“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” ―Ernest Hemingway
The importance of personal and professional development for current and aspiring leaders can’t be overstated. It’s the secret to separating yourself from the pack, the bridge that carries you toward the goals you have yet to reach. And the only way to continually forge a path people will follow you down.
We often waste immense amounts of time investing in things that numb us to the reality of how short life is―such as scrolling the internet and social media for hours on end or watching TV to the point of restlessness. Entertainment is fun, but how much time do we save for ourselves? For career growth? How often do we set aside dedicated time for personal development, where we are learning and growing in a way that defines our existence? Usually not enough.
In my new book – Embrace the Suck: The Navy SEAL Way to an Extraordinary Life (with a riveting foreword by friend and former teammate David Goggins) – I emphasize the importance of being intentional in the fine art of comfort zone expansion, leaning into pain and suffering, clearly defining one’s values, avoiding temptation and life’s many distractions, planning better, executing with greater discipline and accountability, and actively limiting those things we don’t want to regret when this short life comes to an end.
In the military, we often refer to “the burden of command” when it comes to leading people in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments. And I think we can all agree that the fast-paced world of modern business was complex enough. Now, with the impacts of a global pandemic, civil and political unrest, and economic uncertainty, we are all faced with personal and professional challenges the likes of which many of us have never experienced. And you know what I say to that? Good. I am in no way making light of the loss of lives and businesses caused by COVID-19. Rather, I am referring to what we can gain from adversity, which forces reinvention, transformation, and innovation. If we aren’t adapting and growing, we are essentially dying a slow death. As leaders, we have the responsibility to navigate our teams through the murky waters of uncertainty.
So, when the inevitable life or business ambush strikes, it’s the leader’s responsibility to take action. Here are seven self improvement actions all leaders must take, especially during volatile and unpredictable times:
1 – Actively Improve Self-Awareness
Emotional intelligence is crucial for effective leadership in any environment. Possibly now more than ever. Simply put, EI is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately. The ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goals. Emotional intelligence can be broken down into self-awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management. In volatile environments, panic is contagious. But so is staying calm, confident, and communicative.
2 – Enhance Communication Style and Technique
In this largely virtual world we are all living and working in, the walls of the already existing silos have thickened, straining relationships, the flow of information, and the ability to do basic things like read body language. Leaders need to learn how to properly over-communicate. Now hold on, before you start packing more Zoom meetings into the already jammed schedule, consider what I mean. Within an appropriate timeframe of already existing meetings, make time to ensure the objectives are clear, concise, measurable and timebound. Set standards for proper virtual meeting etiquette. And most importantly, we must ensure each team member is immensely clear on their role in mission success. Many teams and employees have had to adapt, which means new activities, new actions, new processes and procedures. Never assume you’ve communicated enough.
3 – Learn to Show Greater Degrees of Empathy
This goes back to the reference of emotional intelligence. Empathy has always been a leadership quality imperative for truly connecting with others, for building meaningful relationships, and for improving the ability to inspire others, enhance engagement, and effectively provide feedback. Now, with most leaders and managers learning to lead remote teams, empathy is crucial for connecting with each team member’s unique work-from-home situation.
4 – Develop Skills in Motivating Self and Others
Ability x Motivation = Performance. This is a multiplication formula because if either ability or motivation are zero, performance equals zero. Adding in the pressures of social isolation on top of already low levels of engagement (in even well-run organizations), leaders must learn first how to stay motivated, and then coach others in self-motivation. External motivation is fleeting. Employees need tools and resources to keep themselves at the top of their game.
5 – Invest Time in Mentorship and Coaching
True leaders are life-long learners and never satisfied with the status quo. Always seeking transparent feedback and accountability mechanisms they can use to be in a constant state of improvement. They actively seek mentors and coaches that prepare them not for their existing level of leadership necessity, but for the next. Great leaders always assume the battlefield will change and become more complex. For this they must prepare. Leaders also need tools to learn how to truly mentor and coach direct reports. This is far more important than simply training them is a specific job function.
6 – Improve Change Leadership Capability
Change leadership is arguably the most challenging burden of command, yet critical for leading in any environment. To continually drive better business outcomes despite the inevitable obstacles we all face, requires continuous transformation when it comes to effectively leading change.
7 – Manage Anxiety Through Better Wellness Activities
Over the past eight months, my firm has been working closely with organizations such as Google, Sales Force, GSK, and the NFL predominantly in the areas of leading and managing remote teams, work-from-home best practices, and building a virtual culture. But one of the pieces of advice we always impart on leaders is the importance of wellness. Mind and body. It’s far more challenging to lead a team through uncertainty when you lack the energy and focus to stay the course. We encourage making time for fitness, meditation, reflection, reading, healthy eating, more sleep and less alcohol!
Many elements of our current environment are wrapped in permanency. We are pulled in many conflicting directions. Leaders must take total ownership over their growth and development. And as Brian Tracy says, “Personal development is a major time-saver. The better you become, the less time it takes you to achieve your goals.”