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Being a manager doesn’t automatically make you a good leader.

“I believe that true leadership lies in a person’s inner ability to inspire others to thrive and reach their goals while creating safe spaces for personal and professional growth” – Lethicia Foadjo, MSW RSW

How many times have we been in positions where we’ve had managers that lacked leadership abilities? I know I have! You begin to wonder, “how did this moron get the job?” or “Do they even have a clue what’s going on?”. It’s a phenomenon that’s always baffled me because I’ve seen on multiple occasions, people in management positions with both lack of qualifications and qualities. Rising in the company ladder, for one, isn’t always due to merit. Second, even when it is, the person may lack the overall interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) that must accompany the IQ to do the job. I want to share with you some situations that point to poor leadership and its effects on colleagues/employees as I’ve had some first-hand experiences. As a person of color in a huge organization, rarely will your leader relate enough to you to know how to lead you, which can be both barriers to your professional advancement and to your overall sense of belonging. I’m hoping to also share some insight on different ways YOU can be a leader in your respective roles.

I’d like to begin by clarifying that by no means do I believe that being in management is a walk in the park, because it truly isn’t. It’s a decision-making role, involving the need to balance multiple responsibilities of a portfolio while responding to a certain hierarchy. For these same reasons, is why I believe you must be suited for the role, and everybody just isn’t…? There’s nothing wrong with admitting to yourself that YES, I might be good in this field, but I cannot lead a group of people and excel at it. Some people can even admit to themselves that they are great teammates, excellent executers of functions if they have someone leading them to do it. However, let’s be honest with ourselves, with management comes…. MONEY! Whoo-hoo!! I mean, who wouldn’t want a raise? The world revolves around money, and often people get ahead of themselves for the social stature, the big titles and the LinkedIn likes after the upgrade to their profiles.

There are basic traits I believe all great leaders should be able to have and/or should possess as qualities. Not everybody is born to lead, I do think that we can grow into great leaders, but even that requires skill, some of which I will mention below.

  1. GET TO KNOW YOUR TEAM. If you are a manager, chances are you must deal with other human beings and create a work environment that is conducive to whatever your agency’s goals are. You cannot lead people if you don’t know them, period. Meeting people where they are at, understanding their learning styles, getting acquainted with what they need from you will propel you to where you need to be. As a manager, you need teammates, alone you may go faster to climb that latter, but together you will go further both on a personal and professional level. Having a basic understanding on how human beings go about making connections can be a great way to go about making healthy ones in general, including with your team. To help you in that journey, developing your Emotional Quotient will be essential. One of the things I suggest starting to nourish that mind is understanding the theory of Attachment. John Bowlby, Pioneer psychologist of this theory described attachment as the "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. Although built in early childhood it greatly influences development and behavior throughout one’s life. We, as a society, tend to want to separate “work” and “personal” … but in all seriousness, to be professional at work is personal and to be personal at work can be just as professional. You are one human and cannot check your personal at the door to go to work and vice versa. These two things are not mutually exclusive; therefore, the needs will overlap. The more you’ll understand about connection, the better you’ll understand yourself and others when you interact.

  2. INTEGRITY. I think integrity is one of those words that everyone likes to toss around because it makes them look good to have it on a resume. Integrity isn’t a skill, it’s a value that one holds dear to their hearts as its not visible to the naked eye. To me this is the foundation of all great leadership because it means to do the right thing even when no one is watching. It means that no matter how difficult a situation might be, or how stuck you may feel, it is never in your character to take short-cuts, throw people under the bus and make false promises just to get out of a sticky situation. It means to say what you do, and do what you say no matter the outcome, while staying true to a moral code. It means to choose your team before your own personal gain while delivering ethical and moral standards that surpass expectations.

These are examples of what not to do based on true stories:

  • I had a manager that would tell us what we wanted to hear because she feared confrontation just to go behind our backs and do something completely different. When we’d find out, it’d be very abrupt and made us look extremely incompetent in our roles. When we’d confront the manager, she’s blamed it on forgetfulness or miscommunication.

  • I’ve seen managers use agency budgets for their personal gains; this manager would for instance buy furniture and write it off as such, but then return the furniture and pocket the money. We’d never get the furniture we asked for.

  • Another one would send long condescending and passive aggressive emails about something miniscule, but then to your face, would act like nothing ever happened and there’s nothing wrong with their unethical behaviours. However, when bigger needs arose, they’d turn a blind eye to it.

  • I’ve seen one outwardly lie about a colleague in my presence to make herself look good and appear superior. She didn’t know that I knew the truth, so when I countered what she was saying, she gaslighted the situation and didn’t feel an ounce of remorse.

Believe it or not, all these managers were beloved and made to feel special by people above them and other departments. This is what “best” looked like… great standards right

3. HONESTY & RELIABILITY. I’m going to join these two together because I believe one completes the other. Honesty isn’t optional, if you have integrity, then you must go through honesty to get to that destination. To be honest as a leader will allow you to build trust, respect from your colleagues and become a reliable source of guidance. When people trust what you say and do, they can follow with ease and not be confrontational with you. Besides, to be a great leader you must be honest with others but most importantly to yourself to make rational decisions in general! The truth can be difficult sometimes, and not always what people want to hear. No matter what, remember that it is not always what we say but how we say it. You can be truthful while being empathetic and supportive of your colleagues. In return, know that your staff will ALSO tell you the truth and have your back when it matters most.

4. ACTIVE LISTENNING & STRONG COMMUNICATION. It is imperative to know how to convey a message to your people in a way that not only makes sense, but that inspire them. Unlike most people believe, to be a good communicator takes to actively listen to others, be intentional and most importantly, practice! Nobody is just born with all these great skills, but if you are honest with yourself (*wink wink*) and decide to make improvements, you can. Active listening means to hear what someone has to say with attention and sincerity to understand their perspectives. You are listening to understanding, and not to respond necessarily. The key to healthy communication boils down to a few things....

  • Avoid harsh language that makes others feel incompetent or carry the blame. Practice solely focusing on the actions/problems at hand and not the person that may have had a hand to play in it.

  • Using words and facial expressions that are inducive to what the message is about (ex: don’t smile when you are giving someone bad news, and don’t frown when rewarding/complimenting a person). It’s also a component of making healthy connections as mentioned earlier.

  • Be conscious and receptive to what others are communicating, as communication is only as good as how we can receive it too.

  • Deliver messages with confidence and an affirmative tone to continue to build trust and respect of your team. If you’re confident, so will they!

  • Listen without interrupting, laughing, being distracted, and invalidating what someone has to say. If you want to be heard and understood... so do they.

  • If someone must be “right”, know that you are both losing. Healthy communication is about understanding perspectives, acknowledging mutual needs, and finding a way forward that is favorable to both. It’s not about your way being right and theirs wrong.

5. SELF-DISCIPLINE. When I think of self-discipline I think of skills around time management, organization, task-completion, follow through, self-accountability and perseverance through challenges. When a leader is self-disciplined they can foster a culture of responsibility, personal self-growth, and peer motivation. If you can create a structure, and stick to it, you are allowing others to socially learn from you and hopefully they can follow that. In professions like social work, the organizations are often fast paced, we are occupied with heavy caseloads and must be disciplined to achieve our goals and the ones of our clients.

6. ACCOUNTABILITY. Accountability is about showing up when it matters most, committing to promises, and commitments made by your team and yourself. Admitting when you are wrong is a challenging experience for most people, especially adults in a position of power. How many times have your parents apologized to you as a kid for doing something wrong to you? When is the last time a CEO told his employees “Sorry for…”? From the time we are little children all the way to adulthood, we have fostered a social environment where adults/elders are always right even when they’re wrong. It doesn’t come naturally to most people to feel comfortable with taking accountability when shit hits the fan, so do not think that you are “bad” person if you struggle with this. It boils down to remembering these when faced with situations that you fear taking accountability for:

  • What am I truly feeling regarding the situation? Blame? Guilt? Anger? Start by acknowledging the true feelings behind the defensiveness.

  • Then, ask yourself who else is involved in this situation? Put yourself in their shoes and be curious as to how they’re experiencing it from their perspective. Being curious will open doors to good communication (*wink wink*).

  • Follow with, if I take accountability and own up to what I could have done differently, how will this help the team? Is this a learning opportunity? Is this a leading opportunity? Maybe a bonding one? Deepening connection?

  • Lastly, how will this make you a better person at the end of the day? Showing accountability goes hand in hand with being honest, which means reliable, then leads of integrity which are all connection building qualities of all great leadership. I hope that by now you see the connection between it all.

6. PROBLEM-SOLVING. Solving problems doesn’t always equal being solution focused and finding the “right” remedy every time. It really means to be able to utilize what’s available to you to make challenges more bearable for your team which will then lead to finding sustainable solutions. It means to not push issues under the rug, postpone problems that make you feel overwhelmed or hiding from them. It means to not individualize problems but collectivize in way to show your team that there’s no problem they cannot bring to you for support. You don’t have to find solutions alone either, using what is available to you may mean tapping into your manpower. If you know your team well (1st quality mentioned) then chances are you know who to go to for what purposes. Great leaders know how to foster leadership in others, and crisis management, situations to problem solved are opportunities to do just that.

7. EMPATHY. I’ve mentioned empathy briefly in different topics, but it deserves to stand on its own. As explained earlier, there’s not professional without personal and no personal with professional in a work environment. Stop trying to separate the two! Being empathetic is the beginning to understanding that. You are dealing with complex human beings and taking the time to acknowledge others’ needs and what going on in their mind will help you nurture a healthy culture. Empathetic leaders are perceptive, aware of others’ emotions/feelings as well as what they may be thinking. To be empathetic doesn’t meant to always agree with others, but that you acknowledge where they’re coming from and can validate their experience.

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” - Oprah Winfrey

There are many other attributes that are well documented in support of people in their leadership roles, but I do think these are the basic ones. Building healthy human connections is the base of all things when creating spaces to inspire others. As a therapist, my clients wouldn’t give a shit about what I had to say if I didn’t take the time to build a therapeutic alliance with them. They wouldn’t be receptive of the difficult realizations we’d make together, if they didn’t feel that I wanted what is best for them. If many ways, we must be leaders in our roles, to inspire change in others so they can reach their owl full potential and personal growth. A lot of research has proven that over 50% of someone’s ability to thrive in therapy has to do with the connection they have with their therapist. In my professional role, I’ve adopted a few techniques to build connections with my clients so I can later challenge it as well.

  1. I present as a regular person. No fancy title, no fancy clothes, no fancy words, just a regular person so they understand that I’m not better than them and that there’s no pedestal to put me on.

  2. I genuinely am interested in their person, learning about what matters to them, things that have nothing to do with the reason they came to therapy. Maybe they’re looking for a new job, got a new pet, or going on a trip! Doing this allow them to feel human too, and that they are more than their problems or challenges.

  3. Laughter! It’s free… and I use it. People are usually very nervous to be in therapy, scared to be scrutinized, fear vulnerability, however laughter can be a great way to relax the environment. It’s also a technique that can go south very quickly, so be cognisant of your use of it.

  4. Between sessions, I like to do personalized check-ins with clients. Especially if they’re isolated or had something meaningful coming up. Connection is continuous, even when they’re not in front of you which leaves them feeling confident that you care for them.

  5. I validate all experience no matter how small, big, controversial, or crazy their experiences may sound. Believe it or not, I can validate some people that have very different views than I do, some even a little racist or homophobic. If you remember what I said earlier, being empathetic isn’t about agreeing with other people’s views, but seeing their perception for what it is. Validation is a great tool that also disarms most of my clients, which creates a less hostile space for them to come to terms with certain things and be open to what I may have to say. Meeting people with abrupt rigidity never leads to any growth nor connection.

What have you done in your life to be a good leader?

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