Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Let me go ahead and say it.There are a plethora of amazing books and conferences about leadership. So, I imagine that much of what I write here may not be new, groundbreaking information. Also, it's important for me to state that I start this blog from the belief (albeit maybe even naive ideal) that at each person’s core, in every sector, every leader wants to lead well. And, I choose to believe that those being led want to be led well. So where do we so often miss each other? We have a lot of good resources on how to DO leadership. However, as one who leads and is led, it doesn’t take long to realize that all of these strategies are less helpful when I’m not mentally and emotionally well. So, for as much as we have strategies for doing; ultimately, it comes down to the being. I (we) have to be well before I can do well.
Leadership requires radical self-reflection. This isn’t the cute self-awareness that you may find in the "take this quiz to see which movie character you are like" games on social media. This work is deeper and often a lot harder. It is the ability to recognize your triggers, to identify the ways in which past traumas show up in your interactions with those you have power over, and its the humility to recognize when there are ways you could be better. In an effort to not sound too cliche, I won’t list the following ideas as strategies for better leadership. Instead, I’ll offer some reflection points for those who want to lead from a more well place.
Watch out for Transference. What’s this you may ask? Well, it's a term stemming from concepts originated by Sigmund Freud. Transference is one of the first concepts we teach new counselors in training. Transference is when you project your feelings about a person in your life (e.g., your parents, siblings) or a past situation (e.g., previous relationship) onto your current client/student/patient, etc. So for example, a counselor may have a client that reminds them of a previous romantic partner. The counselor may begin, subconsciously, interacting with their client based on their feelings about that ex. Yes, recipe for disaster. I imagine this happens in leadership relationships, too. As a leader you may encounter those on your team who remind you of others in your life. And, you begin not responding to them but responding to the person they remind you of. Here's another example. Let's say you are the oldest sibling in your family of origin and in your childhood felt you had to be perfect for your parents and your siblings. You find yourself leading a team that spans generations. You find yourself feeling immense pressure to preform perfectly when you are interacting with the oldest member of your team, who happens to be the same age of your parents. You find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated and wanting to avoid this team member. You are likely experiencing transference. Ask yourself, are you responding to the team member or are you responding to some unresolved stuff with your parents? Your responsibility is to recognize this quickly, self-reflect, and make adjustments in the relationship as necessary. This also leads me to my next point.
Get a counselor…quick. I know I say this all the time but it's so important. As a leader you are often bound by laws and ethical codes that limits what and how you can share. So, you likely find yourself carrying a lot emotionally and mentally. You need a safe space to process. Counselors can provide this safe place to process while also creating an environment that challenges you to reflect and implement new actions based on these insights. You may have good friends and family but they aren’t your counselor and its an unfair expectation to ask them to be this for you.
Know what you’re feeling. A number of leaders I have observed over the years tend to equate effective leadership with masking emotions. There is a gross misunderstanding in which leaders think if their team doesn't sense emotion from them they will earn their respect. That couldn't be further from the truth (Now, we can also talk about the ways in which identity impacts when and how it can be safe and/or unsafe for a leader to be vulnerable and emotionally expressive...I'll come back to this in another blog). Moreover, when leaders, and people in general, do express emotions these tend to be limited to mad, happy, or sad. The issue is that mad, happy, and sad often misrepresent what we are really feeling. And, then, we act based on this limited understanding of what we and others may be feeling. How would it change things if you said “My team’s actions disappointed me today” rather than “My team made me mad." Also, how may this difference in language change the reaction of your team? For me, you telling me you’re mad leads me to be defensive, hearing that someone is disappointed motivates me to have empathy and reflect on how things could have been done differently. A quick tip: Google feelings charts, download some, print them out, and place them around your work environment. This benefits you and the team.
Invest in your team’s mental, spiritual, and emotional health. You don’t want your team unwell. And, while perfect work/life balance is an illusion (Shout out to The Working Mom’s Coach for helping me with this revelation in my own life) there is an opportunity for you to create a culture that works for you and your team. Investing in your team’s well-being also calls for you to do an honest assessment of your team’s emotional and mental wellness. Are those around you generally able to be authentic? What's the general mood of the room when you all are together? Does your team seem to feel supported in navigating personal and professional responsibilities? Does everyone clam up when you walk in a room? Are they afraid to disagree with you? These are important reflection questions that can provide indicators to the general mental, spiritual, and emotional health of your organization. Now, I’m not saying you are responsible for everyone’s total well-being but I am saying if most people on your team are not doing well, it's a good chance you may be contributing to these dynamics. It's not to late to recalibrate. Hire a mental health professional as a consultant to provide you with feedback as well as work with the team to create an environment that promotes emotional and mental wellness. Build in real mental health days (please don’t ask people to do more work on these days). Keep a list of mental health and wellness resources readily available for your team to access. Display a calendar of spiritual and religious holidays so that team members feel supported in acknowledging the ways their faith is important to them. Start meetings with mindfulness exercises. These are just a few ideas, feel free to share some more that's worked for your team in the comments.
There’s definitely more I could say but blogs aren’t supposed to be too long, right? I’ll end here…for now.I hope these words are helpful to you and your team. And I hope that you are able to "be well and lead well."
Disclaimer: These blog posts are based on my personal opinions, reflections, and insights are not intended to be taken as professional therapeutic intervention(s). Further, please note these blogs are not intended to serve as and/or replace formal counseling services. If you are in need or interested in taking part in direct therapeutic services, please contact your insurance provider’s customer service for assistance. You may also consult websites such as (but not limited to) Psychology Today and Therapy for Black Girls.