This is the first in a series of short pieces on leadership, written from my perspective as a design leader, but applicable to anyone in any discipline who is acting in a leadership position.
The veil of leadership
During the early days of moving into a leadership role, I was different from what I am now. Not just in terms of experience, skills and confidence, but different in how I projected and conducted myself. My behaviour was strongly influenced and consciously adapted in accordance with how I wanted to be perceived by others.
You might say I was wearing a mask, or hiding behind a persona, somewhat afraid to act and behave any different to how I then assumed someone in a leadership position should act. Oh to be the iconic design leader; strong, resolute, inspirational and infallible. I’d created a mental model for the leader I wanted to be but was that true to who I am as a leader?
At times we find ourselves wearing a disguise or assuming a persona, in keeping with the type of leader we aspire to be, or believe to be expected of us. The hero, the diplomat, the political spokesperson, the charismatic charmer or battle-hardened war veteran. These are the types of archetypes society might traditionally hold up as embodying the characteristics of great leadership.
But why do we feel the need to act in a certain way or carry ourselves differently to who we really are? Why is being the same good and why do we shy away from being true to ourselves, and those we work with day-to-day?
The humanity of leadership
Reality check — you’re human, and therefore fallible, just like everyone else! You make mistakes just like everyone else. You have bad days just like everyone else. It’s not a sign of weakness to show vulnerability, to admit to mistakes and fess up when you’re not firing on all cylinders. It’s OK for you to seek emotional support when you need it and ask for help in difficult times. This does not make you any less of a leader.
Do you assume one demeanour at work and another at home? If the answer is a stark ‘yes’ then try and bring a bit of your personal life into your work. Yes, you heard it right. Contrary to popular belief there doesn’t have to be a hard and fast delineation of what’s personal and professional. A big part of building lasting relationships if finding meaningful connections and to connect you have to be prepared to blur these lines.
But, finding that right balance between “boss” and “friend” can be tricky right? On the one-hand, you want people to respect you and take you seriously in a professional capacity, but in reality, everyone wants to be liked. Whilst these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, it is hard to find the right balance and you will find times where the two conflict. Having honest and candid conversations, with the best interests of that individual in mind, is how we walk that line. Motivation and intent are key.
You can’t and won’t be liked by everyone, that is a very simple fact of life. Get over it. Stop trying to win the hearts and minds of everyone you work with. Accept that you may have long-lasting, fundamental differences in approaches, values and morals that some folks may not align with…and that’s OK. Be civil, be professional, but don’t do yourself emotional harm by trying to be liked by everyone, all the time.
So how do we negotiate this minefield of conflicts and contradictions?
Bring your whole self to work…every day.
In the simplest of terms, learn to be yourself again. The person your family and friends see; the real you. You’re a leader and have earned your place, but that doesn’t mean you have to recalibrate to fit with someone else’s definition of leadership. Own it, be you, bring your whole self to work every day and you’ll start to see the benefits:
- People will see through the facade and ultimately respect you more for it.
- Creates trust as it shows you’re a genuine, sometimes fallible, human.
- Creates empathy as people relate to your hopes, fears and motivations.
- Honesty and vulnerability create a sense of psychological safety.
- Asking for help gives others the opportunity to step up.
Don’t hide behind a mask or assume a persona, if that isn’t a true and genuine reflection of you and what you stand for. Be yourself and bring everything that comes with that. Show your battle scars, share your stories and relish in the fact we’ve all been there at some point.
Be proud, not embarrassed by your authenticity.
Be the leader you are, not the one you think others expect you to be.
If you’re thinking about your next career move or are looking for an exciting new opportunity in the field of design, take a look at our current Product Design vacancies on the Redgate careers page.