Self-Leadership – an unexpected discovery
In late 2016 I found myself in an unusually quiet time. I had wrapped up my year in Toastmasters as District 91 Director, and I had just finished a contract leading a transformation program in local government. I was feeling particularly mortal after my father’s death at the start of that year. There was also the urgency of being almost 50. I remembered that once, a long time ago, I had promised myself to work towards a doctorate by the time I was 50. There was a strong sense of “if not now, when?”.
From organizational to personal
I had intended to research how storytelling can facilitate organizational change, but my topic evolved into something much more personal. I was using a very practical approach called ‘action research’ where you go through cycles or stages of research, reflecting and building upon what has been learned. Action research is quite unique in that it acknowledges that the researcher brings themselves into the research, through the topics they choose to explore, the ideas they draw from, the questions they ask, and the data they gather. All these things are influenced by us, our backgrounds and beliefs, however subtly, despite how much we may wish to be “objective”. Therefore, in action research, it is expected that we do personal work to know ourselves as well as we can, so we acknowledge what we are bringing into the research, and can think critically about our subjectivity.
Doing my own personal work has been at times discomforting, enlightening and unexpectedly, empowering. A key thing I started to recognise early on was that I was often disconnected from the here and now. For example, I would often be in my head trying to work out how some change could land successfully in the future and not really present. I became curious about these disconnections and resolved to explore the reasons for them, so that I might better reconnect.
In this blog I would like to share with you an example of one area of disconnection that has come up – emotions!
When it comes to emotion, I found there were two key influences at work for me that can cause me to hold back my feelings. One was a kind of “rule” I learned when I was young that “nice girls don’t get into arguments”. The other was being a woman working in environments that were traditionally male-dominated – technology, engineering, telecommunications – I had picked up a perspective, that expressing emotion might be perceived as weakness, and would come across as not capable enough to make things happen.
What I found was that these influences didn’t stop me having emotions, it just meant I felt that it was a self-betrayal if I allowed them to be seen. So, I would suppress them as much as I could. In my research I realised this meant I wasn’t fully processing my emotions and risked holding relationships at a distance. When I held back my feelings when there were challenges, I started to recognise I was losing the chance to resolve them together with others. So, despite having on the surface, a successful career, there were challenges for me personally. I wondered what else I might achieve if I could connect better!
Consequently, part of the action in my research has been finding ways to recognise, process and express emotion. I write a daily journal, create photography, poetry, stories and imagery to process what is going on in my life. I have a daily yoga and mediation practice that helps me be present, aware and able to modulate my emotions. I am more likely to share what I am feeling, or to share what I have been feeling afterwards, even if it was hard to do so in the moment.
From self-leadership to leading with others
Why is this important from an interpersonal perspective? As a leader?
With greater emotional intelligence and connection, I find myself much more aware of, and caring for, other people’s wellbeing as a friend, colleague and leader. As a mentor I find myself encouraging self-care, whereas before I would have stuck very much to the task at hand. When I am leading change, I am now more focused on making sure that those affected by change are included and considered. I am increasingly convinced of the importance of safe spaces for people to be in community together. It means to me not just safe to speak in public, but to feel safe, when we are working in teams and leading together.
Overall, what I am finding is that as I learn to lead myself better, I become a better leader with other people too. If I am prepared to show my own feelings, I can be more inclusive with others and create safer spaces. I am more aware, compassionate, more prepared to speak up for me, and for others.
While I never anticipated my doctoral research would bring me here, I’m grateful it did.