Want to Be a Good Leader? Be a Little Selfish

By: Heather Plowman, Develop Louisville, Executive Fellows Cohort 1

As the first cohort of the Louisville Metro Executive Fellows comes to a close, I’ve been thinking of what I’d tell others about my experience. Of course we’ve discussed the power of data, the importance of networking, and the value of teamwork. But honestly, by the time you’re ready to be a Fellow, you probably know all of that already, even if you haven’t fully put it into practice yet. As someone already in a leadership position, I knew I’d have these ideas reinforced, but I worried if I was getting involved too late in my career. I already knew everyone in the cohort with the exception of one person (Hi, Claude!), and, having spent several years in the Budget Office, I had at least a basic knowledge of each of the Metro departments we visited. Was I taking up a spot that someone else could have better used? What was I going to get out of this program?

One of the benefits of being selected as an Executive Fellow is the access to OPI2’s Enterprise Training Fund. Each Fellow is allocated funds to spend on training of their choosing. These courses can run the gamut from education related directly to one’s area of expertise to the softer skills that are so often overlooked in leadership. I was able to participate in two offerings by the Leadership Louisville Center: “Driving Business Results with Diversity and Inclusion” and “Becoming a Resonant Leader.” The resonant leadership class, led by Melvin L. Smith, Ph.D., was so energizing it inspired me to dedicate the month of June to improving myself in a variety of ways.

The two day course was essentially divided in half. The first half described how to work with your employees through both positive emotional tone and being in-sync with their needs — great information, but probably refresher material for anyone who has ever been through a decent leadership course. The second half of the course was where I really felt that excitement ones gets from feeling truly inspired. On day two, the primary focus was on resiliency. This was particularly timely, since Metro recently named its first Chief of Resiliency and renamed the Department of Community Services to the Department of Resiliency and Community Services.

Dr. Smith started by blowing up a balloon. He then slapped the balloon several times to represent the difficulties leaders face on a daily basis. Since the balloon was full, it bounced back every time it was hit. However, each of those hits knocked a little bit of air out of the balloon (he didn’t tie it off) until the balloon could no longer bounce back — the balloon was deflated and defeated as a leader. Who wants to work for a deflated balloon?

In order to retain our resiliency as leaders, we must constantly refill our balloon. Dr. Smith explained the method to do this is to find ways to constantly and consistently renew ourselves in four categories: Mind (keep learning), Body (exercise, nutrition, rest), Heart (emotional connections), and Spirit (whatever gives your life purpose). He stated it is necessary to renew all four areas in order to have true balance in our lives. Only when we have this balance in ourselves can we bounce back and be great leaders. So, for the month of June, I’m going to truly think of personally meaningful ways to refill my balloon through mind, body, heart, and spirit so I can be a better leader within my department.

Change Nothing, Nothing Changes

I’ll wrap up with the most personally timely statement Dr. Smith made on that day. He said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” For months, I’ve put sticky notes on my office wall to perk myself up when the going gets tough. One of those sticky notes is pictured here. In mathematical terms, the triangle, or delta, is the symbol for change; the other is the symbol for the empty set, or null (nothing). I’ve adopted this as short hand for “Change Nothing, Nothing Changes.” I’ve talked about getting this as a tattoo for a couple of years now — something completely out of character for me. Well, to kick off my path to challenging myself to find my happiness, thus increasing my resiliency, I got that tattoo (please don’t let my mother read this). I can stare at it as I meditate (spirit) and reflect on the wonderful time I’ve had with my fellow Fellows (heart) over the past year.

There’s a familiar saying around Metro Government: “the biggest room is the room for improvement.” If you’re thinking “been there, done that,” and wondering what you can gain from the Executive Fellows program later in your career, I want to remind you that unless you’re a magical unicorn, you probably still have some things you can learn. The small group allows you a voice you may not have in a larger crowd. Department visits allow you to ask questions you may not think of or have opportunity to ask in a more unintentional setting. And, of course, finding meaningful training opportunities provides a venue for improving the mind and renewing the resiliency that is so importance in an effective leader.