When I was 22 years old, I received a commission from President Obama and was abruptly sent off into the ‘Big Army’ as a ‘Leader’, despite never having held any other post-college or management-level job. It was overwhelming and intimidating to say the least, especially considering the fact that as a small, blonde woman in over-sized fatigues, I looked about 18 years old at best.
New Lieutenants in the Army are expected, and challenged by good leaders, if they have them, to develop and be able to answer the question, “what’s your leadership philosophy”. It was a hard one for me. It was an especially hard one for me, considering that I’d rarely even seen leaders worth emulating throughout my entire life—spending my early years in an extreme religious cult, then moving straight on to school.
But the question was useful because it pushed me to think about the answer. I read, researched and closely watched others, usually men, who were in the senior leadership roles around me. The messages that I received from almost everyone though were unsettling—don’t be too happy, don’t be too casual, don’t be too female, don’t let them see you cry, don’t let your personality show, and whatever you do, don’t be yourself. People didn’t always say it like that, though in the Army they often did, but couched it in terms like ‘executive presence’, ‘professionalism’ or ‘best-foot forward’.
And I tried to contort myself into the ideal soldier and officer, but I couldn’t. Part of that was likely because I was a woman in a profession designed and controlled by men, but that’s a different topic. But a big part of it was just me, my personality. I’m bubbly, overly talkative, outgoing, I love getting to know people, I question absolutely everything and I refuse to be told what to believe. These qualities helped me survive and then escape a cult, they made me a good at intelligence work, so why shouldn’t they make me good at being an officer, too?
As I grew in my role and my confidence increased, I began to own my own style, and develop my own leadership philosophy—don’t check yourself at the office door, don’t leave half (or more) of the best parts of you off the table, and encourage your team members to do the same. Contrary to traditional military doctrine, I found there was no reason why I couldn’t get to know my soldier’s lives, be real friends with subordinates, goof around and blow off steam during deployments, and still get them to follow my orders in times of emergency—in fact, I found that this worked much better than being standoffish.
I’ve learned time and again that in today’s world where innovation matters more than anything, getting to know your people, and letting them get to know you, is one of the best tools that leaders can have in their toolkit. So how can we develop our own leadership philosophies and then really live them in the workplace? How do we show up as ourselves in the (now virtual) office?
Here are some tips:
- Study Your Craft Broadly
If you are in a leadership role, your craft is leadership, not the details of whatever it is that you actually do. And leadership is a broad topic. Read about historic leaders without judgement, and figure out what worked for them. See what you can, or want to, apply in your own leadership role based on the examples that you see around you. Never stop studying, you’ll never be done.
- Develop Your Own Style
Don’t feel like, once you’ve found a leader that you love, your job is not to become them. Rather, strive to be the best you that you can be, learning from others, emulating what you like, leaving behind what doesn’t work for you. Even leadership traits that you love in others might not work for your style. Don’t be afraid to own your own style and people will love you for it.
- Reveal Yourself
More and more, people are starting to realize that keeping yourself at a ‘professional’ distance just doesn’t work. Our lives are so blended now, something that started with increased technology and is greatly magnified during this time of global shutdown and crisis. The more of yourself that you share in the workplace, the more you will find that things from all parts of your life blend into your leadership style in a positive way. As someone smart said, “your leadership story is your life story”.
A great exercise can be to make a list of every title that applies to you, in my case things like, woman, wife, mother, marathoner, chess-player, speaker, survivor, author, thinker, reader, soldier, and the list goes one. Take some time to think about lessons that you’ve learned from each area of your life in this way, and you’ll start to see how things cross over into leadership. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned about leading have been from trying to reason with a 2-year-old.
- Learn from Everyone Around You
We hear often that “you learn as much from bad leaders as good ones”, but what do you learn from everyone else? What do you learn from your subordinates? What do you learn from your peers? What do you learn from folks at completely different companies with whom you interact socially? Cross-functional leadership lessons can be some of the best, and most interesting, to apply in your space. Be innovative in how you apply
- Create Space for Others to Shine
So often, identifying things that you are not naturally good at and handing them off to another team member who does excel in that area can help them to shine, feel confident, take ownership and feel satisfaction. I’ll never forget the leader who me that doing everything myself was actually just conceit—not trusting that someone on my team could be ‘as good as me’. Once I started looking at it that way, I began to see how much richness someone else could bring to a project, instead of just being frustrated that they weren’t a replica of me.
Above all, know that developing your leadership takes a lifetime, and even then you’ll never be perfect, so cut yourself some slack. Learn, try, fall and get back up again.
DANIELLA YOUNG IS A TEDX SPEAKER, AN AUTHOR, COMBAT VETERAN, ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE-HACKER, HOST OF THE CULTURE-HACKING PODCAST, BOARD MEMBER OF OPERATION CODE, & THE CO-FOUNDER OF CAVNESSHR—AN HR-TECH COMPANY WHO’S MISSION IS TO MAKE BIG-BUSINESS HR AVAILABLE TO SMALL BUSINESSES, AND HELP YOU RECOVER HOURS IN YOUR WORKDAY. DANIELLA SPECIALIZES IN HELPING BUSINESSES CREATE CULTURE ROADMAPS, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PLANS & EFFECT TEAM TRANSFORMATION. WANT TO LEARN MORE? VISIT OUR WEBSITE AT cavnesshr.com.
TUNE IN ON FACEBOOK OR TWITCH EVERY TUESDAY AT 2:30 CENTRAL FOR A LIVE DISCUSSION OF THIS WEEK'S BLOG TOPIC WITH DANIELLA.
CLICK HERE TO SCHEDULE AN INTRO CALL WITH DANIELLA.
YOU CAN WATCH DANIELLA’S TEDX TALK, LOST IN TRANSITION, HERE & READ HER UNBELIEVABLE BACKGROUND STORY PUBLISHED IN NARRATIVELY MAGAZINE HERE.