Leaders are always under stress to perform. They must lead their teams to achieve higher results, maintain calm under immense pressure, communicate well in tough situations, build cross-functional relationships, and typically, work until the point of exhaustion to get it all done. All of this can often lead to feeling overwhelmed and weighed down with stress.
Over the years, I’ve worked with leaders to find a better way. It’s called leading lightly, and I’ve written a book on how to achieve it.
Leading lightly means that no matter what happens during your day, you have the capacity to approach everything with enduring ease and clarity. It is a state of being that naturally arises when you have learned to let go of your internal noise and emotional clutter.
To be able to lead lightly, you must first develop your mental fitness so you can optimize performance at all times. And even if you feel like you are totally on your game (and have a history of achievements to prove it), I bet there’s at least one blind spot that could be holding you back in being able to level up your leadership. For example, you may be:
- Blind to how you are perceived by your team or colleagues,
- Blind to your perspectives and cognitive biases,
- Blind to your deeply reactive, automatic responses,
- Blind to your well-honed defense systems.
When we are blind, we’re unaware of what’s actually driving our behavior (or lack of behavior), the decisions we make, and the ones we avoid. Many of us actually believe this limiting behaviors are simply “who I am.” But when you lead lightly, you are able to see yourself, in the moment, and are able to manage those moments that sabotage your performance, your decision-making capacity, and your capacity to communicate effectively. You literally retrain your brain to pause, assess and reframe a situation to a more productive “lens” and act accordingly, rather than on auto-pilot (which can result in defensiveness, reactivity, closed thinking, etc.), as we normally do.
I’ve been coaching clients for over 25 years, and I know first-hand this transformational mind shift is possible if you put in the work. Of course, there are critics. So here are the top five myths of leading lightly debunked:
Myth #1: It is too “soft” of an approach for competitive leaders. You must be tough to get results.
This is one that I get pushback from people on all of the time. They say a leader needs to be tough to create performance. But leading lightly doesn’t have anything to do with being soft. It doesn’t lower standards or expectations. It actually increases them, because you can create more clarity about what you are trying to accomplish. You aren’t softer, but you are coming at the situation from a perspective that doesn’t create increased anxiety or stress and overwhelm others. You have the same level of expectations and the same level of standards that you had before. You’re just feeling better, and your team is feeling better, and they’re more rested as a result of your change in leadership.
Myth #2: It doesn’t have an effect on a company’s bottom line or employee/organizational performance.
This myth couldn’t be farther from the truth, because leading lightly has a huge impact on a company’s bottom line! When you are have mental fitness, you are more equipped to build cross-functional alliances, you are better at being non-reactive, you are more effective managing down, you have empathy as well as being very clear in your communication and employee effective listening skills.
All of these leadership skills have a solid return on investment because you build retention when you practice them. You make better decisions because you are using the full capacity of your brain. You react well in stressful situations. You don’t take things personally. You aren’t reactive or defensive. You operate at a different level, and people are noticing and responding to you in a more positive way. People will want to partner with you; they will want to work for you and that’s important for attracting talent, especially during The Great Resignation.
Myth #3: It will make me lose my edge as a leader.
Leading lightly will actually make you sharper as a leader. None of the positives of your personality will go away: you will still be passionate, inspiring, innovative, strategic, results driven and communicative.
What will change is that you will lose your less than desirable qualities: reactivity, annoyance, lack of flexibility, my way or the highway mindset and feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
When you improve your mental fitness, you maintain your upside but eliminate the downside. You are actually building on what’s already good and eliminating what’s in the way of being an optimal performer. You learn how to bring out your best self and maintain that, regardless of external circumstances.
Myth #4: My employees and competitors will perceive me differently.
This is actually a trick myth, because your employees and competitors will, in fact, perceive you differently… for all of the right reasons! They will notice an immediate positive impact, and they are often shocked at what is often a 180-degree turnaround with effectiveness, partnering, communication, listening – skills that they haven’t seen in you before. You will build range, nuance and elegance in your leadership.
I remember a client from many years ago (we’ll call him Darren) who was on his last chapter in his career. He had made it to the C-suite and only had five more years left until retirement. His boss, the CEO had been working with me and suggested Darren do the same. Darren came into our first meeting as closed as any client I had ever met. He was skeptical, highly opinionated and said he was committed to just going through the motions of this coaching engagement.
No coach wants to hear that, but I said, “Let’s see if we can get you to a place where you actually get excited about the work that we do together.” He took my leadership workshops, followed by a four-hour executive coaching session. At the end of that, he had a transformation. He realized that he wasn’t quite done with his career. He said he considered himself just moving toward retirement but now could see he still had potential to be a better leader. Darren was suddenly inspired to leave a legacy!
Fast forward a year, Darren has changed so profoundly that his wife calls me up and says, “I don’t know what you’ve done with my husband, but he’s a better man than the one I married 30 years ago.” That’s what so amazing about learning to reframe your perspective, it affects your personal life as well.
Fast forward five years later, Darren invites me to his retirement party and notes the impact I’ve had in his life.
Fast forward ten years later, we still keep in touch. And Darren still isn’t done with his career. He launched a new company in an entirely different industry that brings him incredible joy.
Darren admits he had a closed leadership style before. Now that he’s more open, he is committed to building leaders, to really mentoring his employees. He now has a team of engaged employees who have contributed to his success in his encore career. He is truly leaving a legacy!
Myth #5: MindMastery and mental fitness belong in the personal realm, not the professional world.
We just saw how Darren’s professional and personal life were both changed by honing his mental fitness. When you learn how to lead lightly, that transfers to your personal life as well. You can’t separate the two – it affects how you partner with your spouse, how you parent your kids, how you see the world.
When you lead lightly and are confronted with a difficult situation, instead of your previous instantaneous reaction, you have multiple moves that you can actually choose for their applicability in situations. And let’s not forget that 90% of our thoughts and our reactions are habitual. It’s the leaders that rely on their old ways that cause the most pain and never reach their optimal potential. I call that lazy leadership. To be your best self professionally and personally, you have to overcome gaps that get in the way of executive presence, gravitas and leadership. It’s a choice you can make at any point in your life and career.