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.


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