This article first appeared on Happify
Why do many competent people stay stuck in jobs that have become too small for them? What keeps them from advancing to more senior levels despite having the ambition, the drive, and the expertise?
The answer lies in an elusive concept called leadership presence. Many high-achieving individuals are held back because they’re told they lack what it takes to be a leader. But without being given elaboration or practical strategies to try, they’re often left believing that we all either have this executive “It” factor or don’t.
The good news is that leadership presence is entirely buildable once we break it down into tangible concepts. As a leadership coach, I’ve identified five key leadership concepts that are essential, whether you’re leading a team of a few or a few hundred individuals. See which one(s) you may need to work on and what you can start doing today to move forward in becoming the leader you want to be.
Perfectionism is one of the most common impediments to effective leadership. It limits your ability to delegate and to prioritize what needs to be perfect over what doesn’t. This slows down decision-making, creates needless backlog, and adds a whole lot of stress for you and your team. Sally Helgesen, author of How Women Rise, says that being a perfectionist can also make you indispensable in your job, which means your boss will want to hang onto you even when you’re ready to move on. Letting go of perfection can be hard because, more often than not, it’s rewarded early on in your career. You can start by recognizing where in your life perfectionism is limiting you, put plans in place that help you do “good-enough” work, and create mantras that help you stick to your new way of being.
Show You Genuinely Care
At its core, leadership is about bringing out the best in other people, individually and together as a team. An analogy that I particularly like is that of an orchestra conductor who highlights the brilliance of their musicians individually and collectively, all the while staying hidden from the limelight. This takes humility, a strong sense of self-worth, and a genuine appreciation of your people. It also requires empathy and a deep desire to help others find personal and professional success while advancing the vision of your organization. What you get in return is trust and loyalty, a team that rallies behind you (not one that you need to drag along to get things done). So how do you learn to care? Start by having real conversations around what matters most to your people. What are their dreams and hopes? What are their challenges in or outside of work? How can you help them bring their best selves to work every day?
Risk Being Vulnerable
In Dare to Lead, author and research professor Brené Brown, Ph.D., says that great leadership requires emotional vulnerability. That’s because as a leader, you’re called to make decisions that will not meet with everyone’s approval. You’re also called to take risks that may well end in failure. The ability to stand your ground despite criticism and to get back up after failure, without spreading blame or closing down in shame, is not easy for those of us who are hooked on praise and approval, or who prefer the safety of our comfort zones. The best way to build the muscle of courage is to develop clarity around the “why” of your decisions. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What is the difference you want to make through your leadership? A values-based purpose not only gives you the courage to take action, it’s also your safe base to turn to when you fail or receive criticism. Because you will. That’s life.
When pressures are relentless and a lot is on the line, it’s easy to let your own health and well‑being slide to the back burner. Sooner or later, this leads to slower decision-making, lack of clarity, and less initiative, all of which result from depleted energy levels. It becomes a vicious cycle that can bring about burnout. Staying on top of your leadership means putting your health and well‑being at the center of your agenda. What are your nonnegotiables? It could be an hour of focused work in the mornings (hence, no meetings). It could be eight hours of sleep (hence, no email after 9 p.m.). Or it could be recognizing negative thought patterns that are getting in your way, such as rumination or catastrophizing, and having strategies in place to counter them. As a worrier myself, the well‑being strategy I find particularly effective is described with the acronym SNAP. Stop what you’re doing. Notice what’s happening in your body or mind. Accept it as part of being human. Proceed with the best possible next step.
In a world where technology can rule our lives if we let it, we need all the help we can get to help us focus on the most important tasks. The good news is that most of this help can come from ourselves. First, we need to be mindful of how we set up our environments. Do we close all tabs on our computer when we’re reading, thinking, or doing other focused work? Multi-tasking splinters our attention and destroys our ability to go deep into ideas. It’s this deep thinking that allows the brain to make connections and come up with the “aha” moments of insight leaders need to make breakthroughs when problems stall them. Secondly, do we have if/then plans in place where our rational brain determines the best action before it is hijacked by emotional desires (such as checking social media or opening that email)? In this case, your if/then plan could say: “If I want to check my emails before I’ve finished my work, then I will remind myself that I will do so on the subway ride to the gym.”
If you find yourself struggling to practice these concepts even though you know not doing so is holding you back, you may need to look deeper at the beliefs you hold about what makes a good leader. In today’s fast-paced world, where technology brings constant disruption, the very idea of leadership is undergoing a transformation. Employees are more autonomous—they want to be the author of their own lives. Understanding and letting go of the habits that get in the way of adjusting to this new reality is essential for those who have their sights set on rising in seniority and leading the charge.