well as the humility to see beyond our own version of reality. To be honest with ourselves about how we contribute to the challenges we face.

Leadership takes a lot of courage. The courage to not be perfect, to be ok with not having all of the answers, to ask for support when we need it. The courage to set healthy boundaries. The courage to go into difficult conversations and make challenging decisions. To address challenges, conflict and feedback in a healthy and productive way. To listen to and trust in our intuition.

And to know that with all of these things it’s not about doing it perfectly, but about growing our awareness and practicing and being kind to ourselves in the process.

After all, we might be leaders, but leaders are also still humans.

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Empowering others

Leadership starts within, yet it comes into play in interaction with others.

For us, leadership is about empowering others, helping them see their own potential and supporting them to step into it. Creating environments of psychological safety where we can all thrive. Creating a clear link between the purpose, vision and everyone’s contribution to it. Setting clear goals and expectations together and then trusting others to figure out their own way to get there, while being there to back them up.

In this kind of empowering leadership there definitely isn’t a one size fits all approach.

Sometimes it’s essential as a leader to step up and give direction, to be strong and clear. Sometimes it is appropriate to step back and give space to others to step up.

And when it comes to empowerment, for everyone it looks like something different. For some it’s supportive to be given full freedom to make decisions and take ownership. For others it’s supportive to receive clear directions.

Sometimes the most empowering thing is to support someone to leave the organisation so they can fully step into their potential. Or to create opportunities for them to learn and grow. The only way to know what empowerment looks like for someone is to ask.

It’s about seeing and accepting people as whole humans — not just the function or role they perform.

We spend so much of our energy at work engaged in internal politics, hiding our real feelings when we are actually not ok, and making up stories about the intentions and actions of others.

As leaders we have the opportunity to normalise a different way of relating at work.

To be honest about how we are feeling, to sense check our internal stories before they get out of hand. To practice listening to others with empathy and without judging them.

So many conflicts and challenges can be avoided or solved when there is space for open, clear, respectful and honest communication. It’s about taking responsibility for our own behaviour, emotional wellbeing and assumptions, rather than letting it influence our behaviour in unconscious ways. By doing so we can open up a space for learning together.

Serving a higher purpose

For us leadership is also about serving a purpose beyond ourselves. Contributing to our shared future. Acting in service of a greater good, knowing we are capable of making a difference, no matter how large or small it may be.

To work towards a larger purpose, we have to shift our perspective from competition towards collaboration. How can we work together with others, where can we find synergies and support each other?

Leadership is the capacity to see potential around us — in people, processes, partnerships, networks — and creating conditions for that potential to flourish. Not only so that we can be successful, but so that we all can be successful.

Acting in service of others takes a lot of self-awareness, humility and courage. Sometimes we have to get out of our own way. We have to know where and how we can best contribute. And we have to be able to say no to opportunities if they don’t align with the values and purpose of our team and organisation.

We have to stay connected to ourselves so that we can step into our own potential as a leader.

We have to stay connected to the others around us so that we can support and inspire them to lead and thrive.

We have to stay connected to the bigger picture so that we can be more intentional and impactful in our work.

This is leading from the inside out.

Are you ready to step into your unique leadership potential? Unity Effect’s next Leadership Journey — a 12 week guided online program for small groups of leaders — is starting in March 2022. Join a group of like-minded leaders on a Journey to discover and develop your unique leadership potential. Gain skills and tools to build motivated, collaborative and effective teams. Lead with purpose, create real impact.

For more information visit www.unityeffect.net/leadership-journey/ or contact us via info@unityeffect.net.

About the author
Co-founder of Unity Effect. Endlessly curious about humans being humans. Passionate about authentic leadership and collaborative teamwork. Experimenting with doing things differently.
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