3 Leadership Lessons I Learned in a Difficult Season of Life
Article by Michael Manning
I was in college and six months pregnant with my first son when my younger brother passed away from cancer. He was 18 years old and barely out of high school, and losing him left us immersed in the grief cycle. This wasn’t the first time I had to deal with a catastrophic life event, but this was the first time I had to do so with so much personal responsibility and my own health to look after.
From this period of time, I learned a lot about grace and not taking advantage of the compassion given to me, as well as the need to focus on the people who surrounded me. But this moment wouldn’t be my only catalyst for deeper introspection.
By 2012, at 28 years old and recovering from back surgery, I was severely overweight. I realized I would continue to suffer major consequences from my unhealthy lifestyle unless something changed, so I made a resolution: I would put myself first. I began working out with my husband, crushing my goals at the gym by staying consistent and taking risks. I lost more than 50 pounds in the process. As a result, I became more focused, calmer, and more confident.
These two transformative experiences had major impacts on how I perform as president of my company. I came out stronger at the other end of both of these periods. While I can’t say that I will ever achieve the grace or compassion I strive to exhibit, I have used these intensely personal and powerful events to construct a fresh method of engaging others in the workplace.
Turning Lemons Into Lemonade, One Seed at a Time
When life forces intense moments on you, you have a choice. You can crawl into your shell, or you can stick your head out and take risks. For me, the mantra “Nothing changes if nothing changes” became a guiding philosophy. If I’m not open to stepping outside my comfort zone, I can’t live up to my full potential. From running 5Ks to addressing large crowds, my abilities are only as limited as my mindset.
I knew this when I had the chance to take a leap of faith and join a startup as a young professional a few years after my first son was born. Armed only with a background in baking and customer service, I dove into what could have been an uncomfortable chapter of my life. In the back of my mind, I remembered my brother, who would never have these same opportunities. Who was I, then, to hold back when paths — even tenuous ones — presented themselves?
As it turns out, becoming a leader in a startup is one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. However, I likely would not have had the confidence to take that step if I had not dealt with the emotional and physical hurdles of my past..
Regardless of whether you’ve had similar struggles in life, you can also benefit from making choices to better yourself as a professional. Here are three things anyone wishing to take control of their future should start doing today:
1. Ask for Peer Feedback — and Accept It Graciously
Your peers are watching you and evaluating your performance, but you’ll never know what they think if you don’t inquire. This isn’t about getting people to share their dark secrets or putting them in uncomfortable positions. Rather, it’s about gathering insights into how others perceive you. You can then analyze this feedback and set goals accordingly, enabling others to support you as you map out a plan for progress.
To ensure you get honest responses, choose your words carefully and meaningfully, but be straightforward and unambiguous. Some of my favorite questions include:
- What can I do to better support our team’s mission?
- With whom should I be working more closely?
- Which parts of my leadership or professional style concern you most?
- If you were in my position for a day, what would you change?
Solicit feedback often, but do so on a predictable schedule. For example, I conduct direct one-to-ones monthly and document everything discussed in the HR platform GoCo for both parties’ reference.
2. Pay Attention to What Is Happening Around You
What happens around you can offer tremendous clues about what tomorrow will bring. For instance, if you’re a leader, what occurs in your office when you’re not around? Do people push forward with assignments, or do they hold back until you return? If you’re an employee, do your coworkers understand how to navigate your role? Could they solve a problem particular to your job if it came up when you were gone? Being an observer and good listener helps you process what is occurring without your influence so that you can analyze that information from a new perspective to make better decisions.
Keep assumptions at bay, and seek out the facts when talking and listening to others. Open yourself up to alternative ideas and ways to solve problems. These are opportunities for both personal and professional growth, so long as you understand how to pause — and I mean that literally.
Take time to pause during conversations with others. There’s no rule for how long your pauses should be — they could be milliseconds or several seconds. It depends on your speaking style, the nature of your message, the person with whom you’re speaking, and your own personality. By pausing and taking time to focus more on cues from your surroundings, you’ll know whether you absorbed the message you were delivered and whether others are waiting for your response.
Remember, too, that leaders aren’t the only ones with great ideas. Everyone in a company has a lot to say, but people often don’t share without prompting. I, for instance, like to conduct exit interviews and follow-ups with past employees to foster a culture of honesty, and I encourage my employees to offer up their ideas even if I don’t explicitly ask. Without knowledge of our own blind spots, how can anyone be a true asset?
3. Take Time to Care for Yourself
Every day, I take time for myself. This helps me maintain a good work/life balance. I have a 90-minute window in the morning before my coworkers arrive at the office, during which I reflect on what I accomplished the previous day. Then, I think about what needs to be done today to make an impact.
In addition to this 90-minute reflection period in the office, I work out three times each week before everyone else in my house rises.
My hope is that, as a leader, I’m encouraging everyone in my sphere of influence to make time for themselves and take care of themselves. If you don’t regularly reflect, focus, and engage with anything, then you’ll never have the mental capacity to reflect on the important issues or the happiness required for solid productivity. Find what you need and chase after it — whether it’s uplifting podcasts, exercise, time with family and friends, or quiet meditation before bedtime. You owe it to yourself and your coworkers to make yourself your best self.
As professionals, we have to maximize our productivity while bringing value to our teams and companies. As leaders, we must amass a bevy of tools to combat low confidence, bolster our teams’ attitudes, and foster motivation.
The bottom line is that we’re each a composite of experiences, both amazing and tragic. It’s not enough for you to acknowledge the past; you also deserve to grow out of it and float a little higher tomorrow.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Michael Manning, president at Rocksauce Studios, joined the team to bring her considerable marketing, analytical, and relationship skills to the team. As president, she leads the charge on invigorating the company’s loyalty, happiness, and customer engagement from within.