Leading Inwards: The Foundation of Effective Leadership

“To lead others effectively, you must first lead yourself. This means being accountable, self-aware, and willing to learn from every experience.” -John C. Maxwell

In the realm of leadership development, the focus often revolves around how we lead others — our teams, peers, and superiors. However, there’s a critical aspect that is sometimes overlooked but forms the very foundation of effective leadership: leading inwards. As leadership coaches, we’ve come to realize the immense significance of self-awareness and self-leadership in shaping one’s ability to lead others effectively.

When we talk about leading inwards, we’re referring to the introspective journey of understanding oneself, cultivating self-awareness, and taking intentional steps towards personal growth and development.

So, how do we lead inwards? First, let’s talk about what it means.

Leading inwards is about taking a deep dive into your thoughts, emotions, values and behaviors. It involves:

  1. Self-Reflection: Regularly pausing to reflect on our beliefs, strengths, areas for improvement, and the impact of your actions on others.

It is a good practice to identify the behaviors you would like to embody as you lead yourself then, during our self-reflection, determine how well you are doing against this benchmark.

2. Emotional Intelligence: Developing a high level of emotional intelligence to manage your emotions and empathize with yourself and others.

Perceptions matter. How you and others see you is important. As important, if not more important, is how you see how others see you. In other words. If your actions cause anger, are you aware of that anger your actions are causing? How could you adjust your behavior to reduce the anger?

3. Authenticity: Being true to yourself, aligning your actions with your values, and fostering genuine connections with those around you by letting your true self be seen.

But what is your true self? Do you take the time to reflect and understand who you are, and your values? Are you the person who others see on the surface? And if the answer is “no” to any or all of the questions above, what can you do about it?

4. Continuous learning: Embracing a growth mindset and seeking opportunities to learn, unlearn, and adapt in an ever-evolving environment.

You are not fixed at birth with all the knowledge you’ll have and need. If that was the case, none of us would be talking! Talking is an acquired behavior. How do you establish a growth mindset? Do you constantly look for ways to improve your leadership and other skills? Do you look for ways to learn about others? How often do you leave your comfort zone to expand it?

So what? What’s the return, ROI if you will, on leading inwards?

  1. Enhanced Self-Awareness: Leading inwards enhances self-awareness, allowing leaders to understand their strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and blind spots. This self-awareness is the cornerstone of effective leadership, enabling leaders to make conscious decisions, inspire others, energize and lead with authenticity.
  2. Improved Relationships: When leaders are in tune with themselves, they can build deeper and more meaningful relationships with their teams, peers and stakeholders. Authenticity and empathy become natural outcomes of leading inwards, fostering trust and collaboration. As an unknown source quote reminds us: “The journey of leadership begins within. Only when we understand ourselves can we truly understand and lead others.”
  3. Resilience and Adaptability: Self-aware leaders are better equipped to navigate challenges, bounce back from setbacks, and embrace evolving change. They are better equipped to manage stress, make informed decisions under pressure, and inspire resilient teams.
  4. Personal Growth and Development: Leading inwards is a journey of continuous growth and development. It empowers leaders to identify areas for improvement, seek feedback, and invest in their own learning and skill enhancement. This growth and development help leaders improve their leadership.

How Can you Improve your Ability to Lead Inwards?

  1. Self-Assessment: Start by completing a self-survey honestly and objectively. Acknowledge your strengths and areas for improvement without judgment. If possible, use the same assessment instrument to get feedback from others, a 360° assessment). In this way, not only you will better understand how you see yourself, but you can compare how others see you and the impact of your behaviors and actions.
  2. Empathy: Empathy towards others is crucial in leadership, and self-empathy is equally vital. It involves understanding and being compassionate towards your own feelings and experiences.
  3. Feedback integration: Pay attention to feedback from others. Use this feedback as a valuable tool to self-reflection and growth instead of defensiveness and justification. A 360° assessment is a great place to start. But just as important is regular interaction with your stakeholders. Get to know them and ask them how they see you as a leader. Is their feedback in line with your perception? If yes, great. Expand on it with more information. If not, how is it different? What adjustments can you make?
  4. Accountability: Leaders hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and outcomes. Self-leadership involves taking responsibility for outcomes and personal growth. Own up to your mistakes, learn from failures and success, and take proactive steps for development.
  5. Seek Coaching and Mentorship: Engage with a leadership coach and/or mentor who can provide guidance, challenge your perspective, and support your leadership journey.
  6. Set Clear Goals: Define clear goals for your personal and professional development, create a Personal Development Plan. Regularly review and adjust these goals based on your progress and feedback.
  7. Clarity of Purpose: Just as leaders provide vision and direction for their teams, self-leadership involves clarifying personal values, goals, and purpose. Reflect on your long-term aspirations, and the impact you want to make.
  8. Empowering Self-Care: Leaders prioritize well-being and self-care to sustain performance and resilience. Self-leadership includes nurturing physical, mental, and emotional health.

A Model to Help You Understand Yourself

The Six Domains of Leadership™ (SDL) model is a comprehensive and powerful model to help understand how leadership behaviors interact and lead to leadership effects. The model was developed by Profs. Sim Sitkin and Allan Lind from Duke’s Fuqua School of Management. It’s been in use for close to 20 years with all levels of leaders in various types of organizations, from for-profit, to non-profit, to government agencies.

The six domains, Personal, Relational, Contextual, Inspirational, Supportive, and Responsible, are pictured in a pyramid structure to demonstrate not just what the foundational domains are (Personal, Relational, and Contextual), but how they support each other and the domains in the layers above.

Figure 1 — Six Domains of Leadership courtesy of Delta Leadership Inc.

The Personal Leadership Domain leadership effect is Credibility. As a leader, you have to be credible so that you can lead others. If you are not credible, others may wonder why they should be led by you.

In the spirit of leading inwards, do you believe in your abilities to lead? Are you credible to yourself? Are your values aligned to your actions and behaviors?

The Relational Leadership Domain is pictured in the middle of the foundational (bottom) layer of the pyramid, to show that everything rests on relations with team members, peers, supervisors, and others. And that, its leadership effect, trust, is key to being able to lead in a positive, effective manner.

In the spirit of leading inwards, do you trust yourself? How is your relationship with yourself?

The Contextual Leadership Domain leadership effect is community. Effective teams have a sense of community. This sense of community comes not just from a sense of identity, but also how the various team members can best work together and with other teams.

In the spirit of leading inwards, do you feel part of the community? What do you do to foster your sense of belonging and identity?

The Inspirational Leadership Domain is pictured above the Personal AND Relational leadership domains to show how it relies on these two foundational domains to yield the leadership effect of High Aspiration.

In the spirit of leading inwards, are you inspired by yourself? What inspires you?

The Supportive Leadership Domain is in the middle layer, to the right, above the Relational AND Contextual Leadership domains. It yields Initiative, the willingness of a team to take risks because they feel safe.

In the spirit of leading inwards, do you have all the support you need? Do you ask for help? Do you support others?

The Responsible Leadership Domain, the apex of the pyramid, builds on all the other five domains, yielding Stewardship, the willingness of the leader and others in the team and organization to protect the organization’s people and assets. Balancing internal and external demands, as well as short- and long-term demands, is what Stewardship focuses on, along with ethical behavior.

In the spirit of leading inwards, how are you balancing internal and external demands?

So how does the Six Domains of Leadership help you lead inwards?

There is a 360° survey, the Six Domains of Leadership Survey (SDLS) that you can take to conduct your self-assessment and integrate feedback. It is a great starting point in your inward leadership journey to help you understand where you are today and to develop a Personal Development Plan.

There are SDL-specialized coaches to help you understand your self-assessment, feedback, and to put together a plan. And these coaches can help you to hold yourself accountable to your plan and ensure the improvement of your leadership.

You, and your coach, will review the report generated from the SDLS. It will highlight how you and others see your leadership behavior, as well as the leadership effects generated by these behaviors and partner with you to create your Personal Development Plan.

Conclusion: The Impact of Leading Ourselves

Leading inwards effectively not only influences our leadership style but also sets the tone of how we will lead others. It starts with a self-assessment, integrating others’ feedback and practicing self-awareness and empathy. Clarifying your purpose, setting goals, and holding yourself accountable support this journey. Seeking a coach/mentor and empowering your self-care complete this intention the Six Domains of Leadership model is helpful in this effort.

Are you the leader you want to be and others to follow? How do you know? It is always a good time to have a candid conversation with yourself and be that leader that you aspire others to follow, including yourself! Use this approach and consider the Six Domains of Leadership, its survey, and, if possible, coaching to determine where you are and where you would like to go as a leader. Then put a plan in place and act on it!

If interested, contact the authors for more details: Orit Ramler (orit@oritramler.com) and Jose Solera (jose@coachsolera.com).

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