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Sculpting a Strong and Stable Leadership Identity

Sculpting a Strong and Stable Leadership Identity

Some say leaders are born. Some say leaders are made. Some have clearly defined parameters that constitute leadership. Some simply “know a leader when they see one.” It seems indefinable because everyone has a different view of what leadership looks like.

Leadership is a personal, individual expression of who you are. Your expression of your leadership is at its most powerful when your beliefs, thoughts and words align with your stance, actions and strategies with continuous consistency. It’s readily apparent when they don’t.

[Related: #MobilizeWomen Recap: Lessons on Leadership and Failure from Alison Levine]

Allow me to delve into British politics to illustrate my point.

Theresa May is officially the leader of the country. She has assumed a difficult task leading the United Kingdom through the negotiations to exit the European Union. There’s no denying that she’s got a tough job.

However, is she inspiring British citizens with confidence that she’ll negotiate the best deal for the country?

She has had a tough first year, and she’s made mistakes that cost her public confidence. While she had an impressive run as the Home Secretary, she hasn’t translated that success into inspiring leadership as Prime Minister.

What made her successful as Home Secretary won’t make her successful as British Prime Minister. She’s having to learn this the hard way — by enduring humiliating public defeats.

As Home Secretary, she took a tough, almost dictatorial stance to the job. BBC journalist Danny Shaw recalls his meeting with her in this article as being uncomfortable. She rigidly clung to the brief. While she was dedicated to the role by being deeply informed, colleagues describe her ability to command a room with the “sheer force of her personality.”

These are qualities that might be deemed appropriate for the job of Prime Minister. So, how has she got it so wrong? Today’s polls reveal that her personal approval ratings lie 24 points below Jeremy Corbyn, the politician who three months ago was branded as the leader of a “coalition of chaos.”

Theresa May is her own worst enemy. She has talked the talk, but she hasn’t walked the walk. She has backtracked on initiatives, lied about her stance on Brexit and her intentions to hold a general election, and misread the zeitgeist. She has remained aloof and authoritative when people want connection and collaboration. She has been secretive when people want clarity, information and assurances of progress.

Her strategy has backfired. Instead of being strong and stable, she comes across as arrogant, uncertain, insincere and wishy-washy. She appears to be an ego-centric opportunist rather than a leader of conviction. She’s losing the confidence and the trust of the British people.

Things are looking bleak for May — for the moment. However, this could be the making of her as a leader. She can turn it around, if she chooses to accept the learning this leadership crisis is offering her. Here are three strategies she can adopt as tools to sculpt her leadership into a work of art.

Look and listen

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Note that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Combining observation and listening allows us to take in information at a rate of four times as much as we deliver it. If Theresa May had expanded her vision and hearing to absorb views from a variety of sources, she might have read the signals differently and delivered a powerful message that spoke to the people she leads. Instead, people see her as just another establishment figure who thinks she knows what’s best. At a time when "the people" are flexing their power muscles, she has created more enemies than she’s won fans by attempting to dominate where collaboration would be appreciated.

Drop the self-doubt

Qualities like arrogance, domination and aloofness, while seemingly powerful, are compensatory behaviours rooted in self-doubt. She lacks confidence in the company of strangers. She worries about making a mistake. She eschews a challenge, hiding behind well-worn spin that fuels her robotic characterisation. In trying to so hard to get things right, you so often get things horribly wrong.

[Related: Leading Yourself Before Becoming a Leader at Work]

Inspire trust

May keeps herself to herself, and in doing so, she generates an atmosphere of mystery that’s less intriguing, more suspicious. It hasn’t helped that she has abused the trust not only of the British public but of her own party members as well with actions like introducing the “dementia tax” to the Tory manifesto at the last minute, without consulting her Cabinet. Her lapses of integrity damage the trust others have in her as a woman of her word. Delivering on her promises as a matter of habit would help her turn this around. In uncertain times, the one thing people need to feel in their leader is trust.

Leaders do not need to be likeable. Real leaders often have to make unpopular choices, and Theresa May is no stranger to this leadership predicament.

What May, like many leaders, has discovered is the fact that the qualities that made you eligible for the promotion are not the ones that will carry you forward. In stepping up to the challenge, she is being called to draw out and develop new qualities. If she can learn from her mistakes, she will increase her chances of doing it right the next time.

I require three qualities from leaders I follow: respectability, confidence and trustworthiness. What inspires respectability is respect. What inspires confidence is conviction. What inspires trustworthiness is integrity.

If Theresa May worked on these areas, she could convert me from being a critical observer to a supportive fan. She could even turn out to be a brilliant Prime Minister.

The ball’s in your court, Theresa. How will you play it?


Lori West is the founder and managing director of The Brilliance Trailblazer, a leadership development consulting, coaching and mentoring company. Her mission is to cultivate agile, inclusive, purpose-driven organizational leaders who are ready for 21st century. To find out how you can become a Brilliance™ Trailblazer, click here. To download a free copy of Lori's eBook, Poised for Progress, click here.

The views expressed by our members on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Ellevate Network.

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Community Discussion
Naomi Hattaway
Naomi Hattaway

I really appreciated this article Lori! This is powerful and so true (and a timely reminder for me!): What inspires respectability is respect. What inspires confidence is conviction. What inspires trustworthiness is integrity.

Thursday, Aug 10 10:30 AM EDT