With society’s traditional beacons of leadership regularly appearing in front-page scandals, people are increasingly turning to business leaders to fill that void. Employees are looking to CEOs and other senior corporate leaders to be champions of good causes, to embody wholesome and bedrock values, and to transmit the ethics we want to emulate ourselves and encourage in others. You can debate whether the standards have become too high — CEOs are still mortal humans, after all — but the fact is, this is a trend that’s likely to continue.
As such, CEOs must become more comfortable communicating their own ethics and values and those of their companies in an authentic way. Where to begin? Your instinct might be to start with your marketing or communications team. However, while the expertise of your professionals can certainly be valuable in honing and amplifying your message, to truly succeed in this area, the work must start from within. You must do the deep work of understanding yourself and your journey as a leader.
Over my 30-plus year career, I’ve used my training as a clinical psychologist to work with countless leaders, helping them and their organizations solve their toughest leadership challenges. This begins, of course, with the CEO. As part of my development work, I’ve regularly had these leaders focus on the earlier experiences in their lives and careers to mine “crucible moments” – those times of adversity in which they wrestled with difficult, even traumatic, events and emerged stronger as a result of the struggle. These crucible moments are profound, revealing, and usually key to who a leader is and what he or she stands for. As the late leadership expert Warren Bennis taught us, we all go through periods of adversity, but it’s the exceptional leaders who learn from that adversity, understand how it has shaped them, and then use that learning to form the values and behaviors that inspire others.
Though many, if not all, business leaders have come through adversity, many of the CEOs I work with haven’t adequately mined that experience. For some, they would rather not remember the tough times; for others, they’ve never truly resolved their struggles, and certainly haven’t turned them into gold (this is the meaning of the metaphor of the crucible – from Medieval times, the container that transforms iron into gold). Learning from your crucible moments will unlock your development as an authentic leader. Have you truly drilled into your toughest experiences, and used them for teaching moments, stories, and personal reflections for your team and employees? If you haven’t, you’re neglecting a rich source of experience that can demonstrate your authenticity as a leader and increase your ability to inspire loyal followership.
To become the kind of leader who uses his or her own experiences to motivate others, consider these suggestions:
1. Embrace self-knowledge: There’s a reason the phrase “know thyself” goes back at least 700 years BCE to the Delphic Oracle. With so much demanded of leaders today, one must be very clear about what his or her beliefs, values, and biases are, and get comfortable with them. Mining crucible moments, reflecting on the role and gifts of mentors, and considering your own legacy are all worthwhile exercises to engage in, with or without a coach or advisor. Understand your own personal story, your journey of leadership, and get comfortable telling it.
2. Acknowledge your unconscious biases: We all have them, so what are yours? By definition, they may be difficult to identify. Working alone or, preferably, with an expert, recognize and get comfortable with your biases. Obviously, you’ll want to guard against them, but do more. Talk about them. Let your people know you’re human, that you are honest enough to admit that you’re not perfect, and that you’re working to be the best leader you can be. It can be an inspiring message.
3. Seek 360 feedback: Not all 360s are created equally, so make sure that you are getting the hard-hitting feedback you need. Participate in this useful exercise once a year, and have your executive team go through it as well. Make sure it is designed to reflect the core values of the firm and to pull in feedback that is directly relevant to the standards of behavior you wish to reinforce. Sit down 1:1 with your executive team and discuss the results.
4. External consultants can be invaluable: It’s really challenging for CEOs to get honest feedback at work. As you undoubtedly notice daily, people smile more, stand up straighter, and behave in exemplary ways when you’re around. If you’re like most CEOs, messages, reactions, and data of all kinds is getting filtered by the time it reaches you. Working with an external advisor or coach who can ask provocative questions and who can guide you through an internal examination of your crucible moments can be a real gift.
The fact is, your employees aren’t just looking for your espoused values – they want to believe that you walk the talk. Our crucible moments form our values which in turn guide our actions and define us as leaders. If you’re going to win hearts and minds, start inside your own.
Read more: It’s Time To Take Culture Seriously