You can’t take care of yourself? You can’t lead!

I have been part of the workforce for twenty five years now and for the past six I have lead a small but important team in the institution I am a part of. I want to be a leader that makes a change, even if at a small scale, and I have been avidly looking for models that would inspire me and that, at the same time, would resonate with me and feel doable. Over the past ten months, as the pandemic brought as much chaos as it brought clarity around the world, I have been reading more and more about the servant leader, about the need for leaders who are empathic, human, and present themselves in authentic, vulnerable ways. To my brain, this all sounded logical and good for the times but to my heart something did not add up.

In quite a serendipitous turn of events, yesterday, my current leader opened up a door for me to thinking differently about leadership. He spoke to me about how we act differently in the presence of different people, he laid out on the screen in front of me the various types of leadership that we manifest and spoke to me about how we unconsciously move from one to another depending on many elements: the people we lead, the situation we are in, the organisation we are part of and so many others.

The above made sense to me instantly because I have felt this inner push in myself to behave differently in my leadership, depending on what was in front of me but I worried that this showed inconsistency on my part and made me less credible to my team. It also made me reflect on values in the position of lights that support us on our path. So the question that I was then left with was — how do I make sure, in this unconscious shift between leadership styles that my values remain intact? They are, after all, my compass, regardless of the sea I am navigating on.

Going back to the beginning, over the past months I have read over and over again about how leaders must support their people, how they must eat last, how they must bring their authentic selves in front of their teams to encourage authenticity in others and kill the myth of the untouchable boss, how they should be good listeners and servants and many amazingly hard things of this kind. Now, I agree, leadership is not for the weak hearted or for the ones who need their egos boosted. At the same time, and more importantly today, leadership is not for those who don’t know how to take care of themselves.

The only type of leadership style that makes sense to me right now is the Attuned Leader. An attuned leader pays attention, and not just to the surface — she watches and listens for words, gestures, tones, feels energy, is present. An attuned leader knows her people and is conscious of the switch that happens in the type of interaction she has with various people on the team. Probably the most important thing an attuned leader does is know herself. As a leader, we must not only be attuned to the people we seek to lead. We must start from the well known Socratic invitation “know thyself” — being attuned to ourselves before anyone or anything else, this type of leader knows her values, her Achilles’ heel and her strengths. An attuned leader is human by virtue of the fact that she is truly connected and recognises humanity in everyone she encounters. She is empathetic because she is attuned enough to understand that each and every one of us is fighting a hard battle. Most importantly, and this is important because we are now talking about a buzz word here, authenticity is replaced in the attuned leader by bringing her best self to the table. There is SO much respect, humanity and generosity in being attuned enough to understand when it is ok to be your authentic self and when it is needed to maybe meet the others where they are or be silent and let others be heard. As Seth Godin was pointing out recently, would you want the surgeon who operates on your brain to bring his authentic self or his best self to work? Why can’t we say the same thing for leadership.

Being an attuned leader means living in the present, interacting with intention, it means being clear on her values, manifesting her humanity in every encounter (especially during the one we have every morning in front of the mirror) and daring to dream, think out of the box, make mistakes, fail forward and get back up. Put more succinctly, the attuned leader acts with a firm back, a soft front and a wild heart.

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