Start with yourself: Our five essentials for good leadership
Definitions and models of leadership have evolved over decades in academia and practice. Why then do we see so little good leadership? What is good leadership for us, and what are the qualities that a good leader should possess and demonstrate? Follow us into a workshop where we discuss these questions.
“When you go online and search for the word ‘leadership’, what comes up?”, asks our workshop facilitator Sandro. Phones out, open browser, type in ‘leadership‘. “Looks serious. Serious colors and serious talk”, says one colleague. “Yes, blue blue blue. And male”, someone else adds. Career ladders, arrows, matrixes, a person with a flag in their hand pulling more people behind them towards the top. The pictures are drowning in words that aim to describe leadership: ‘teamwork’, ‘vision’, ‘strategy’, ‘agile’, ‘management’. They don’t seem to address people who don’t identify themselves with holding a flag in their hands, and the images seem somewhat predictable. They represent how leadership was and is perceived, and we don’t really feel invited.
There are plenty of definitions and models of leadership that evolved over decades in academia and practice. Old leadership styles are not per se bad. They show how people chose to view and manage the world, and we may assume that they were developed with good intention. In earlier times, the ‘easy solutions for easy problems‘ approach was good enough to function, and qualities that we refer to as ‘hard skills’ were plausible to solve all kinds of issues. The prevailing modus operandi was rather to manage than to lead: With enough (technological) knowledge and solid management models, such as waterfall project management or gantt charts, the biggest problems could be solved. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t any problems that were regarded as more complex. Soon, people realized that having a vision and enabling people to follow this vision is a somewhat different skillset – which over time led to the introduction of leadership rather than mere management into the business world.
I don’t want to control and command people. I don’t want to manage them as if they were mere resources.
Co-Founder and MD bettercoach
And who was shaping and gaining all these skills to succeed in leadership? Mostly men. With many more men rather than women leading companies or even nations, ‘good leadership’ was attributed with more male-tending behavior, such as (display of) power, authority and dominance, command and control, even fear-igniting speech. “So many leaders today still measure their leadership- and self-worth to these standards. I myself did that, I looked to the old leadership teachings to find answers on how to lead. But it didn’t fulfill me at all. I don’t want to control and command people. I don’t want to manage them as if they were mere resources”, shares Rouven, one of the bettercoach co-founders and managing directors.
Thankfully, the discussions around new leadership and new work are out there and fruitful. We nowadays are aware that our problems are much more complex, and so is solving them. Global crises such as the climate crisis or the unfolding of a pandemic show us how connected everything really is, and that everyone is affected by them. People care to contribute to solving these problems; people care to work. And this is where the old models and styles seem to lack something – neither can they guarantee accurate problem-solving anymore, nor do they include equality for all people in the workplace to participate in suggesting solutions and shaping the world. If project management frameworks and trainings on presentation and negotiation skills don’t equip leaders, what else do people need to become good leaders? It seems that leadership needs to dig deeper to find other approaches and qualities. Or in other words, what we see as good and successful leadership needs an update.
What is good leadership for us?
We at bettercoach asked ourselves, what is the essence of good leadership, no matter if it’s good leadership of a team, of a nation, or of a family. How can a leader achieve that people enjoy being and working together, that everyone can contribute and feels fulfilled? In this article, we want to present the outcome of this process: the five principles which we at bettercoach find essential for good leaders to act upon.
We’ll have a look at lessons from former president of the United States Barack Obama, resilience researcher Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. We will look at how coaching can help to foster these five leadership essentials, and we will break down what all this means for you. We are convinced that not only CEO’s and prime ministers get to lead, but that leading always begins with yourself, and thus everyone is a leader. No matter if you lead a family as a mother, a team at work, a soccer team, or yourself on your own path – this leadership framework is for you.
Our definition of leadership
But first, one step back: what do we mean when we say good leadership? What do we think is the ultimate mission of leadership? To be able to identify qualities that help people become good leaders, this is for sure the first question to be answered. Here is the outcome of our thoughts:
A leader influences change: change in themselves, in others, and the systems people are connected to.
Stepping into leadership first starts with influencing change in yourself – becoming self-aware and taking action to achieve your goals.
The radius of influence then grows to include others – understanding them and supporting them in achieving their goals.
This influence then radiates from these people to the systems they are connected to, impacting the attainment of collective goals.
Note how leading always starts with yourself, that change plays a central role in the definition, and that the idea of controlling or managing something becomes an increasing illusion with every influence extension we describe. These ideas are fundamental to the five leadership essentials, and we are now ready to take a closer look at them.
The five essentials for good leadership
In our eyes, a good leader is aware of and lives according to these principles: (1) Emotional Intelligence, (2) Change, (3) Interdependence, (4) Resilience, and (5) Purpose.
Although we chose an order to display them, the order doesn’t have much relevance. In fact, the five leadership essentials come to life only when we regard them in interaction and in context with one another. Emotional intelligence feeds the meaning and impact of interdependence, and the other way around. When I cling to my purpose but cannot deal with external changes that influence my purpose, what happens then to my purpose – and to my identity? The five essentials are in relation, and each essential adds a new perspective to our understanding of leadership. Let’s delve into them one by one.
01 Emotional Intelligence
An emotionally intelligent leader has awareness, understanding, and connection to their inner world with an ability to identify the emotions they are experiencing.
This enables them to notice emotional activation/changes within themselves and others, and choose how to respond to situations in more empathetic, effective, and constructive ways.
Although many people argue that being emotionally intelligent is a question of talent or character, we believe that anyone can indeed train their EI.
The term emotional intelligence was first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, and was six years later popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ”. It refers to the ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions; one’s own and that of others.
Although many people argue that being emotionally intelligent is a question of talent or character, we believe that anyone can indeed train their EI. Making an effort to understand your own feelings, needs, and barriers – and those of others – and to communicate them appropriately, is first and foremost a behavior that needs attention, practice and patience.
A real-life example for the success of demonstrating emotional intelligence in leadership is the former US president Barack Obama (2009 – 2017). A calm and relatable person, he “has learned how to listen, read ‘space’, and hear what is unspoken but nonetheless real”, summarizes Kim Hyun-sook in The Korea Herald. According to Daniel Goleman, Obama gained people’s trust when he showed that he was able to stay calm and focussed during the financial crisis – only when staying calm can we use our cognitive and emotional abilities in the best way possible. An inspiring leader and speaker, Obama knows how to motivate and unite people, and how to lead discussions with different people’s perspectives.
His emotional intelligence was rooted in kindness and the awareness that we are interdependent, in the conviction and purpose that democracy is the right thing to do, and for sure added to his resilience and success in driving change on a big scale.
A leader who embraces change acts from an understanding that life is in a constant state of flux, and that stability – however comfortable – is probably impermanent.
This leader doesn’t cling to a particular solution, idea, perspective, or way of doing something for the sake of stability. As a result, they can critically reflect upon and play with different possibilities and realities, and engage with them in an open and non-judgmental way.
You probably experienced a time in your life when change was inspiring you, spicing up your life and giving you the energy to settle into something new. You may feel this when you enter a new relationship with a friend or lover, when you move into a new home, or start a new job, for example a leading management position of a new department where you can realize your dream projects. Often, these are the changes you can proactively manage – change here is in your own hands, and you can navigate the change in favor of your wished goal or your purpose.
But we’re sure that you’re also familiar with changes that lie outside of your circle of influence. They may well affect you, but you don’t have the power to un-do the change – at least not easily. An example is when a new law is passed by the government, or when you figure out that you’re not really the leading manager to realize your dream projects, but the one who needs to execute what the leaders above you want. In this situation, leaders are often expected to align with the larger company vision and enable this change in their team, regardless of whether they are personally convinced that the change will be beneficial. This kind of change rapidly leaves us overwhelmed, and depending on what this change means for us and our lives, we might feel anxious, helpless, outraged, or in despair.
You know the game: Change of this kind is unavoidable in life. Especially at work, change will affect us almost every day, and sometimes we even have to face change at scale. For example, when an organization is restructuring its units, or when two companies merge into one organization. Leaders who led massive projects like these report that their success depends on the more subtle things, such as the culture and ways of working, the authenticity of the leaders and the change itself, and the trust and rapport with the employees.
Every individual deals with change at a different pace, and, especially as a leader, it’s important to allow everyone the time and ways they need to go through the process. Patience, a growth mindset, which lets us see and seize the new opportunities that follow a change, but also the essentials emotional intelligence and resilience support leaders in this process.
A leader recognizes that human beings are relational in nature and that one of our main drivers is to connect to each other.
They understand that we need others to thrive in life, and that we can impact another’s well-being and life trajectory as much as they can impact ours. As a result, this leader builds mutually supportive relationships that help them achieve their goals and dreams, while simultaneously helping others around them to do the same.
“Wouldn’t ‘interconnectedness’ be a better word for it?”, asks one of our colleagues in the workshop. “It for sure would be more harmonic! Maybe too harmonic?” We agree. Connection is the very basis we strive for, but with this connection comes dependence – and dependence doesn’t necessarily need connection. The truth is, every person and every leader is interdependent. It’s more a question of how much they are aware of it, and how humbly they take this into consideration. For example, good project and expectation management in the working world depends to a large extent on how realistically a manager evaluates the interdependencies within teams. Furthermore, fostering collaboration and a feedback culture helps people become sensitive to how their work and decisions are related to others – and it for sure gives space to creative ideas and to mutual growth.
“Please also think beyond your own team. I want you to see the real scope of what this essential means”, our workshop facilitator Sandro encourages our group. Not only does he refer to our clients and partners, our coaches, our competitors; with Sandro’s hints, we are transferring this concept out of the workshop room into the garden next to us, acknowledging that we are dependent on many more beings in our ecosystems. Trees, bees – or Maren’s dog Lila, who is a great energizer and humbleness reminder for all of us in this workshop.
A resilient leader can stand strong and skilfully navigates challenging situations as they arise. When encountering barriers or setbacks, they tap into their skills and knowledge whilst still caring for their own personal well-being.
This person cultivates/maintains a kind attitude towards themselves and others when dealing with so-called ‘failures’, providing stability and calm in the face of setbacks and uncertainty.
We are “fundamentally changed by every experience we have” – and so we bounce forward.
Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal
Resilience is a lately much-discussed skill deriving from psychology. It refers to the ability to face and process challenging situations in life, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. A resilient person is able to deal constructively with pressure to perform, changes and crises, to remain capable of acting and ultimately even to emerge strengthened from all this. As resilience researcher, author and speaker Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal puts it, resilience is not about bouncing back, as many like to describe it, but rather about bouncing forward. “We don’t go back to the way we were before we experienced challenge, change, or complexity”, she explains. Instead, we are “fundamentally changed by every experience we have” – and so we bounce forward.
This change in perspective helps us to understand setbacks, failures, or conflicts differently. Instead of giving them the power to tear us down and have us in a passive position, we gather our very own resources that we need to face this challenge, and embrace the learnings on the way. This does neither mean that we are not allowed to feel pain in a challenging situation, nor does it mean that we should constantly look for the next challenge to further optimize ourselves. On the contrary: Our vulnerability and emotions guide us the way, which resources and boundaries we carry in us. How we deal with a situation, and how much time this process takes, is highly individual. What’s important is that both the process and the outcome are helpful for us.
As the leader of a team, being resilient is as important as it is challenging. With increasing information load and pace, leaders need to learn and accept that they cannot digest and control all challenges that arise. Therefore, it is on the one hand necessary to abandon micromanagement and instead build trust and rapport with the people that are hired. On the other hand, leaders need to be aware of their role model function, as their behavior and communication always serves as an example for others. When a leader is self-aware, able to identify their resources, to regulate their own emotions, and to communicate their boundaries, employees in the team will follow their positive example. Therefore, it is crucial for leaders to take care of themselves and to cultivate their well-being – and this also means to seek support from others. This links the essential of resilience not only close to the essential of emotional intelligence, but also to interdependence. As we learned before, change in life is unavoidable, and training our ‘resilience muscle’ supports us in mastering bigger and smaller crises.
A purpose-driven leader has clarity about the value they want to add and what kind of contribution they want to make in the world.
Rather than being pushed forward in life by external motivators and rewards, it is their personal values and their ‘Why’ that give them a powerful inner drive to take action.
As with all other essentials, purpose also starts with yourself. Finding your own purpose in life can be exhausting and time-consuming, but once you have clarity on your ‘Why’, your decisions in life will come easier. The very same goes for whole teams and companies. Identifying the ‘Why’ of a team works like a north star and gives everyone in the team the confidence to make decisions in alignment to the bigger purpose. Therefore, the underlying purpose defines a company’s vision, mission, strategy – and very much its culture, too. A strong company purpose attracts people with the same or a similar purpose, people who naturally act in alignment with this greater belief and who can carry the company’s purpose and mission into the world.
This was certainly the experience for us at bettercoach: Together, we discussed and drafted our company values autonomy, sustainability, passion for development, authenticity, and wellbeing; and that bettercoach exists to ‘support people on their path to fulfillment at work’. To incorporate and live our vision, mission and values in our everyday work life, we made them the heart of our official reciprocal feedback process, in which colleagues within a team give each other feedback, no matter the hierarchy or level of seniority. By reflecting on when I or someone else was acting in accordance to a value, or on the opposite was derailing from a value, we can provide growth opportunities for both the individual and the team. “We also incorporate our company values into our annual employee survey, enabling all employees to hold the management team accountable for aligning their actions with our values, and for providing an environment in which everyone can further develop the skills related to these values”, says Susann, our Head of People & Culture at bettercoach. She adds: “With our values and vision in place, it became evident what areas we needed to emphasize in our feedback guidelines and in the process of hiring new employees. This not only strengthened our team’s identity but also provided a stimulating framework for growth.”
The idea of starting with “why” was most popularized in the business world by best-selling author Simon Sinek in his famous TED talk in 2009. Following the ‘Golden Circle’, really successful companies, movements, and people always identify and communicate their ‘Why’ first, before proceeding to the less inspiring and less emotional facts and figures of the ‘How’ and ‘What’. Numerous organizations have followed his framework ever since to discover their purpose.
If you like the outdoors, you’re probably familiar with the company Patagonia. Its founder Yvon Chouinard stumbled into business in the 1950s, when as an avid and young climber he produced tools for climbing that people liked and bought. The whole evolution of the company Patagonia could for sure not be foreseen back in 1957, but is entirely built on the purpose to experience moments of connection with nature in silence. The company started to develop professional tools and apparel for people who love outdoor sports. With increasing environmental damage to our planet and growing concerns in the outdoor community, Patagonia started to invest in local restoration groups and founded numerous environmental initiatives. While an intact environment is of course the basis for Patagonia’s business, the sincerity of the manager’s intentions just recently reached its peak: The company is now owned by Patagonia Purpose Trust and the nonprofit Holdfast Collective, guaranteeing that all profit will be invested in fighting the climate crisis as long as the company exists. Or in Yvon Chouinard’s words: “Earth is now our only shareholder.”
We think that Patagonia’s history excellently illustrates how an individual purpose shapes a company’s purpose and vice versa over decades, attracting people and organizations with the same purpose along the way, and together creating more than the sum of its parts.
Summary and key takeaways
We hope that you are left inspired by our thoughts on what we see as good leadership. We aim to act upon these principles, and provide our employees with any resources to develop the five leadership essentials for themselves. But we do understand them as universal, and we encourage our clients, our coaches, and anyone else to give the five essentials the chance to ignite their leadership potential. We believe that a leader who is emotionally intelligent, prepared to navigate change and interdependence, resilient, and purpose driven, possesses all important skills to be a brave, inspiring leader who will make a difference in the world.
Our learnings and key takeaways
It always starts with leading yourself, and thus everyone is a leader.
The ability to reflect yourself, and the understanding that your whole personality makes the skill set you have available to lead, will propel your potential and impact.
You cannot control the vast majority of what happens to you and your team. But you can learn how to respond to that. Tapping into the power of all five leadership essentials will help you to navigate life in all its spheres – be it business, family, or your own path to fulfillment.
How coaching can help to cultivate the five leadership essentials
Coaching, as a guided process of self-reflection, can help you in improving all these five leadership essentials. No matter if you want to work on your emotional intelligence, your ability to navigate change or interdependence, your resilience, or your own or your company’s purpose – coaching provides a protected space to develop the professional and personal matters you desire. In 1:1 coaching conversations or also in a team setting, a coach will support you in achieving your goals. If you want to learn more about coaching and are interested in what coaching can do for you, visit our website.