Leadership paradigms are changing and evolving. Modern leaders are expected to be empowering, understanding, inclusive, empathetic, compassionate, good listeners, able to expertly manage and resolve conflict fairly, and give more than they receive. It’s not always easy to find the energy, patience and calm demeanour when we ourselves are bombarded daily with demands, pressures, and challenges.

Growing as a leader and finding balance between personal needs and team needs is a process that begins within the leader first. Only then will they be able to truly live, breathe and embody the values and virtues that create ripples and waves of productive change and motivation in others.

Modern leaders aren’t just people in positions of power and authority either. We can all be everyday leaders in our lives – even for something as simple and beautiful and leading a small child to take their first empowered steps on their life’s journey.

Leadership boils down to how effective we are at fighting for others, as well as how we fight to maintain balance within our own lives at the same time. This is why it’s critical that leaders become experts in managing conflict and the many shades of fighting that have meaningful impacts on people’s lives and relationships.

Working on your internal foundation ensures you have a rock-solid base from which to grow into a highly effective and successful leader.

Step 1 – know your purpose

A clear understanding of your purpose guides your decisions, actions and motivations. Leading without knowing your true purpose is like sailing without a compass and without a destination. You might get to where you want to go eventually, but you might not. A clear purpose keeps your actions aligned with your deeper needs and intent leading to improved strength of character, integrity, focus and fulfillment.

People aren’t as aware of their purposes as you’d think they should be and there are good reasons for this. Purpose is tied with identity, and a person’s identity is complex. Sometimes throughout life, we adapt our identities to fit the demands, pressures and expectations placed on us by ourselves or by others.

Created identities, learned beliefs, and acquired defense mechanisms obscure or cover up our true purpose, aspirations and dreams. We may think we want something, when in fact if we look deeper there is a more basic and fundamental underlying need. So before setting your goals, you should be confident they align with your purpose. You can find your purpose through self-exploration and journeying.

Step 2 – Understand human nature and the inner workings of yourself and others

Each person has a unique individual nature that differentiates them from everyone else. However, we share a common “human nature” which is tied to our physiology and psychology. Leaders need to be consciously aware of how our brains automatically and unconsciously work to protect us from real and perceived threats. These threats or triggers happen all the time, and they can lead to undesirable or negative outcomes like interpersonal conflict, difficulties in problem solving, diminished creativity and innovation, demotivation, poor career satisfaction and many others.

To empower others and bring out their best potential, leaders need to understand concepts such as the fight and flight mechanism, automatic defensive behaviours, and the brain’s processes related to motivation, bias, reward and fear.

What’s most important of all is for the leader to gain an intimate awareness of their own inner workings which makes it easier to perceive similar qualities in others.

Step 3 – Shift perspectives on conflict and fighting by understanding the “shades of fighting”

Since before recorded history people have been fighting and experiencing conflict. Conflict is everywhere – from struggling to get out of bed in the morning, to solving hard business challenges, to geopolitical issues. Fighting comes in many shades along a spectrum.

Fighting is the way we choose to manage and resolve conflict and it happens both inside a person and on the outside. Some would say that fighting is inherent to human nature. This is only partially true – fighting in the most recognizable form (violence, yelling, insults etc.) is not the only kind of fighting we can experience. It is an adolescent kind of fighting – one we begin to explore as kids as a natural way of learning about ourselves. In our adult lives this kind of fighting can lead to negativity, anger, frustration, stress, violence, disempowerment, competition, linear and constrained thinking, burnout and many more undesirable outcomes.

Mature kinds of fighting are productive and unifying

There are many other ways to fight which transcend and move beyond adolescent kinds of fighting. It’s important to be able to recognize these different shades of fighting, as we all start our journey in adolescence before growing and maturing. Leaders help others grow which often means being patient with them while they are learning.

You don’t often hear people referring to these mature kinds of fighting as fighting at all, but they are because they act to manage and resolve conflict. Some examples of where this “productive conflict” occurs are dialogue, debate, collaboration, introspection, understanding, personal and professional growth, interpersonal relationships, unification, inclusion and more. The results include optimism, empowerment, creativity, innovation, satisfaction, intrinsic motivation and collaboration – opposite of what you see with adolescent fighting.

While people’s intentions are usually good, it’s very easy for a more mature kind of fighting to change quickly into an adolescent form. I’m sure you’ve seen a structured meeting or debate devolve into something less orderly before. An effective modern leader who understands the shades of fighting will perceive, predict, manage and mitigate forms of adolescent fighting before or when they occur. They will demonstrate or encourage a shift towards more mature kinds of fighting instead. This is important for both intra- and inter-personal forms of conflict.

Step 4 – Discover, develop, practice and effectively employ your personal super powers

There are many personal super powers that empowering leaders use. These powers can be learned, practiced and strengthened. Studies show that the core powers of any great leader are increasingly being recognized as empathy and compassion. Leaders who strongly demonstrate these skills empower their colleagues leading to improvements in innovation, work engagement, experience of inclusion, work-life balance and more.

People have different definitions and understandings of these terms. It’s important to fully understand what they mean, how to cultivate them and how to inspire others to do the same. Compassion is a powerful tool that counteracts the negative effects of fear and threat that was mentioned in step 2.

Other super powers leaders can practice include genuine curiosity, command over their attention, “fluid focus”, decision and choice, taking action, perception, perspective, motivation and language use. While it’s easy to think and read about modern leadership skills, mastering them requires dedicated effort and practice. In many ways, your brain and its automatic survival processes can get in the way. Learning to gain more command over those aspects of yourself is key to unlocking the full power of these skills.

Step 5 – Experiment, iterate and reflect

Once you have deeply explored the concepts from steps 1-4, the final and continuing step is to evaluate your progress and effectiveness of putting those concepts into action. If you think of each day and each action you take as a mini experiment, you can continually reflect on your results and iterate new approaches. This is where the real learning and development takes place.

As a leader you are on an everlasting journey where the ripples and waves you make help to inspire, motivate, empower and enable others to forge their own productive and successful paths through their lives. Leaders illuminate the path so others can see more clearly where they want to go. Leaders help people grow wings so they can soar to new heights.

That’s a high expectation to live up to isn’t it? Nobody is perfect and yet leaders should feel comfortable allowing themselves to be just a little bit vulnerable, showing others that they too are continuing to grow. This is a way of connecting with people and making them feel more comfortable. It can be a delicate balance.

Introspection and self-reflection is a super power

Small setbacks can lead to big improvements. A self-reflective and iterative attitude is paramount in ensuring that you keep demonstrating strength of character and integrity while staying true to your purpose. This is what they mean when they say “lead by example”. It’s quite different than “lead through authority”.  

Self-reflection and adaptation is another type of fight – a mature form of fighting you conduct within yourself. It takes energy to accurately observe and perceive your effectiveness, your challenges, the impacts you have and the nature of your relationships with others. There will be emotional friction as you have a dialogue with yourself through regular reflection – not to criticize yourself and feel negatively, but to see new opportunities and feel positive about experimenting with them.

Unite the five steps within yourself to actualize these modern leadership skills

The five steps really dig into the core competencies that help to nurture great modern leadership skills. When working on your leadership skills, try not to think about “collecting skills” but rather about developing yourself as a whole from the inside out. This will give you a more natural capability to take action on the skills you learn and put them into practice.

Leadership can indeed be taught, but not in the conventional sense. A set of enabling base skills can be introduced but each person will grow into their own unique version of a leader. Reading about these can help set context and build awareness, but in order to embody and demonstrate these virtues and values a deeper exploration and practice is necessary. You don’t learn to be a leader – you work to become a leader.

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