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Living Leadership

It is the question that has been floating around the business world for decades: how do we become more effective leaders? We’ve all had managers or bosses who thought that leading meant barking orders, installing firm hierarchies, implementing rigid processes, or even just trying to be the most well-liked. We now know that effective leadership is far more complex, and has much more to do with guidance, support, and being deeply tuned-in to your team’s strengths, needs, and personality traits.

So much research has surfaced concerning the tie between mindfulness and effective leadership that even Google has founded a leadership institute centered around emotional intellegence. But before the trend hit Silicon Valley, there was Nicole Ehrenberg, a German business trainer who has spent the last 20 years working as a business coach and consultant. Experience has taught Nicole that, contrary to popular belief, leading is about encouragement, big-picture thinking, support, and above all, empowerment.

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Nicole trains individuals, corporates, and teams to adopt a more holistic approach to leadership, one that embraces creativity, mindfulness, and growth - empowering participants to dedicate themselves to a deeper understanding of their mission as leaders. Leaders often sabotage themselves, she says, in part because of our skewed impression of what leadership actually is. “It is the main issue that has been misunderstood for the last decade or so: that leadership is about telling people what to do and how to do it,” says Nicole. “If you want to lead people, you have to understand them. You have to support them if you want them to fulfill their potential.”

Furthermore, she explains, in order to contribute to the greater goal or vision of the company, employees need to be able to express themselves and their core strengths: “So, your job as a leader is to take what is brought in and see if it is in line with the overall goal.” In this way, a leader is less of an authoritarian presence and more of a facilitator, someone who listens carefully and has the skills to tease out the best in his or her employees. “If you trust your people and if you give them the possibility to understand what they are really responsible for [in a larger sense], then you’ll see that they’re contributing to the bigger picture,” says Nicole. “They’ll also understand why they’re doing their work and you won’t have to tell them anymore.”

Supporting your team means truly understanding how they function, both individually and as a group: “You have to have an impression of the personalities in your team, not just the skills they need to fulfill the terms of their contract,” explains Nicole. “For example: does this person have a more analytical mind or is this person more creative?” Seeing the whole individual and not just a producer of goods or services is integral to helping employees to succeed and leading effectively. Otherwise, Nicole says, “you will function in a cycle of control and misuse of power: you’ll stress people out and they will become ill.”

The healthy approach, says Nicole, is modeling a passionate leadership style that is dedicated to and enthusiastic about the company’s mission: “There is a sentence I like very much,” Nicole recalls, “which says:‘You can buy the head and the hand, but never the heart.’” We can always buy someone’s skill, she explains, but it’s a great deal harder to motivate someone, to engage their passion, to make someone love what they do: “You can’t pay them to bring in their heart.”

“It is about empowering and encouraging your team, and I think that what we need to do with leaders is to empower them to be the person who is able to decide if there is somebody who is capable of taking on responsibility or not,” Nicole explains. “And if not, then it is the leader’s job to empower this person until it is possible. This is what we have to train leaders to do. This is not a method, this is personal growth that we’re talking about.” If this is true, then the natural conclusion is that in order to lead effectively, you yourself have to be centered and grounded in who you are and be excited about what you are doing, modeling a passionate approach to your work and allowing that passion to radiate in all directions and to inspire others. Thus, Nicole insists that a principal question every leader has to ask themselves is: “How can I truly be a role model for my team?”

Being a leader means adopting a holistic view of management, yet knowing where to draw boundaries: “You have to have an overview of all the tasks on your table so that you see the big picture. It’s also about being so centered in your personality that you aren’t trying to be friends with the team and that you don’t need that acknowledgement. If you have this ‘neediness’, then you will always start to go into politics.” Nicole explains that “neediness” leads those in charge to feel disempowered when they feel rejected and to seek refuge in systems and structures, and use these to achieve their mission instead. This analytical, fear-based leadership style, she says, “stifles creativity.”

While recognizing that hierarchies are a necessary part of certain companies, Nicole questions their effectiveness, especially in terms of fostering an environment conducive to effective leadership: “We have these hierarchies to make clear who is the boss of whom. This is a responsibility ladder, but it is also a power ladder, and we have to understand that we are more like an organism, that there are different people with certain skills in the company. This is not something that is decided once and stays in place for the next 30 years. Perhaps in the same group, the leader will change multiple times because they possess a specialized knowledge or skill that drives them to take charge. Leadership is not something you own. This is another misconception in leadership, that you ‘own’ a position and the right to lead.”

Sure, leadership takes training, but being a strong leader doesn’t have anything to do with where you are in your life, or even your age: “I see young people who have unbelievable leadership skills,” Nicole says. “They may not be aware of them, but in the millennial generation I see some great people and they are so clear about what they want. They move forward and they excite people around them with their ideas and their vision. This is leadership. They are moving forward and other people are following them by nature. They don’t have to do anything, it happens naturally. We have to completely reconsider the approach that we followed the past decades.”

Nicole reiterates that she sees companies more like an organism: malleable and ever-evolving. Leaders are tasked with being agents of change and models of impactful engagement: clear-headed yet driven by their own vision. This is the leadership style that will prevail in our fast-paced, ever-changing world. “You have the vision, you committed, you are excited, and you are moving forward and by encouraging others to follow you and to commit to the same vision,” says Nicole. “Then, you start to support your employees to contribute to the vision. Because they are excited, too. It is not about a method or procedures, but that it is coming through people and being delivered by them. I think that you can’t deliver leadership. It is something you live.”

*Join Nicole for her upcoming public workshop Transformational Leadership Symposium on November 1st by registering here. You can learn more about Nicole and her seminal work on leadership, cooperation, and a bredth of other topics on her website: www.uchangeug.com. Or contact her by email at mail@uchangeug.com.