Picking and Perfecting Your Diverse Leadership Behaviors

Yesterday, my family and I went to the pumpkin patch. We went through a complicated selection process, picking up different pumpkins and testing them for size, weight, shape, color, cleanliness, overall appearance, and more. We debated if this particular pumpkin was too green, or if this one was too round, or if this one was too small—essentially conducting mini focus groups for every imaginable quality.

Of course, we rejected a few gourds in favor of others. Though it may seem like a stretch, I would liken this fall tradition to honing our own leadership behaviors at work. In my new book, The Art of Caring Leadership, I explore nine different behaviors that caring leaders exhibit. I believe a truly caring leader encompasses all nine of these behaviors with aplomb and confidence.

But here’s the thing: we as individuals get to choose how many of those behaviors we exhibit. Sometimes, we call on certain behaviors that suit us in the moment. Other times, we take a different approach, it ends up not working, and we have to pivot and adjust in response. Just as we troubleshot different pumpkins in the patch, a caring leader tries every approach at their disposal when guiding their team.

The process of caring leadership is all about trial and error—experimenting with different approaches until you find the ones that work best for you and your team. So how do we discern which behaviors suit us best?

First, we need to be meeting and engaging with our people often—both as a larger team and one-on-one—in order to find out what they need from us. Though it goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: the needs of your team members come first. Instead of showing up the same way every day across the board, we should personalize and customize our approach to best address their changing needs and expectations. Each team member is an individual, and should be treated as such. What may seem like too small a pumpkin may be just the right size for someone else, and leadership behaviors are similarly received in different ways based on the person.

Another underutilized tool is organizational surveys. Whether it’s pulse surveys or more sustained, 360-degree feedback, all that information is valuable data we should listen to when trying to determine what areas of improvement need attention and how we can best address them. Instead of randomly trying out different behaviors until one resonates, you can use that energy to intentionally listen to your people’s voices, and architect your leadership approach accordingly. In short: listen first, act second.

The nine behaviors I explore in The Art of Caring Leadership are the arrows in your quiver, the tools in your toolbox, the paint in your palette, and yes, the pumpkins in the patch. Whichever metaphor inspires you most, the message is the same. Picking and choosing different leadership behaviors based on the individual situation is an act of care, and a demonstration of your acuity as a leader. It will take time to become comfortable switching between these behaviors, but that time spent is valuable practice for yourself. So get out there, get practicing, and find the pumpkins that suit you best.

Learning from the Little Moments

I’m often asked where I find my inspiration. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. Of course, I am always inspired by my work, my clients, and the diverse people I connect with every day. I even find there’s nothing more motivating than helping others overcome obstacles, enhance their organizations, and achieve their goals.

However, caring leaders have to source their energy from places outside of their work as well. If your mind is firmly locked within the four walls of the office, you’ll have a significantly harder time coming up with creative solutions, replenishing your energy levels, and fortifying a sense of self-worth independent of your job performance.

So where should you look for that inspiration? I argue that sometimes you don’t even need to look in the first place. By that I mean, inspiration often reveals itself to us when we least expect it. We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of “shower thoughts,” or getting your best ideas in the shower when your mind is seemingly turned off. If you’re desperately searching for epiphanies, your overthinking might be scaring them off.

Just the other day, I was sitting on the couch, becoming visibly stressed out as I went through my mental to-do list. Like most of us, the list felt neverending. My ten-year-old son noticed my anxiety, and suddenly said, “Don’t worry about any of that. Lay down, take a few deep breaths, and breathe all those things out of your mind and let them go, and everything will be alright, okay?” Naturally, I was taken aback by his precociousness, but I went along with his suggestion. “Are you teaching me about meditation right now?” I asked, and he replied, “Yeah, about mindfulness, Mama.”

Sure enough, a moment of quiet reflection did me good, and I was grateful that my youngest child was there to pull me out of my spiral and grant me the time and space I needed to recenter my focus. Of course, this is a great reminder of how much we can learn from our children, but there’s a larger universal message here as well. Teachers, instructors, and educators are quite literally all around us. Caring leaders know that life’s most teachable moments often arrive outside the workplace, usually without the fanfare of a grand “Eureka!” moment. It’s our job to take those lessons and leverage them towards improving those we lead. Whichever experiences are fueling those “a-ha” moments are what make your perspective truly unique and needed.

Inspiration not only gives us new ideas for possible innovation, but it also replenishes our energy levels and reminds us of our core purpose in whichever field we choose. This element of self-care is critical, as caring leaders must fill up their own emotional/mental cup so they can continue to pour from it for the benefit of others. Whether you find inspiration in art, nature, literature, food, family, or even reality television, carve out time in your schedule to hold space for the things that bring you joy and excitement. Take note of those places where you get your best “shower thoughts,” and save them for when you need an extra boost of encouragement. Welcome those little moments back into your life—even if it seems counterproductive—and I promise the creative and emotional return will be worth the small investment.

6 Tips for Honing Your Unique Leadership Style

In the countless interviews I’ve conducted with leaders as part of my podcast, Leadership with Heart, I’ve grown to appreciate the multitude of leadership styles my guests bring to the table. I’ve learned through these dialogues that no two people lead in the same exact way, and that it’s these differences that make the workplace such a nuanced and complex ecosystem.

Within that environment, I often find my clients struggling to develop their own unique leadership style. And with a growing body of literature and thought leadership out there, it’s harder than ever to cut through the noise and carve out a meaningful path for yourself.

So how do you begin to discover and refine your personal leadership approach? In this article, I share six tips that can get you started on that journey.

  • Reflect on what makes your perspective unique. Right out of the gate, I recommend conducting an in-depth dive into yourself. Assess your personality, examine your dominant character traits, identify your core values and morals, determine your most comfortable communication style, etc. Because our behavioral traits will always influence how we make decisions and interact with those around us, it’s crucial to pay attention to how they manifest (consciously or subconsciously) in a work environment.
  • Identify your weaknesses. Knowing where your overall skill set is lacking can help you better leverage your team’s strengths as a countermeasure. Moreover, being fully transparent about your shortcomings can inspire your team to improve themselves, as well.
  • Build a culture of feedback. In all honesty, you will never know how effective your personal leadership style is if you fail to solicit feedback from your peers. Gauging your performance on a frequent basis and in a constructive manner will help you adapt your strategies in real time, and make your team members feel valued and respected.
  • Take notes from leaders who have inspired you, but don’t copy too closely. Take stock of leaders you’ve connected with in the past, and consider what they did to truly impact your life. However, in my opinion, there is nothing worse than a poor imitation of another caring leader. Of course, we as humans learn from observation, and you should always be looking to others for inspiration and motivation when crafting your unique approach. But avoid emulating others too closely, or it may come across as inauthentic and disingenuous. After all, your leadership style should be your own.
  • Learn from past leadership mishaps—others or your own. Conversely, reflect on instances of poor leadership. What went wrong? What did they do (or didn’t do) that negatively influenced the outcome? As with many things in life, learning what not to do may be as productive as learned what to do.
  • Put yourself in new (and potentially uncomfortable) situations. Discomfort is one of the most effective self-discovery tools in the caring leader’s arsenal. Take on a project outside of your wheelhouse, talk to someone you wouldn’t normally connect with, or sit in on a meeting in a different department. When honing your leadership style, venture outside your comfort zone to discover how you instinctually react in moments of growth.

With all that said, it should be noted that introspective questions like these should be returned to every so often. Our leadership styles are always evolving with the times, and changing as we learn new information. As such, a critical element of honing your leadership style is remaining flexible and open-minded enough to adapt it as needed, so you can ensure your approach maintains relevance in a rapidly progressing world. If you welcome these adjustments as the necessary learning opportunities they are, you’ll find you’ve created a leadership style all your own before long.

Why Caring Leaders Are Artists in Disguise

When it came to writing my upcoming book, I kept circling back to one phrase in particular: “caring leadership is more art than science.” Why art? When we think of art, we think of creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and resourcefulness. Art challenges, motivates, and excites us, and even pushes us out of our comfort zones at times. I would argue many—if not, all—of those qualities apply to caring leadership, as well.

But how else do leaders embody the artist spirit, and why is that mindset even useful to us?

In perhaps a roundabout way, reconceptualizing leaders as artists can help us lead in more generative and transformative ways. By expanding our definition of leadership beyond a results-oriented framework, we can empower our teams in a more personal and imaginative manner. Below I outline a few parallels between leaders and artists, and why it may be worthwhile to keep them in mind.

  • Leadership and art are deeply personal and subjective practices. The beautiful thing about art is that there’s no one right way to do it; it’s completely individual. In that same vein, caring leadership is not a cookie-cutter approach, simply because not everyone exhibits care in the same way. Just as we might think of Monet or Picasso as artists with different styles, each leader finds personal inspiration to lead in their own unique way. I myself gained many of my key leadership skills, such as empathy, growing up as the product of an interracial and interfaith marriage. Whatever your sources of inspiration, the real art form is exhibiting your own special pastiche of them all.
  • Leaders and artists alike must use a diversity of tools and strategies to get the job done. If you’ve ever seen an artist’s studio, you know how varied and abundant their materials are. Sometimes they need this type of pencil versus that type of brush, or this hue of paint versus that shade of charcoal. Likewise, the effective leader leverages different strategies for different problems. You might employ conflict resolution skills one day, project management strategies the next, or active listening another day, or perhaps all three simultaneously. As a caring leader, it’s your job to become comfortable harnessing your own capacities.
  • Both leadership and art is a daily, perpetual journey—not a destination. Leonardo Da Vinci is often quoted as saying, “art is never finished, only abandoned.” Being a caring leader requires consistent practice and growth. Just as artists sketch or write on a regular basis, the more you practice caring leadership, the easier it will get. Some argue effective leadership is proven with increased profits, but I argue that a leader’s responsibilities extend beyond the realm of quantifiable metrics. Caring leaders are tasked with inspiring others to bring out the best in themselves. Sure, you can get a sense of this through engagement surveys and performance reviews, but if a leader makes a truly profound impact, it’s near impossible to measure. Remember: a masterpiece isn’t determined by its price tag.

In closing, I’d remind you that art is for anyone & everyone, and the same goes for leadership. If you value technique and skill as much as heart and integrity, you’ll find there’s plenty of room for your own style of leadership wherever you choose to let it flourish. Thinking of your leadership style as an art form hopefully mitigates the fear of stepping up in your own right. I believe a single stroke can change our lives forever; you need only find the courage to pick up a brush.

How Holistic Leadership Shows You Care

In my upcoming book, The Art of Caring Leadership, I speak to the importance of leading the whole person, and not just the face value of the employee that shows up to work every day. Often I witness managers “handle” employees through a narrow lens of their performance inside the workplace without ever considering them as whole people and their lives outside of work. But to truly elevate our leadership game, we must take into account the mind, body, spirit and emotions of those we lead.

This approach of leading the entirety of your employees is often referred to as “holistic leadership.” Why exactly is it so critical for employee engagement and organizational advancement?

In a nutshell, leadership that only addresses workplace concerns doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of how employees actually function. It’s simply unrealistic to think we check our personal worries, excitements, and challenges at the door when we enter the office. What happens outside of work impacts our energy levels, sense of control, and ability to feel engaged and productive. As a leader, asking your employees to constantly separate parts of themselves establishes an emotionally repressed environment, a lack of confidence, and true disconnection. No team or organization can weather that.

The caring leader knows that maximizing their relationships with those they lead means purposefully integrating their employees’ lives in total—including what’s happening in their personal lives. That can look like many things: regular check-ins before meetings begin in earnest, sending birthday cards/memos, respectfully asking about family matters, or providing emotional support and project flexibility in times of personal crisis. However you choose to demonstrate empathy and compassion, the most important aspect is to visibly show you are comfortable meeting your team members in the fullness of their identities and experiences.

As with all management strategies, however, there’s a careful balance to strike. In my personal crusade to empathize with others as best as I can, there have been times when I became too close to someone else’s pain and overly zealous in trying to alleviate it. As you try to lead the whole of someone else, don’t lose sight of your own wholeness along the way. Holistic leadership requires not only a broad awareness of others, but a deep awareness of yourself and your emotional boundaries.

Cultivating that balance will take time, but I genuinely believe the payoff is worth the effort. Leading the whole person cleanses the guilt of authenticity, and creates a foundation of trust you can leverage in future collaborations. Especially as the emergence of remote work has blurred the boundaries between professional and personal spheres, holistic leadership is needed now more than ever to integrate all parts of ourselves in a safe and inclusive manner. If we can honor that truth in our employees, they will honor it in us in return.

How Intentional Delegating Empowers Employees

One of the most common Achilles’ heels I see in managers is their tendency to micromanage every move of their team. Though this drive to nitpick often stems from perfectionism and a detail-oriented work ethic (which are otherwise advantageous characteristics in the workplace), micromanaging ultimately curbs employee loyalty since it hinders their ability to think and act independently.

What’s the solution? Trade micromanagement for empowerment.

The caring leader purposefully delegates important projects to their employees, and fully trusts them to problem-solve in their own unique ways, even if that entails making a few mistakes along the way. By surrendering a certain degree of hands-on control and entrusting your team with responsibility, you demonstrate self-confidence and the knowledge that true growth comes with the pressures of autonomous decision-making.

Below I share three time-tested strategies for empowering your employees by trusting them with self-directed projects:

  • Set clear and quantifiable expectations. This step is paramount to avoid confusion, and frustration later down the road. As a leader, it’s your job to provide an easy-to-follow framework that your team can work off of. Don’t be too narrow in your parameters, but also don’t be too loose. That precarious balance is a key driver of employee loyalty, as employees are more likely to consider their work meaningful the more clarity they have around objectives. In short, clarity is an important brush stroke for the caring leader.
  • Encourage risk-taking and innovation, especially if it’s outside your purview. The beauty of embracing a diverse team is that they bring unique approaches to problem-solving that are distinctly different from your own. Those who lead with heart invite innovation that they wouldn’t have otherwise believed plausible, even if that means making thoughtful mistakes. That valuable trial and error process will yield inspired business results, even if it complicates the journey from ask to result. Patience and grace is key!
  • Be a readily accessible resource for your team should they need to lean on you. Make no mistake: delegating and empowering your employees does not mean you entirely abdicate your responsibilities. As a caring leader, you have an obligation to be there for your team members, for both personal and professional matters. As they’re working through obstacles, be ready for questions, giving advice, suggesting resources, and regular check-ins. Frequent (though not overbearing) communication will show your employees that you respect their abilities, and are willing to provide support as needed. Just as you rely on your employees, expect them to rely on you.

In a nutshell, if you are not empowering others to make their own decisions and do their best work, you are not a caring leader. Empowering others doesn’t diminish your own strengths, rather it augments them. After all, the power harnessed from the diverse styles of your team is a testament to your judgment as a leader.

If you follow the steps outlined above, your employees will feel a sense of fulfillment, and your own workload will be significantly lessened–it’s a win-win situation for all. With that said, get back out there, get to empowering, and let the business results follow.

How Caring Leadership Creates Concrete Results

Heather Younger

Over the course of my career, I’ve gotten the impression that people sometimes misinterpret my leadership style as “soft and fluffy,” or “touchy-feely.”

Though my leadership approach is indeed anchored in compassion and connection, that doesn’t mean the return on investment is any less than that of conventional, emotionally disconnected leadership styles.

In fact, the opposite is true.

A growing body of research has validated time and time again the concrete business results of caring leadership. Many assume that cutthroat workplaces yield high productivity, but countless studies have proven that positive, emotionally healthy cultures outperform their maladjusted competitors on every level. Here, I explore just four of the myriad ways that caring leadership transforms workforce dynamics and organizational performance.

  • Caring leadership inspires exponentially greater employee engagement. In a Gallup survey, 54% of employees who strongly believe they can approach their manager with any type of question report being actively engaged at work. Among employees who strongly disagree, only 2% are engaged, and 65% are actively disengaged. It takes a caring leader to foster this sense of emotional safety, and these numbers highlight just how dissatisfied employees feel when they believe their manager is inaccessible.

  • Caring leadership creates more loyal and grateful employees. Employees who receive empathy and selfless support from their colleagues are more likely to stay with the organization for the long haul. When we lead with bold actions that show we care, employees feel more compelled to contribute to our mission. Put simply, a leader cannot expect genuine loyalty from their team if they do not extend genuine care to them. Why would you be loyal to someone you didn’t trust had your best interest at heart?

  • Caring leadership increases productivity and efficiency. A workplace helmed by a caring leader is ultimately a less stressful environment, which in turn leaves space for greater focus and mental clarity on important projects. The American Psychological Association estimates workplace stress leads to 550 million lost workdays each year, and anywhere between 60% and 80% of workplace accidents are stress-induced. Should you streamline your organization’s workflow by way of caring leadership, just imagine what could be accomplished during all that recovered time.

  • Caring leadership enhances collaboration and team performance. If you model good communication skills and empathetic interactions, your employees are far more likely to extend that same grace to their peers. They tend to pay forward the goodness you embodied by recommitting their efforts to organizational objectives, and encouraging others to do the same.

Although these four advantages are just the tip of the iceberg, one message is abundantly clear: when people look up to and follow a caring leader, they feel safe enough to show up as themselves and leverage all their strengths in service of the collective vision, creating a mutually beneficial situation for everyone.

Unlocking employee potential is not a fixed formula with universally applicable action items, so it’s critical you take the time to consider what unique needs are not being met within your own circles. That might entail a little more elbow grease on your behalf to get everyone back on course.

Still, if you discount the business value of emotionally connecting with your employees, you might as well say goodbye to the benefits of a dedicated workforce in the same breath. Before your employees can believe in the company, they first have to believe in you as a person.

Why Caring Leadership is Critical

Every leader wants to think of themselves as caring, but in my experience, I’ve found that most fall short of demonstrating that they care in consistent and meaningful ways. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the term “caring leadership” is somewhat vague. In my eyes, caring leadership means taking daily actions to show concern and kindness to those we work with. It means prioritizing the human over the employee in someone, and selflessly helping them succeed for themselves first and the organization second.

So why is caring leadership even necessary? Simply put, caring leaders are undeniably better, more effective leaders. The more that leaders express care for those they lead, the more their followers will feel inspired to go above and beyond for the benefit of that leader, that team, and perhaps most importantly, for themselves.

If your main focus as a leader is on the business side of things, caring leadership can augment the bottom line, too; employees’ enthusiasm for reducing costs, increasing focus, meeting client needs is exponentially higher if they feel cared for by those who lead them. Daniel Goleman’s research highlights this connection between showing a genuine interest in people, increased productivity, and reduced employee turnover.

I often advise those hoping to elevate their leadership style through care & empathy to start with self-leadership skills. Why start there? One cannot begin to show caring leadership to others if they do not care for themselves first. This entails re-familiarizing yourself with your core purpose and why you want to lead, consistently growing your professional and emotional skill set, recalibrating your communication strategies, or simply taking time to care for your mind, body and spirit. Once you refine these internal qualities, you will find you are better equipped to create safe spaces where you can make others feel important and bring out the best in them.

Caring leadership is most critical now more than ever. With so much pain inside and outside the workplace, everyone is seeking leaders to make them feel cared for in purposeful ways. Today’s employee needs a leader who knows that what you put into a relationship is what you get out of it, and that caring leadership has the power to extend beyond the professional environment and ripple into other communities. With a little work, that leader can be you.

If you found this article insightful and you are ready to begin your own caring leadership journey, pre-order my upcoming book, The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading with Heart Uplifts Teams and Organizations. You’ll find more techniques to help you become the best leader you can be, and powerful, real world stories of those who embody caring leadership every day.th

How to Be a Congruent Leader at Work

How to be a congruent leader

One of the topics I discuss in my upcoming book under self-leadership is the idea of leadership congruence. 

In other words, are we who we say we are? 

We may think we are a certain way, but how do we actually show up? And is that in alignment with the person we are and aspire to be?

For example, I work out 6 days per week and others might perceive me as fairly healthy, but I struggle with eating well. I often lack self-control to make the right choices, or to exercise intentionality with what I eat. In fact, it’s a constant struggle. Because I’m not perfect in any regard, I work on becoming more congruent everyday. It will be easier, of course, once I stop buying snacks for my kids who are waiting to return to school.

Congruence between values and behavior is a vital but often overlooked aspect of leadership – and it’s what differentiates the most successful leaders with the most engaged teams. 

When you are congruent, your beliefs and your actions are in complete harmony.

So, how do we become more congruent? Here are a few things to consider: 

1. Practice mindful self-awareness

Practicing mindful self-awareness gives you the ability to examine your thoughts and reflect on your actions at the end of each day. By asking yourself how aligned you were with who you believe yourself to be, you can assess how congruent you were, and where you could do better tomorrow.

2. Do a congruency audit

Ask your employees, friends or family – and whoever else you feel most comfortable with – to give you some honest feedback. Have them describe you in three words and notice which words come up most often. That will help you decipher whether you’re portraying who you believe yourself to be.

3. Notice how you lead

Have you ever asked your employees or team to “do as I say, not as I do”? If you want to be a leader who inspires loyalty, employee satisfaction, and team cohesion, consider how you can better align your words with your actions. For example, if you regularly leave the office early to play golf or get home before rush-hour traffic, consider whether you would allow your team to do the same. 

As you bring more noticing to the ways in which you lead, allow your values to guide you as you begin to practice congruent leadership each and every day. 

What Mental Toughness Has to Do With Caring Leadership

Resilience

I’m excited to announce that my forthcoming book, The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading With Heart Uplifts Teams is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Writing this book has been a long journey – and it’s not over yet!

As I put the finishing edits on the book, one topic that has been top of mind for me is how, in these upside down and unprecedented times, we need to care more than ever for our employees and, at the same time, somehow help them cultivate resilience… especially for those who are being disproportionately impacted by the concurrent crises.

At first glance, “mental toughness” might seem like the antithesis of caring leadership, but strengthening our reactions to the events spiraling around us is how we develop the capacity to show up fully and be present for the people we lead.

There are four practices that have helped me remain mentally tough and allow me to continue to show up for you from a place of caring leadership and service, which you can learn more about below.

1. Intentionality

Having an intentional mindset is about noticing how we respond to circumstances and interpret them as either adverse or challenging. When it comes to mental toughness, we can practice shifting our initial response to something as “bad” and instead looking for the positive. You can ask yourself, “What in this circumstance will help me move forward?” In my TED talk, I share how flipping this switch has helped me so much in my life and business. I reframe things constantly.

2. Forward Focus

The second practice is ensuring that my mission and my vision for myself and/or my organization and my team are so robust and create such positive emotion for me that I have no choice but to grab onto them—even when times are tough. When I can take steps that support that clear and enduring mission and vision, I can continue to move forward rather than remaining frozen in place. Alignment requires that I keep my eyes focused ahead at all times instead of getting mired in the past when things haven’t gone the way I hoped they would. My mission and my vision are instead my North Star and keep me moving forward. 

3. Be Courageous

The third way that I remain mentally tough and resilient is by being courageous. We can wear our courage like a barrier or shield that allows us to bounce or repel obstacles in our way, because we realize these obstacles are inconsequential when it comes to reaching our goals.

4. Fake the Funk

One of the final ways you can cultivate mental strength and toughness is by—as I always like to say—”faking the funk until you make it.” In other words, sometimes you might not feel a certain way, but regardless you have to tell yourself that you are the person you hope to be. If we tell ourselves that often enough, we can become the person we say we are—just by virtue of how we talk to ourselves. 

This practice strengthens our mental toughness and helps us step out of victim mode. Instead of, “Woe is me,” we can say, “I’m a successful CEO of a growing business where I have a message that is impactful, that will change lives, and that has services that will help people.” 

Even if, on some days, you don’t feel a certain way, that affirmation—that faking the feeling until it actually happens—is a huge part of maintaining mental toughness so that we can continue to show up fully for the people we lead.