Does anyone become a great skier or volleyball player by just reading books and watching videos of other people doing it? Of course, not. And even if you have the best coach, with the most knowledge and expertise, you still have to get out on the trail or the court and do it yourself, find your own groove, create your own style and habits that work for you and your team.
I realized this over the past week, as once again I found myself calling forth everything I have learned about leadership from books and observations of other leaders. Leading people is hard, and I often feel at the same time that I do it well and that I totally suck at it. I worry that because it feels mentally and emotionally exhausting, I must be doing it wrong—like if I really knew what I was doing it would just be easy. But that is perfectionism and fixed mindset talking, I’m pretty sure.
Knowing theory is key, no question. If you don’t understand in advance what it will be like to stand up on skis (they don’t stop themselves and if the tips are pointed downhill that is exactly where you will slide), you will fall and risk injury to self and others a lot more than if you are prepared with a few pointers in advance. It’s the same with leadership. Remembering how it feels to be led well, versus poorly, allows me to have empathy for those I lead. Mastery of, or at least proficiency in, some key communication tools such as reflective listening, nonjudgmental questioning, and objective feedback, makes the skills easier to access under stress and pressure. Holding core values and principles in front, and exemplifying them, rather than just professing them, earns trust and credibility.
I wrote to a mentor recently, “I find myself repeating language from the books, inventing analogies and using examples from the team’s lived experience to show how the theories apply. Words like empathy, curiosity, generosity, non-judgment, deep breathing, and ‘How fascinating!’ exit my mouth a lot, as well as, ‘It’s all about relationships!’ People must see me as a broken record…” He reminded me that we need these mantras to keep ourselves focused and also to repeat out loud and invite accountability in our actions. I wholeheartedly agree. Maybe I will take a misstep here or there (no maybe—it will happen!). It won’t be because I’m not trying or I don’t care—it will be because I’m human and we all make mistakes. It’s because I’m out there practicing.
When I think back to high school volleyball practice, residency, personal training, and the early days of parenting (hell, every day of parenting), it’s not the easy days that stand out in memory. It’s the hard days, the days when I really struggled, but came out having grown, even in a little, in my learning. It’s the days when I can say, hey, I know better now, and I will do better next time—bring it.
So yes, leading well is hard. It’s exhausting. It costs inordinate amounts of energy, self-awareness, -monitoring, and -control. It makes me hypervigilant of my words, posture, and actions. Theory and practice go hand in hand; they are the twin pillars of learning, application, and success in all realms. I will keep reading for theory (I highly recommend Legacy by James Kerr and Big Potential by Shawn Achor). I will keep showing up every day ready to do my best in practice. I feel confident in the trust and credibility I have already earned, and that people can see that I’m honestly doing my best, for all of us.