144: Leaders with Heart Throw Themselves on the Line First

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In this episode, Heather hosts a solo show. In a concise and powerful episode, she connects a classic movie, “The Gladiator,” to caring leadership. 

Maximus, the protagonist of the movie played by Russel Crowe, exemplifies that people can lead from any place, with or without a title. He produces a strong and effective team of gladiators by using key caring leader tactics. He takes the time to build trust, by doing exactly what he says he will do. He puts himself on the line for his team, and proves that he believes in the power of the team. Lastly, he shows the gladiators that it is possible to work together as a team and succeed. 


  • People can lead from any place, with or without a title. 
  • Build trust by following through.
  • Show your team that teamwork is the path to success.
  • If you put yourself on the line for your team, your team will in turn throw themselves on the line for you. 
  • Show up in a way that produces greatness inside of others as well.

The Gladiator

Last weekend, I watched the movie, with my kids, The Gladiator with Russel Crowe. I forgot how inspirational it was actually.  He was someone who was very close with the emperor of Rome, who had a son but he wasn’t a great leader, and people did not want to follow him. So, Russell would be the one to be the emperor. He was not a part of the family and the bloodline. He was just someone who had rose into the ranks and had impressed him through his leadership capabilities.

It’s how you demonstrate trust. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Leader without a Title

The character played by Russell Crowe who’s going to be the next emperor ended up being a gladiator rising through the ranks. He ended up fighting in front of the new emperor who killed his father and who was not really worthy of position. 

Russell Crowe didn’t have a title. He was just a gladiator. He was looked at as a slave, someone who was forced to do the work. But in the end, he was able to bring these other gladiators along and produce a super strong team. 

He took the time to build the trust. He built the trust by doing what he said he would do. He let them know there was going to be a particular strategy, and every time he went on executing that, the result he promised actually happens. 

He put himself on the line for the team. There were many different instances where he would throw himself really in the middle of the Coliseum and make sure there’s his followers from a distance, and right there in front of him. They were not having to get into the fight or they would not die because he was putting himself on the line, or he knew he had superior capabilities, but he also has a deep belief in the power of team. 

He showed them what was possible when they work together as a team.  I remember seeing that they’re really all going to just be wiped out but they all stuck together. They followed him.

What do you do for your people? How do you show them what's possible in the team? – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

(Your team members) will go over and above, and they will then throw themselves on the line for you. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Over and Above

There is really no greater compliment from a leader, than to set your desires aside and to put the team, first. The team members know and they will go over and above, and they will then throw themselves on the line for you.

When you think about whether you have a title or not, it’s not the title that you have. It’s how you demonstrate trust. What do you do for your people? How do you show them what’s possible in the team?

How do you create that broad stroke of the vision for them? —to understand what is possible, so they can feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and to be in that group with people who are like-minded, focused on winning, and allows winning to actually take place.

You have the ability to show up in a way that produces greatness inside of them. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It made me think so much of how people can lead. They can lead from any place without a title. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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How Our Authentic Stories Can Bring About Greater Good

After a lifetime of trying to minimize my difference—the difference between me and my white mother, the difference between me and my coworkers, the difference between me and other thought leaders—I am now being pulled out of the shadows and into the spotlight to share my story. These past few years, I’ve felt compelled to share my journey of overcoming adversity, being an outsider in the workplace, and existing as an outcast in a biracial household. My Jewish grandmother was dissatisfied with whom my mother had chosen to start a family with (i.e., someone Black and Christian), which complicated our relationship since I was a symbolic embodiment of that sin, so to speak. As an adult, I now see the professional skills this experience of exclusion instilled in me, and I feel how this story resonates with the audiences I share it with.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable process, simply because I’ve been conditioned to find safety in hiding my story. But when the call to action is so loud and so resolute, it’s important to follow that call for the greater good. As I’ve discovered my leadership style over the course of my career, I’ve learned that a caring leader is someone who is comfortable being vulnerable with those they lead, thus fulfilling a higher—albeit more difficult—purpose. 

About eight years ago, before my current role as an employee advocate, I became good friends with an Orthodox Jewish coworker whom I had hired as a sales representative. He wore a yarmulke, attended an Orthodox synagogue, adhered to kosher eating guidelines—and he did all of this openly and with pride. He knew a little bit about my Jewish background, but not the entire picture. At that point, I was still in the process of becoming comfortable bringing my full self to work, complicated family history and all. However, he was generally aware of my Jewish heritage, and it allowed us to forge a strong connection.

A few years down the road, he invited me to his son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Now here’s the truth: at that point in my life, I had never attended or even been invited to a bar mitzvah, despite my half-Jewish upbringing. After all, I was never welcome at those kinds of events as the “black sheep” of the family. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised, a bit nervous, and of course very honored by his invitation. He had no idea how special that small gesture was to me, yet his act of grace and courtesy made a big impact on my relationship with my Jewish identity.

I attended the ceremony, perhaps with a little trepidation. In the past, I’ve written about how my Jewish grandmother would keep me hidden from her community because she was ashamed to have a biracial granddaughter, and since then, I’ve been anxious to reenter Jewish spaces. To my suprise, everyone at this Orthodox synagogue was extremely welcoming, accepting, and warm. I felt as if I was in a judgment-free zone, where no one even cared that I looked different than the rest of the crowd. At the end of the day, I finally felt accepted and included in a community I had always been a part of, but in which I had never felt truly welcomed. 

Recently, I shared this particular story with a corporate client who was trying to grasp the meaning of inclusion. The key takeaways helped elucidate what inclusion means to me: don’t lead with fear if someone on your team is different from you. Instead, lead with curiosity and courage, and stand in solidarity with them as you honor (not erase) that very difference. Be proud of your alignment with other communities, and welcome others into that process who you believe might benefit from that proximity to diversity. This is exactly what my Orthodox Jewish friend did for me, and I now pay that grace forward by telling our story.

My life and career is full of these kinds of stories, and I’m now witnessing the power they hold if wielded responsibly. As I become more comfortable opening up as a caring leader, I can attest to the profound potency that vulnerability carries as a teaching tool. I encourage you to take stock of your own stories, and consider what lessons you can pass along if you just take center stage for a moment.

143: Leaders with Heart Lift Up Others

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In this episode, Heather speaks to Garth Jordan and Heather Loenser of the American Animal Hospital Association. Both leaders of this organization: Garth, CEO, and Heather Loenser, Senior Veterinary Officer, together with Heather Younger have a very dynamic discussion about their personal leadership findings. 

To the Heathers, empathy comes naturally. To Garth, it has been a work in progress. Yet, they all agree that empathy is crucial to the art of leadership, and that the follow up action is just as crucial as the initial empathetic response. Leaders cannot merely seek to understand; they must go a step further. Heather Loenser describes how empaths have their own struggles: you cannot stop at feeling what the other person feels, you must help them resolve the issue, and step out of the dark hole with them, together. 

Garth shares about his leadership journey and where he found a place for empathy amidst it. He speaks to the importance of hearing every voice. Leaders are responsible for responding to the findings of any listening exercise, and they have a duty to accompany their team through the changes, and to the solution. Everyone wants change, few want to change, and no one wants to lead the change. 


  • As an empath, it can be exhausting to feel another’s fears. 
  • Compassion is a necessary follow up to empathy-we see and feel someone’s pain—what do we do about it?
  • Do unto others what they want you to do for them.
  • Change will only happen if everyone is lifted up and they understand what it looks like and their role in it.
  • If you only have one to one empathy and compassion, design thinking helps you get from one to many.
  • With voice comes responsibility—to become part of the solution. 
  • Your worth as a person is not tied to your performance.
  • Empathy is like a muscle, you can exercise it and find ways to bring it into personal and professional life, and find more value by practicing it every day. 
  • Leaders bring to the table lessons learned, a lot of us learn a lot about how to exist in the world from our first families. If our experiences with our families weren’t perfect (and few are) then we will carry that with us throughout the rest of our lives. Best step to take to grow and become grounded and self aware is therapy.

Garth Jordan

Garth Jordan currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is an accomplished C-level executive with over 15 years of diverse leadership experience growing non-profit trade and professional associations through innovation, teamwork and digital transformation. 

Garth is also exceptional at strategy design and execution, Board relationships, and creating customer value using human-centered design methods. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, Summa Cum Laude at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his MBA in Marketing, Summa Cum Laude at the University of Colorado Denver. He is also a polished writer and speaker. 

Heather Loenser

Heather Loenser, DVM is the Senior Veterinary Officer at the American Animal Hospital Association. She is a skilled facilitator for AAHA’s influential medical guidelines, a dynamic veterinary conference emcee, and a peer and pet-owner educator. Heather is also media-trained to deliver a polished and entertaining message, as well as a compassionate and efficient emergency veterinarian and manager.

Heather earned her Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science, and her degree in Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Iowa State University. She is also a detail-oriented yet creative technical writer. 

Garth: Empathy & Experience

The diversity of experience has been a significant part of my leadership journey. I’ve been all over the map and it’s been a lot of fun. I crave that type of experiential diversity. That’s one big ticket item that I expect to be part of my ongoing journey.

I’m not a natural Empath. The first half of my career, I was the cowboy. It’s my way or the highway. But I got into design thinking and it really did change my life. What I’ve learned is that leading and designing with empathy, and putting empathy at the epicenter of my journey has been important for me personally, professionally, and spiritually.

I can't think of a leader who wouldn't benefit from therapy. – Heather Loenser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Heather: Empathy to Compassion

I got into a lot of communication training and that has allowed my empathy to communicate how I’m feeling and the feelings I see in you as another human. 

I’m also very good at interpreting how animals are feeling and that is incredibly useful on the floor. I also use my empathy to try to serve my colleagues.

I am not afraid of seeing an animal in pain when I’m in my hospital because I know I can fix it. I’m the kind of person who charges to the front door. 

When I hear that an animal had been hit by a car and it’s coming into the hospital, I am there to get it, grab it, take it with me, give it medications, and get it comfortable again.

What I have to learn is seeing other people in pain. If I am just stick to empathy and not actual action, I just end up crawling down in the hole with the person who’s feeling sometimes positive feelings. 

Also, as empaths, we tend to be more empathetic about things that are a little heavier. Without adding action to it, I can just get stuck in the dark hole with you. You’re not alone and that’s great. But what are we going to do?

Exercise that (empathy) muscle and find more value from the practice every day. – Garth Jordan #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

If we're not changing, we're going to be in big trouble. – Garth Jordan #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Design Thinking: One to Many

About one-to-one empathy and compassion, one thing design thinking helps us do is do it from one to many.

But when we think about leading with heart, leading with empathy, and leading with compassion, the better we understand our target audience, whether that’s our staff, our actual paying customer, or some other audience.

We can go understand them in depth and with an eye toward empathy, then distill that collective knowledge into very specific themes. What are the thematic pain points of your audience? Then instead of being just one to one, we’re now one too many.

If I understand those thematic pain points, challenges, or issues, and if I can distill all of that qualitative empathetic view, then I can turn it into a product or a service something incredibly unique and with value that’s going to solve challenges.

When you look at the companies today that are the most successful, they’re the ones simplifying people’s lives because they found like these compassionate views of their customers.

I do believe there's a certain amount of Nature versus Nurture when it comes to empathy. – Garth Jordan #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Your worth as a person is not tied to your performance. Be careful with what you bring into a conversation and where you derive your worth. – Heather Loenser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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3 Tips for Leading With Empathy & Compassion

The other day, I was picking up an order from a deli for my mother, who had ordered ahead of time. I didn’t realize the order was set for a later pick up time, so I arrived, and it wasn’t ready. When I told them that I had traveled 45 minutes and was wondering if there was any way for them to expedite the order, the cashier shrugged off my request, and told me there was nothing they could do, and that I would just have to wait around. My mother decided to call them over the phone, and to my surprise, they gladly agreed to speed up the order and have it ready in 15 minutes.

Frustrated, I wondered why they chose not to show me empathy and understanding when I was standing right in front of them. Why did they not care for me and my needs until a secondary request came into play?

My interaction with the deli staff made me think of all the times employees come to their manager with an issue, and are brushed off without a second thought. In the most dysfunctional organizations, employees don’t consider their manager a caring leader. Rather, they consider them a boss, someone who has the authority to make their professional life a walk in the park or a living hell.

We each have the choice to decide how we show up for others. Do we problem solve with our team members as they stand in front of us, or do we leave them to their own devices? Do we make excuses for why we didn’t treat them better when we’re called out for our behavior? Do we exercise empathy and compassion when we’re called on to lead? Do we leave our employees feeling supported and respected, or unheard and unimportant?

These are the questions I ask my clients all the time. They’re the questions you should be asking yourself on a regular basis to ascertain where you’re failing your employees. So how do we consciously do better as leaders? Below are three tried-and-true tips for leading with empathy:

  • Slow down. We all know how busy managers can be, but when an employee comes to you with a problem and you treat them as another box to check off on your to-do list, it makes them feel like you don’t have time for them. Try to slow down your interactions, and see the person in front of you as a human being worthy of dignity and care, and not just a cog in your machine. A little undivided attention goes a long way.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is what empathy is at its core. It’s about seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective, and connecting to the emotions from their viewpoint. Step out of your shoes and ask questions to get a better sense of their experience. “Why do you feel that way? What do you see that I might not be aware of? In your opinion, how can I best support you?” Questions like these will aid you in creating a solution that works for both of you.
  • Exercise self-awareness. Oftentimes, we offend people when we least intend to, so be conscious of every word you say, the tone with which you say it, and what your body language might be communicating that your words aren’t. When we fall short in caring for our employees, use self-reflection to determine what you did wrong, how you can improve moving forward, and how you can rebuild that bridge.

The relationship between employee and leader should be a mutually beneficial one, where both parties are respected, supported, and inspired by one another. You shouldn’t leave your team members high and dry in moments of frustration, like the deli staff did to me. You should center your leadership approach around empathy and compassion, and prioritize connection-building as the foundation of a healthy team dynamic.

142: Leaders with Heart are Empowered by their Vulnerability

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In this Leadership with Heart episode, Heather speaks with Kirsten Benefiel, CEO of HSS, a company focused on leading the next generation of innovative security managed devices. As a leader who strives to be authentic, Kirsten shows up, is vulnerable and listens more than she speaks.

Kirsten describes how aligning her life and leadership style with her personal values makes for a much easier leadership experience. She shows her compassion by explaining how a leader can never over communicate care for their team, whether it be via showing up, listening, or just trying to help.

Heather and Kirsten both elaborate on the importance values, purpose and mission play in the trajectory of both one’s personal life, as well as their professional path. Oftentimes, the greatest rewards in leadership are the outcomes that a leader can affect by leading with purpose and their core values. To reach this level, Kirsten explains how she first had to focus on what her values were and what made her tick.

Kirsten shares a crucial experience in her leadership journey that taught her that success is not always about the outcome. It’s about the journey too, because how you win also matters.

At the end of their conversation Kirsten offers a piece of heartfelt advice to anyone who is struggling, finding themselves at a crossroads or just in need of motivation.

Key Takeaways:

  • Define your personal core values.
  • Align your life with your values. You’ll have a much easier time leading.
  • It’s not always about the outcome, it’s about the journey.
  • Don’t be overshadowed by your ego.
  • Your values are a filter that shape decision making and your behavior.
  • Be your own critic.
  • Shift your mindset from scarcity to abundance.
  • Life is not a zero-sum game.
  • Expand your circle of influence.
  • Never operate from a place of fear.
  • Vulnerability is empowering.

Kirsten Benefiel is the Chief Executive Officer at HSS where her teams of managed service professionals use intellect, discretion and diplomacy to create safe, secure environments wherever they serve. She is a 25-year veteran in the information technology sector who connects the employees, customers, process and technology to scale and optimize business models, deliver bottom line results and build strong organizational culture.

Kirsten is a C-Level Leader with for-profit and non-profit Board of Directors experience, as well as a multi-discipline senior executive with success in building and leading world-class, high-tech managed service and solution businesses.

Kirsten also serves as the Board Chair of Urban Peak, a non-profit advocating youth empowerment for the youth who are homeless. She earned her Communications and Public Relations Bachelor’s degree, and her MBA at the University of Denver. She was also a Fellow for Entrepreneurship and Government in the Colorado Governor’s Fellow Program.

In Alignment

I think you are your most authentic version of yourself when you’re leading and living your values. When those things are in alignment, my feet get up and hit the floor because I feel good and energized. When I feel like I’m living in alignment with my values, I have a much easier time leading.

The one thing you cannot over communicate in a situation like this, and what I’m most proud of during the last few months, is how much we tried as a leadership team to show up, listen and help. I’ve been impressed with our team’s ability to come together.

I truly try to show up to be vulnerable, to listen more than I speak, to hear what's going on, and to really live my values. – Kirsten Benefiel #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Purpose-driven, Value-driven

I really get my energy from being with the teammates. So, this lockdown basically has been hard for me to just get out, see what’s going on, and listen. I’ve done a ton of Zoom calls and face time calls, but it’s still not the same. It isn’t the same.

If I look at my style, I consider myself to be a very purpose-driven and values-driven leader. For me, when I’m leading with purpose and making sure that one of my core values is integrity, when I have the chance to operate and lead from that perspective, I really enjoy the journey. I feel like my handprint is on the outcome, and I’m able to be a good steward of what the company is trying to achieve.

That drive to lead for me is really how can I show up in the best way possible for my teammates to accomplish an objective and a mission of purpose. HSS is such a mission-driven and a purpose-driven organization. For me, this is an incredibly exciting opportunity to be a part of. I felt like my leadership style and the company’s core values were really well-aligned.

It’s incredibly important as a leader that your values acts as a filter and that’s how it shapes your decision making, behavior. That’s why I really try to stay true to making sure that I keep checking myself along the way: Am I living in alignment? Am I showing up how I want to? I would never want to make a decision or demonstrated behavior that could lead the organization astray.

Leadership is a choice. Finding purpose is a choice. – Kirsten Benefiel #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

The exciting work as a leader is to develop future leaders. – Kirsten Benefiel #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Always a Choice

Being a leader is a choice. I had to get really clear with myself as I made the decision to continue to talk to aspire for additional leadership positions, to really get clear on who I was as a person and why I was doing things. If you’re not clear that shows through and how you show up every day.

It’s a lot of work. I started it with really focusing in on what my values were and what made me tick. So, can you find that mission? Can you live in alignment with your values? I think the rest of it is a lot easier to accomplish and a lot more fun.

The exciting work as a leader is to develop future leaders. “What you commit to defines your life.” Being committed to developing leaders has really shaped the journey for me and it has made it a lot more fun.

It’s incredibly important as a leader that your values acts as a filter that shapes your decision making and behavior. – Kirsten Benefiel #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It's not always about the outcome. It's about the journey. – Kirsten Benefiel #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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A Welcoming Culture Begins with You!

I’m a big fan of the 2014 film, The Hundred-Foot Journey. In fact, I’ve watched it several times. The film tells the story of an Indian family who flees their homeland and settles in a small town in France, setting up a restaurant 100 feet across from a traditional French cuisine restaurant. What ensues next is a culinary and ideological battle between the two cultures, as the Indian family faces discrimination and hatred from the local townspeople. However, after the French employees try to burn down the competing restaurant in an attempted hate crime, the conservative French owner realizes her own role in inciting violence and bias, and commits to making amends.

She helps clean up the Indian restaurant, and even employs the Indian son who is a burgeoning chef of immense potential. After he eventually rises to fame in the Paris restaurant scene, he returns to the small town where the two restaurants begin a collaborative partnership, and connect through intercultural exchange.

In my opinion, the movie is an inspiring story about the value of belonging, and how each and every one of us plays a role in creating cultures of inclusion. It’s a demonstration of what hatred can do, but an even more compelling demonstration of the healing love can achieve in its wake.

So how does this apply to the workplace? As caring leaders, we can all learn from the film’s message of personal responsibility in welcoming others.

Take for example the French restaurant owner, who had to overcome her own biases against the Indian family. She had to work through her own feelings of fear and doubt, and lack of information about their culture. But as she sees her impact on the people around her, she reconciles with her power and uses it for good, ultimately helping to change public perception.

Her journey can describe many of us who strive to be allies to others, and act as a case study of what to do when confronting our own judgments. 

If you as a leader recognize that others value your opinion, take advantage of that power to combat stigma and bias. Organizational morals are established from the top down, so start with yourself if you aim to change the culture of your workplace. 

If you can visibly signal that you prioritize inclusion, belonging, and open-mindedness, others will follow suit and engage in productive introspection.

To be clear, The Hundred-Foot Journey is after all still a movie, and not every interaction between disparate groups will be as picture-perfect as the film might have you believe. 

But, we still need to wrestle with our individual roles in systems of bias at work:

How do we, as individuals, create welcoming environments? 

Are there other champions of inclusion in our workplace that we can team up with? 

How do we consciously choose to rise above hatred and lead from a place of love instead? 

How can we use our privilege to change the minds of those that look and think like we do? 

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves, even if we’re unsure of how to answer them. 

The caring leader makes an effort to reflect on their own preconceived notions, deconstruct them, and think in a judgment-free manner moving forward. If we can find the common ground between us, I believe we’ll discover that even less than 100 feet separate our individual journeys.

141: Leaders with Heart Make it Safe to Share All Stories

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In this episode, Heather shares some personal and heartfelt stories that need to be shared. She was nudged to share them and to ask listeners some key questions relating to safe spaces to tell all stories at work. Heather invites you to listen to her stories with an open mind and heart, and to share some of your own, making others feel comfortable to show up as their full selves.

Key takeaways:

  • Do your people feel safe to tell their stories?
  • How well have you made your people feel included, welcome and accepted for who they are and what they bring to the table?
  • Who do you include around your table and who do you exclude?
  • Is it okay to present differing views on your team?
  • What are the ramifications, whether direct or implicit, when people express differing views?
This episode will surely warm your hearts. Listen and learn!

Making It Safe

I wanted to share things about myself and help think about how we share our stories, how we make it safe for others to share theirs, and how we show up as our best selves as leaders. How many people are we inviting to do that?  How do we respond to them? Is there openness inside our workplace?

I talked to somebody who mentioned that her leader complained after coming back from a meeting where they were supposed to be more open about how they felt. In that meeting, he put on a smile and did not choose to be honest because there wasn’t a sense of psychological safety inside that workplace.

Leaders with heart are those that create safe spaces that allow people to share stories. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Sharing Our Stories

I have been nudged here and there by my team that manages my speaking business, and by my marketing person to start telling my stories more. Well, I’ve shared my story of adversity as a child. I haven’t shared all of them, and some of them are super rich. But it’s not about “Woe is me” or “I’m such a victim.”

It’s more about how much can my stories educate and empower others to tell their stories, and how can I, as a leader in my own right, make it safe for others to tell theirs. I’ve had people say, “I’ve heard some of those great stories. You told about this and about that. I need you to tell those stories more often and tell them to other people.” 

Most of you who are listening know my story of being raised in an interracial and interfaith household; my story of rejection, of not being included, not being welcomed at most family events. The pictures on the walls of my grandmother’s house–how that left me feeling not good enough, and not belonging to one particular group.

I felt like I was on both sides of the coin, never squarely standing in the shoes of one side or another. But even though I felt the battle to belong, I also felt this unique understanding of where both sides might be coming from. I know it’s very unique so I don’t suppose that others are going to equally or easily be able to understand people’s views as deeply as I do. But I do try to help people do that.

No one is going to hold me back. Not one more day could I be held back from coming and showing up. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

We have to open up the table for all people to feel comfortable around it. It could get uncomfortable but that is a part of our learning. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

No Holding Back

My grandmother and I had a very good relationship. While she was kind of the matriarch that kept me out in many ways, she was also the person who uplifted me. She would always call me her little lawyer. No wonder I went to law school, really trying to please her and trying to belong

When I talked about not being invited to family gatherings, I was about 36 years old and my grandmother passed away. I had a choice to make. My mom said, “She passed away. Do you want to come to the funeral?”

It would have been the very first time I’ll ever attend a family gathering like that. I just decided I am no longer going to limit my voice and minimize my presence. No one is going to hold me back. Not one more day could I be held back from coming and showing up. When I walked in, many people didn’t know who I was but I walked with confidence and I was finally in that inner circle. It felt so good to be there.

It’s more about how much can my stories educate and empower others to tell their stories, and how can I, as a leader in my own right, make it safe for others to tell theirs. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

I felt like I was on both sides of the coin, never squarely standing in the shoes of one side or another. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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Aligning With Your Aspirational Leadership Identity

As humans, most of us are naturally inclined to dream big. We’re always searching for a bigger house, a better job, a greater salary—we’re constantly thinking about the next step in our personal or professional lives. Oftentimes, these aspirations can motivate us to work harder and smarter to achieve them, but I find that the majority of us are confused about how to make that jump from the present state of things to the more idealized future.

Our leadership identities are no different—we all want to be better, more effective leaders in the workplace, capable of inspiring anyone and everyone. With that in mind, it’s crucial you regularly ask yourself the following question: who do I want to be, who am I currently, and how do I close that gap?

In a past article, I spoke about the importance of aligning organizational values to avoid miscommunication and organizational incongruence. But that’s on the structural level; what I’m referring to now is on the micro, or individual level. Is there congruence between who you think you are and how you’re actually perceived by others? Do your leadership actions parallel your leadership philosophy? What steps can you take to align your present self with your future, more enhanced self?

When I work out in my house, I usually exercise in front of a window. The other day, I noticed myself fixating on my reflection, and how I could see two versions of myself represented. On the one hand, I saw the Heather I currently am. On the other hand, I saw the Heather I strive to be: she’s more content, healthier, and a little more in shape. I wondered what types of choices I could make to move myself closer to that idealized sense of self. Working out was a step in the right direction, but I realized I needed to go deeper than that.

This is the kind of introspection caring leaders should be engaging in on a regular basis. It requires examining your personal history, critical incidents in your life, your personality, your communication style, and everything else that impacts how you interact with others, and determining what about those influences is preventing you from doing and being better. I also recommend soliciting feedback from those who look to you for guidance, and learning how you’re perceived from an outside perspective. You can use 360-degree feedback assessments, performance reviews, or even one-on-one conversations with your peers or managers. However you choose to connect with constructive criticism, it’s a pivotal part of aligning with your aspirational leadership identity.

For caring leaders, it is an intentional choice to say, “I want my people to know I care for them, so I’m going to take specific actions to make sure they know.” When we think about who we want to be, it’s easy to get paralyzed with fear, uncertainty, or harmful self-judgment. But making that intentional choice to reflect and recalibrate is a valid and necessary first step towards self-improvement. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and give yourself the space to make internal improvements over time. Whoever you strive to be as a leader, know that one day you will get there, and that you (and perhaps you alone) have the most agency in seizing that future.