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Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. PCC

Unlocking Your Leadership Voice

I was born in Northern Ireland in 1967 and my generation is commonly known as “children of the troubles.” The “troubles” refer to the sectarian conflict between the nationalist (Protestant) and republican (Catholic) communities that were ignited into a violent conflict around this time and only recently have simmered down.

It’s a fascinating experience growing up in such a divided society. Each side of the conflict had its own narrative of history and the cause of the troubles, which of course they believed to be true. There was overwhelming pressure to conform to one of these narratives and unique voices were not welcomed. Saying something outside the accepted narrative was a risk few were willing to take. I often wonder if those voices had been heard what an amazing impact it would have had.

This experience informs me so much as I work with leaders today. One of the struggles I noticed during our coaching conversations was finding their unique leadership voice and having the courage and confidence to sound that voice. It comes up in so many ways:

  • “When I walk into a room, how do I get noticed?”
  • “I’m afraid to speak up.”
  • “How do I know if they understand me?”

This made me reflect on what makes up a leadership voice? I have found it helpful when working with leaders to breakdown the process of unlocking their leadership voice into two complementary areas of exploration and development which I call the
Inner and Outer Voice.

Inner Voice

We use our voices every day without thinking of the amazing and complex inner processes that make it possible. A power source (the lungs) interacts with a vibrator (voice box) and resonator (vocal folds) and our voice emerges. A distinct leadership voice begins with an equally amazing inner process which can be broken down into two elements.

Your Foundational Values

My husband and I built a new home a few years ago. I remember being frustrated at the beginning by the seeming lack of progress. However, we were reminded that the foundation was the most important element of the house. If it was not correct, then defects would show up in other areas as the house went up.

At the core of a strong leadership voice is a firm foundation based on the values that drive you, excite you and inspire you. For some these values can be named readily; for others it’s a new exploration. While some of these values are enduring, others become more evident as we grow through life and our circumstances change.

Your Inner Story

We human beings are meaning making machines. We have a story for everything, no matter how small, that happens to us. Advances in neuroscience point to the reality that we think in story form, we make sense of the world in story form, we make meaning in story form and we remember and recall in story form.

What is also clear is that we have an inner story that drives our lives and the choices we make. That story deeply impacts our leadership voice. Our level of confidence, what we fear, all have their genesis in our inner story. One of the gifts that leadership coaching gives clients is the ability to uncover their inner story and reframe elements to unleash new confidence and overcome fears.

Outer Voice

Leaders seek to engage, inspire, and influence. We can only engage, inspire, and influence that to which we are connected. Therefore, our outer voice helps create that connection. The outer voice is made of two intelligences.

Narrative Intelligence

I remember seeing the launch of the Space Shuttle during one of its missions when the International Space Station was being built. What an awe-inspiring sight. A great story is like the space shuttle. There is no more powerful vehicle to deliver your payload be it a change initiative or new goal. The leaders with whom I work operate at an incredible pace and deal with ever growing change and complexity. Storytelling is a skill that can help them in a unique way capture attention in the midst of people’s busyness and convey meaning in a new and refreshing way. Story has the power to shine the spotlight on underlying values and create trust which is so sorely lacking today.

Presentation and Nonverbal Intelligence

Stephen Denning called leadership “a performance art.” To move into leadership is to take the center stage. That does not mean one hogs the limelight; however, it does mean an ability and skill in the art of verbal and nonverbal communication. To be an effective communicator in this video age means an ability to express an idea concisely and with clarity, with a vocal tone which engages while display body language that is congruent and builds trust. It also means being able to read the nonverbal feedback and adjust appropriately.

The Undercurrent of Emotional Intelligence

The critical element that has not been mentioned in leadership voice is the place of emotional intelligence. It too has an inner (self-awareness and self-regulation) and outer (social awareness and relationship management) makeup that are key elements of the inner and outer voice. So, for example when you are exploring your inner story the ability to recognize and understand your emotions, moods and drives are critical.

Albert Einstein once said, “Be a voice not an echo.” The journey from echo to voice is not easy, but it is one that authentic leadership demands.

Don’t Do It Yourself!

We have all heard the expression, “if you want something done right, then do it yourself.” We all know people who follow this mantra and are tireless workers. They get things done and they get it done right. These are the people who stand out and often are marked for promotion. However, therein lies the problem because the skills that a manager or supervisor needs are very different.

When a staff member gets promoted and becomes a supervisor the transition period is critical. They need to press the reset bottom and be prepared to learn a whole new set of skills. The danger is that they will fall into their default mode of “doing” it themselves. Unfortunately “doers” seldom make good supervisors.

A supervisor leads a team and the team will perform at its best if each member is reaching their potential. That entails an investment of time with each of the team that at first might be considered a waste of time by the new supervisor. Rather than a waste of time if structured properly this can be one of the most important things that a supervisor “does”.

There are three essential steps in becoming a good supervisor.

1. Plan
If adequate time is spend on planning then a supervisor and their team can act proactively rather than react to situations as they arise. When a supervisors is reacting then its more likely they will fall into the temptation to do the job themselves. Good planning enables a team to look at the week, month, quarter or year ahead and highlight important tasks and events.

2. Set Goals
Setting goals are vital because they define priorities and expectations. Good planning highlights significant upcoming events and goal setting orders them and assigns a team member to achieve them. Goal setting should be a collaborative process with each team member giving input on how best to use each person. If goals are self identified rather than imposed the team member is going to take much more ownership for their achievement.

3. Assess Performance
The third step is timely and ongoing feedback. An effective supervisor is willing to invest time coaching and mentoring team members. They should know how each team member is performing and act proactively if there are performance issues.

Of course each of these steps can be unpacked further but they are essential to becoming highly effective supervisor. Good management stresses the importance of adequate training for new supervisors. It’s a good investment whose return will be seen many times over.

Use Your Senses

I read an article in the London Times a few days ago that referenced a recent report, which found that professionals are suffering from “burnout” at an alarming scale. The primary cause was increased workplace stress and its impact.

Benjamin Franklin once famously said that the only two things that were certain in life were death and taxes. Workplace stress should be added to his list. The impact of stress is felt physically, emotionally and mentally and seriously impacts our workplace performance. It’s vital therefore that we learn how to address our levels of stress and learn practical methods to help us reduce it.

As I reflect on how I deal with work stress I am drawn to a lesson I was taught in grade school that has impacted me through the years. I was in fourth grade and one day when we entered the classroom the teacher had set up five different areas. She told us that we were going to spend the day exploring our senses. The first area had jars with different scents, some were sweet and pleasant and others were pungent. The second station had pictures of nature and we were asked to focus on all the details of the picture. The third station had five boxes and we were invited to put our hand thought a hole in the box and feel what was inside. At the fourth station we were blind folded and asked to taste three different things and guess what it was. Finally there was a tape recorder and headphones. It played five different sounds that we had to guess.

I learned that day that my dominant sense was sound. It was an important lesson as I use that sense often to help reduce my level of stress. When I feel my tell tale signs of stress, increased heart beat, tense muscles and a growing agitation, I turn to sound to help me refocus and reduce my level of stress. For me it’s a small table fountain. I turn it on and concentrate on the gentle sound for a few minutes. I shut everything else out and I find it calms me down and helps me refocus. At other times I turn on some gentle music, which has the same impact.

For others a different sense may work. I have a friend who when stressed goes to a window and focuses all her attention on a tree. She looks at how it’s shaped and the number of branches and leaves. It might sound strange but it works for her and helps in reducing the immediate feeling of stress. There are endless possibilities, smelling a favorite sent or candle or squeezing a ball. All it takes is a little experimentation and find what works for you.

Stress is a killer and unaddressed it can consume us. Maybe its time we all spent a little more time and explore our senses so we have another weapon in dealing with stress.

 

Are you expecting a burglar?

The story is told of a couple sleeping soundly one night when suddenly they were awakened by some strange sounds from the downstairs. The wife insisted that her husband go downstairs to check things out. The husband arose and went downstairs reluctantly, armed with a putter, grumbling all the way. To his surprise he found a burglar in the dining room busy emptying the drawer with all the silverware. “Stay right where you are,” he said to the burglar. “I want to run upstairs to get my wife. She’s been expecting you for the last thirty years!”

If we are honest many of us are just like the wife in this story, we are expecting buglers in our professional and personal lives all the time. Psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term “awfulizing” to express the reality that at times we can get caught up in exaggerating a feared outcome or seeing minor setbacks as catastrophes. He notes that a possible outcome is the creation of a chain of negative thoughts, feelings and actions.

How often has something happened to us and we have created our own story around it which raises our stress and anxiety level but which is simply not based in reality. Perhaps we are giving a presentation at work and one of the attendees is yawning and fidgeting. We interpret it personally as reflecting that we are boring and not connecting with our colleagues. That’s only the beginning. From there we begin to make judgments about our ability to competently give a presentation and if we cannot do that what hope is there for a promotion. Before long we have ‘awfulized” a situation without even considering the possibility that our colleague was up all night with a sick child and they are just exhausted and need some sleep.

When we are on edge expecting the burglar we are not living in the present. Our energy is poured into a future event of our own creation or is dwelling on a past event we cannot change. It is in the present that we find our most creative and productive selves. The next time we find ourselves expecting a burglar just BREATHE. Acknowledge that we are dreaming up a scenario that is robbing us of being our best and return to the present.