Inward Leadership

Leadership itself, like the process of leadership development, is primarily about self. Knowing who you are as a person and as a leader. Being aware of the world both within and outside the organization. The ability to maintain this kind of knowledge and to continually seek it out is at the core of Inward Leadership. As a focus area, Inward Leadership may seem the most ethereal, with a lighter focus on behaviors. Strong inward leaders, though, demonstrate those abilities throughout all of their work.

Three key components of a successful inward leader are:

  • Accepting the presence of paradoxes in life and work
  • Continual self-development
  • Understanding the relationship between strengths and weaknesses

Following a session on inward leadership, you can help participants by encouraging them to revisit the themes of strengths, weaknesses, paradoxes, and self-development over the next several weeks and months. Regularly reflecting on how to bring one’s strengths to the work is a great way to continually improve performance. Thinking about how to reach consensus across multiple issues is a useful technique for even the most seasoned leader. When participants challenge themselves with multiple inputs, trying to form a cohesive and diverse combination stretches their minds and intuition in powerful ways.

In each case, image-based activities outlined in the Participant Guide are designed to focus on these issues and help the leader identify their own authentic answers.

Take a look at the Inward Leadership Sample Agenda.

Accepting Paradoxes

As our world gets more global and interconnected, we often turn even more to the hyper-local—the news and people of our immediate area. That’s a paradox. In the workplace, technology that is created to solve a problem often ends up making it worse – computers that were to bring the “paperless office,” for instance. Another paradox.

To accept that these paradoxes are true is to accept some level of what Richard Farson (who has written much on this topic) calls absurdity. In a leader’s work life, such absurdities come up all the time, even in the more mundane areas. Consider the theory of rising expectations. Th at theory suggests that the better things are, the worse we feel. Improving conditions raise our expectations and our hopes, so they are again unfulfilled. Are you better off? Sure. Does it feel like it? Not at all.

How does this world of paradoxes and the absurd affect a leader’s work? Developing leaders can fall into a trap of perception, of seeing their work in only one way. In that perception, problems can be solved a specific way, the implications and effects are known, and the path is intuitive. Yet that singular approach is rarely what actually happens.

By accepting paradoxes, a leader recognizes the unknowns. S/he understands that the ridiculous is always right around the corner. Behaviorally, it means being more flexible, accommodating difference, and maintaining optimism.

A good way to start to recognize paradoxes is through exploring one’s current worldview. How does the participant see things? What other ways are there of seeing the same things? Spending some time comparing and contrasting differences can begin to make the paradoxes of the world clearer. This is particularly effective when done in groups where everyone is given the same question or set of data to look at.

Continual Self-Development

Just as effective leadership development is not a one-time event (which is why we put follow-up activities in the Participant Guide), neither is the act of leadership itself. Everyone has room to improve: strengths to grow, weaknesses to mitigate. When immersed in work, it is easy to de-prioritize professional development. It takes time, it takes away from work, it usually takes someone out of the office.

Yet continual professional development is one of the key predictors of leadership success. The act of taking time to work on oneself is not only about skill-building, but also about maintaining balance and perspective. Continual self-development also sets an example for the team and is a great model. When the leader values professional development, the team members will as well.

Part of the challenge many leaders face in setting aside time for professional development is where to focus the energy. Certainly as a participant in a leadership development session, the initial question has been answered. Beyond the immediate event, however, it may be helpful for the participants to spend time exploring where they have immediate developmental needs, and where those needs may crop up in the future.

Sometimes, different issues lurk beneath a leader who is unwilling to take time for professional development. For example, s/he may feel they are indispensable, and that their absence will damage the team. Or that their absence will set an example for others to “skip out” on work. These fallacies may open up additional areas for leadership development, personal development, and/or team building for you to help participants explore.

Understanding Strength and Weakness

One of the paradoxes of leadership is that a great strength can often also trigger great weakness. Someone with great academic ability, for instance, who never needed to study in school may find themselves befuddled when they are later confronted with intellectual challenge. Someone who excels in one work discipline may find themselves favoring that discipline when they become leader of a multi-disciplinary workgroup, potentially increasing tension and conflict among the disciplines.

Previously, we discussed the need for an authentic leader to know themselves. When considering attributes of strength and weakness, such knowledge is even more critical. To know this about oneself is essential to establish a foundation for growth, and to know where to rein in or amplify.

This knowledge is not always as intuitive as it seems. Some may perceive themselves as a problem-solver, someone who helps team members dive in and get issues resolved. Upon more exploration, though, they may be “solving” problems through brute force and imposition of an answer. What was a perceived strength of problem- solving quickly becomes a leadership weakness, and can border on dictatorship.

Once a nuanced picture of strengths and weaknesses is laid out (and, if possible, validated by team members and other stakeholders), developing leaders must consider each carefully. For each strength, you can help them examine the circumstances when it may become a weakness. What are the signs? How can they determine the boundaries? For each weakness, help them examine the implications. How important is it to improve in that area? If it is sufficiently important, how will that happen?

Developing Great Leaders is also available in a printed version.