Leadership From the Inside Out

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Just this past weekend, I had the privilege of hanging out with a group of young leaders. Boy, is it ever refreshing to observe – and absorb – some of their energy, enthusiasm and passion! But the best part of the experience? Seeing their teachable hearts and their eagerness to grow as individuals and as leaders. Seriously warms my heart and gives me hope for the future.

It started me thinking. What morsels of wisdom have I gained over the years in working with leaders? What characterizes a great leader?

In my work as a psychologist, coach, and HR consultant, I have worked with a number of leaders in very key roles. I have worked with them on their way up the ladder of leadership, and I have worked with them as they crashed and burned on their way down. And I’ll tell you one thing: their success and failure is never based on how much they know, their skills or expertise. It’s always rooted in the internal stuff – what I call “heart” issues.

So essential, yet often so ignored. Because dealing with heart issues takes a lot more fortitude, character, humility and capacity to suffer than simply going through a leadership program or reading a few books. And sadly, too many leaders choose never to do this work – often because of fear, pride, a reluctance to look deep in the dark places of their heart, or because they figure they know what they’re doing already. So let’s just get on with it, and forget all of this psycho-babble-mumbo-jumbo.

Forget that the greatest leader in the world had this to say about the heart:

  • People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
  • So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. (1 King 3:9)
  • Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)
  • The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out. (Proverbs 20:5)
  • As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. (Proverbs 27:19)
  • For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21)
  • But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart. (Matthew 15:18)

Well… I’m thinking that Jesus being a wise teacher and all, maybe we should listen.

As I reflected on what I could pass on to these young leaders that could make a real difference in the trajectory of their leadership journey, I decided that – if nothing else — I wanted them to grab hold of these six critical principles of life and leadership:

1.  Be teachable.

No, I don’t mean be willing to read books and gain knowledge – although this is certainly important. By this principle I mean: be willing to examine your failures, be open to constructive criticism, and be willing to admit your mistakes. Too many leaders have stumbled because of their unwillingness to hear what others are telling them, to learn from wiser others. They already know all the answers, or they have a myriad of excuses or projected blame that shield them from looking honestly at themselves. While this is certainly rooted in pride, I have found that the deeper motivation is really to protect themselves from their insecurities and profound fears of failure. Unteachable leaders are deeply insecure and they somehow can’t handle the truth of their brokenness – so they blame, justify, deny, make excuses, or turn a blind eye to the painful reality that’s smacking them in their faces. So their capacity to grow withers. People turn away from them because they’re tired of being ignored. And the leaders end up leading by virtue of their title, authority or bullying, not because of their ability to inspire, encourage and build into the lives of their team.

2.  Build relationships.

Leadership has everything to do with people:

  • Connection is life. We are all wired to need relationship; the healthiest leaders are those who are surrounded by thriving relationships – both personally and professionally. Connection is when you feel heard, accepted and valued, and when you can offer the same to others. Research shows that those who are connected in healthy relationships live longer, are happier and healthier, and can handle more stress. Don’t do it alone!
  • Build beside, above and below. Build a team of leaders who are willing to walk alongside you – your shared vision, commitment and goals can go a long way to building success, both individually for you and corporately for the team and organization. And no matter how many years you’ve been leading, always have a mentor above you who can build into your life, and lovingly call you on your mistakes and blind spots. But also chose to mentor those below you. Be known for your willingness to encourage and coach others – your capacity to believe in and celebrate others.
  • Remember that people matter. Don’t ever be so busy with the task of leading that you forget the people you are leading. Even when you have to make tough decisions that will cause pain for some, always ensure that your leadership decisions are for the good of the greater majority of people. Leaders who lose sight of this – who get caught up in the dollars and cents, or in the numbers – can do irreparable harm to people. And I’ve seen this principle too many times to ignore it: while their decisions may garner them short-term profit, goal “success”, or problem evasion, the long-term well-being of the team or organization is always negatively impacted. And all of a sudden, the leaders look behind them and realize that no one is following.

3.  Risk vulnerability.

People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect; they are much more drawn to leaders who are authentic and willing to expose their hearts to them. Vulnerability has the capacity to inspire, whereas perfection has only the power to arouse fear and insecurity – two traits that are sure to block your team from giving you their best. Don’t try to pretend you have it all together when you don’t. And always, always be willing to admit that you don’t know, and to acknowledge when you’ve messed up…because truly great leadership only happens when you present your authentic, imperfect selves to the world and allow yourself to lead from your humanity and honest struggle. Brene Brown has done some ground-breaking work in the area of shame and vulnerability, and as she says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

4.  Lead from your heart.

And this is core – get this stuff right and it’ll go a long way to making you an incredible leader:

  • Heal your heart. What do I mean about this? It means making the effort to reconcile your issues, triggers and unresolved baggage. Here are some examples: If you grew up believing that people can’t be trusted, how do you think you would lead? How about if you experienced others as always letting you down, how would that affect your leadership decisions? If you’ve never taken the time to examine how your past experiences and upbringing affect you, I can guarantee you that it’s impacting your leadership – and likely not for the best. Beyond examining this, how aware of you of your “hot spots” — the people and experiences that trigger strong, negative emotions in you? And how much time and effort have you put into moving towards healing, forgiveness and resolution?
  • Know your heart. By this, I mean being tuned into your inner world – your emotions, beliefs and motivations. What goes on inside of yourself when you stop pretending, suppressing or denying. Many “strong” leaders pride themselves on pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and just getting on with the task at hand, but they do themselves and their team much damage when they are unaware of their inner feelings, beliefs and motivations. Emotions that are denied or suppressed never go away; they just go underground and come out and bite you in unexpected ways. And you have no control over this or understanding, which can lead to scary results. And knowing your own emotions also means taking responsibility for them – to regulate them appropriately rather than letting loose or shutting them down. I write much more extensively on this topic in my two part series, Managing Our Emotions.
  • Listen to your heart. Too many leaders have lost sight of their passions and desires, instead living a life of “shoulds”, rooted in the expectations and demands of others. They stop trusting their own instincts and decisions, and it becomes all about making others happy or satisfying the most vocal complainers in the team. They sway this way and that way, depending on what the world tells them is the thing to do, or what will garner them the most approval from others. And so they lose sight of their voice – their vision and their passion. And they begin to lead out of emptiness rather than out of the fullness of their heart. I read a quote recently that really captured this for me, especially for those of us who have the privilege to lead: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
  • Take care of your heart. All of us have emotional needs – whether for affirmation, respect, affection or play, just to name a few. When this truth is ignored – as many of us are trained to do when we’re taught to be stoic and emotionally neutral – this becomes dangerous in our leadership. No, I don’t mean that you should get your emotional needs met by your team – that is just bad leadership. But if you are unaware of your emotional needs and have no one or nothing in your life – including yourself – to nurture and care for your heart, it will absolutely affect your leadership. I know leaders who crave affirmation so desperately that they become workaholics and dependent on the success of the team to feel good about themselves – what cost do you think that will have on that leader, his/her team and the organization? When you know your heart and take care of your heart, you’ll be aware of your times of vulnerability; you’ll know when you need to step back to re-group; you’ll take the time first to refill your emotional tank before dealing with the challenges facing you.
  • Protect your heart. An important responsibility to yourself as a leader is to protect your heart – for an unprotected heart will quickly get you into hot water, and you will burn out fast. This means that you need to set internal (guarding your emotional life) and external boundaries. So what are boundaries? Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that we create to identify for ourselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around us and how we will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Learning to set healthy personal boundaries is essential for communicating to others that we have self-respect and self-worth, and that we will not allow others to define us. They are the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others. Boundaries are so important – and oft ignored – that I wrote a four-part series that was previously posted.

5.  Lead with your hands open.

If you remember that leadership is a privilege – not a right – then your perspective will shift. Rather than “command and control” or having to always set the agenda, you will learn to let go of control. The most effective teams are those that are led by leaders who listen well, are open to the ideas of others, and are willing to delegate authority and power to others. When team members feel valued and listened to, their engagement will increase significantly. Results begin to flow, creative ideas are implemented, and everyone feels like a part of the vision. Most importantly, the sooner you let go of control and let God be the captain of your ship, the sooner you’ll see the fruit of this trust in your leadership results. After all, he is sovereign and ultimately in control of all outcomes. He is also trustworthy and has a much better perspective of the overall picture.

6.  Lead from who YOU are.

Many of us who are in leadership have leaders we admire. We see their great success and the impact they have on their teams, so we want to emulate them. While we can always learn from others, it’s vital that you lead from who YOU are – your temperament, personality and passions. Others will be quick to tell you who they think you ought to be, and you will probably struggle with wanting to be someone you really aren’t. I have assessed many young leaders over the years and it’s almost predictable how often their test profiles show what they think makes a “good’ leader, rather than their true self. There is no one “leader personality” – leaders are as different as we are different. Do you know who you are? Even seasoned leaders have a hard time articulating their strengths and weaknesses, because they haven’t taken the time to know themselves well. And leading from our strengths – while bringing on team members to compensate for our weaknesses – is part of great leadership.


There is so much more I can say about leadership, but I want you to grasp the vital importance of the heart – the internal character, motivations and emotional maturity necessary to make us great leaders. If you do this internal work – I promise you — your effectiveness as a leader will increase exponentially. And the legacy you leave behind will have an immeasurable impact on this world.



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