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Recognize Your Power

Recognize Your Power

Half a century has gone by since the scholar Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase "servant leadership." The philosophy describes people who strive to make sure other people’s needs are met — in essence, exercising power by supporting others. I come from a long family tradition of servant leaders — actually ministers — and they instilled in me a strong sense of duty to others. And that influence has profoundly shaped my career.

Yet servant leadership can struggle amid the realities of complex organizations filled with competitive, hard-driving people. People climbing their way to the top of the organizational chart aren’t necessarily focused on others. Instead of sharing power, they focus on accumulating it. It’s hardly inclusive, and far from the idea of service.

With the benefit of more than two decades of experience, however, I now see more clearly how it’s possible to remain anchored to the principles of servant leadership without giving up one’s own power. In fact, servant leadership can often be the surest way to build influence.

With the benefit of that hindsight, this is what I wish I could have told my younger self about how to find the power of great leaders — and still serve others.

[Related: Grit and Resilience Will Help You Survive Career Challenges]

Be your own best advocate.

One of the most important skills I wish I had early in my career is self-advocacy. For a time I was waiting for people to recognize me and my contributions. As a Black woman, I was the only person who looked like me in the room and often felt my voice was not heard – even though I had earned my seat at the table. People didn’t go out of their way to see me, or acknowledge my accomplishments – and, frankly, it hurt.

I eventually learned it was my job to shape, own, and share my story, what I stood for, and what I could offer. It didn’t matter that self-advocacy, which comes so easily to so many others, wasn’t really a part of my cultural or family background. Don’t allow your insecurities or others to steal your voice or your story.

Many think that there is only one audience that matters for that kind of advocacy: Your supervisor. But that’s not really true. You have to think more broadly and make sure their leaders — as well as your peers — understand the strengths you offer. Help people across the organization understand your uniqueness. I had to put myself in what I call a "circle of opportunity" to show people what I could contribute. You have more power than you realize to control narrative and result.

And as a leader, I had to be coached on how to promote those contributions in a way that showcased my power in the context of a team. That meant being truthful about my own expectations as a manager. Staying out of the weeds can be really hard if you want to maintain high expectations for yourself and your teams. When you realize you can’t do all things — and instead focus on the right moments to lead, model, or get out of the way — you can be better equipped to drive results for people.

Consider this: You’ve been in situations where you’ve been asked to think back on a project and talk about how the team performed. Rather than go into “we” mode, break it down to what each person contributed – and don’t forget to mention yourself! A good leader is able to give credit where it’s deserved. A great leader is able to explain their own role in detail, with clarity.

Ensure you’re doing the right kind of work.

I’d also go back and advise my early self to pay close attention to my personal satisfaction meter — and whether I could have been more active in shaping my career path. If you start Monday longing for Friday, that might be a clear sign it’s time to do something new.

You can turn those moments of restlessness into an opportunity to learn transferable skills. A mentor can be critical in helping you understand how to turn those doubts into multiple paths to success. I now know that there are many paths to a goal — and I share that message frequently as the executive sponsor of a women’s group at our organization.

The best leaders don’t say “do it my way,” they say, “do it your way—as long as you have a way to do it.”

[Related: Putting Yourself First at Work]

Find sponsors who can advocate on your behalf.

Seek out a sponsor — and challenge your own preconceived notions about who that could be. For instance, research from Coqual, a group that studies diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, shows that sponsors are far more likely to pick protégés of their same race or gender.

Finding the right person to support you doesn't necessarily mean choosing someone who looks like you. In fact, reaching beyond your own demographic category may be a great way to break out of a mindset.

Sponsors can be transformative. Once, a sponsor set up a meeting with me to share some tough love about my performance leading a meeting with colleagues. Thanks to that exchange, I made some adjustments which helped me with my soft skills.

Servant leaders aren’t pushovers; they sometimes serve you by telling you what you need to hear — even when it’s not what you want to hear. I think about my family members who were ministers — their message was one of great love, but it was also one of high expectations. Finding a sponsor who reminds you of your best self sometimes means getting a radically different view of yourself. If you find such a sponsor, it doesn’t matter what they look or sound like.

Comfort in self.

And finally, great servant leaders — at least the best ones I’ve seen — are comfortable in their own skin. Throughout my career, I over-indexed in trying to prove myself. I’m now far more comfortable telling my own story.

It’s hard to serve others if you don’t believe you belong. Don’t yield to imposter syndrome — we are all up to the task of great things. Recognizing that fact has allowed me to reclaim my power. And when you grasp that power, it is a lot easier to share it with others.

[Related: Moving Forward: Real-Life Work Lessons to Bring into Post-Pandemic Life]

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Tamara Fields, Office Managing Director for Accenture in Austin, is responsible for bringing innovation to clients, recruiting and retaining top talent, and strengthening Accenture’s impact in the Austin community. As a business veteran with more than two decades of cross-industry, multilateral project management experience, she helps better serve clients with creative, strategic, and transformative solutions.


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