A few days ago, I returned from Lisbon / Portugal where I delivered a speech on Leadership Excellence at the regional EMEA conference of the CFA Institute (cfainstitute.org); attendees came from 43 different countries – something that is otherwise only found at the United Nations.

Here are the key messages of my plenary address:

Leadership excellence can be found in day-to-day activities. I had the best lessons on leadership excellence on the dance floor , and this is what I want to see so much more of in the business world:

  • Know who you are: Dancing and leadership means being aware of your own style, what you’re passionate about, and then expressing exactly that.
  • Emphasize self-leadership: The way my dance partner holds himself leads me to effortlessly do my part and follow him well.
  • Focus on implementation: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, just start moving. Both dancing and doing business can only be learned by taking action.
  • It takes two to tango: It’s about working in partnership to create the best results. When we dance, there is consent, connectedness and a shared passion for our goals.

We cannot talk about leadership in isolation. We need to consider its context because it has an effect on us. Today’s environment can be characterized by the interplay and intensity of the usual suspects: Technological advancement, volatile consumer interests, customer demands, versatile competitors, disintegrated markets, natural disasters, socio-political shifts etc. This environment is defined by the speed and significance of change, and the lack of just one right course of action. Learn more about the current economic drivers in one of our recent blogs.

There is a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled. Analyzing leadership approaches is common best practice – here are some of the dramatic results:

  • Estimates of managerial incompetence range from 30% to 75%
  • The failure rate among senior executives is at 50%
  • The failure rate of organizational change projects has been stable between 60% to 75% for more than fifty years.

There is not this one set of leadership skills that could make all the difference. Yesterday’s ‘command and control’ mentality is definitely out. There is a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled: Take up that space and lead. There is not just one way to exhibit leadership excellence. You need to find your own!

The biggest challenge is sitting between our two ears. Our mind is a powerful thing. The stories we tell ourselves and the things we believe about ourselves can either prevent change from happening or allow new skills to blossom. Prof. Carol Dweck, psychologist at Stanford University, studies human motivation. She tries to find out why people succeed and what’s within our control to foster success. Our view of ourselves can determine everything. If you believe that your qualities are unchangeable — the fixed mindset — you will want to prove yourself over and over. Changing our beliefs can have a powerful impact. The growth mindset creates a powerful passion for learning. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?

„Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively. People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them.“
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.

The concept of Personal Mastery comprises a vision, creative tension, and commitment to truth. Commitment to truth means being willing to challenge the way you perceive the world and others. Your vision is an image of the future that you desire. Attempting to make reality meet your vision produces creative tension. The creation process needs both – vision and truth – to be energized and move forward! Personal Mastery revolves around the idea that no matter what your leadership level or role, the critical factor to begin with is inside us. Before you can lead outwards, you need to look inwards.

Leadership excellence starts with leading yourself – from the inside out.

The longest relationship we have in life is with ourselves. Yet, often times most of us would be imprisoned if we treated others like we treat ourselves. Our inner monologue can have pretty negative messages for us. This negativity typically increases in times of stress, continuing to lower our energy. It’s hard to mute the inner radio then: Our limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations and our inner critic are already dancing up a storm. In that particular state of thoughts and emotions, it is hard or even impossible to be of any service to others.

Authentic leaders are in high demand. The beauty is in the process of becoming more and more of who we are.Allow yourself to be a work in progress with an optimistic future in mind. Being true to yourself is not an excuse to stay in your comfort zone. Work towards a future version of your authentic self by stretching outside the boundaries of who you are today. Pull from within what’s already there but not developed yet; pull it out. You will feel ambiguity, discomfort and frustration along the way – that is perfectly normal.

Authentic leaders do not hide behind masks. It continues to surprise me how many leaders attempt to be one way at work, while their “true” personality emerges outside of work. The CEO of an Asset Management firm once said to me, “Leadership is acting.” I was surprised, and I was even more surprised when this CEO shared that he was confused because his staff didn’t seem to trust him, and didn’t like him. All of us want to be led by real people. Without authenticity, today’s leaders are destined to fail.

Authentic leaders are true to themselves and to what they believe. This is not to say that authentic leaders are perfect. Far from it. By acknowledging their shortcomings and admitting their errors, their humanity shines through, and they are able to connect with people and inspire them.

Leadership excellence is the key. What I have learned from my nieces is that everyone is a student and a teacher at the same time. So, please stay passionately curious, be present – now, and strive for leadership excellence – always.

I had some time to explore Lisbon before flying back home. Blue skies, sunshine and a light breeze – perfect weather to be outside and absorb the diverse impressions in the different neighborhoods. In Alfama, I met a musician (ratontheroof.com) whose virtuosity on the guitar and dedication to the music deeply impressed me. The sign on his guitar case said: “Desire to inspire your beautiful day.” He certainly inspired my day (thank you, Elliot Hollins!).

Wishing you inspiration and all that it takes to inspire others, Annette.

PS – I am – as always – just a phone call or email away.