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What Does It Feel Like To Be A Leader?

This article was first published in the VSAE’s Association Press and can be found at https://www.vsae.org/assets/Newsletters/2023Newsletters/202305_MayNLF4W.pdf


Lately I have been reflecting about what it feels like to be a leader. We attend sessions at conferences, learn leadership methodologies in courses and webinars, and read about past leaders, but what does it feel like to lead? If I follow the steps and am guided by my training and the books I’ve read, what will that feel like to me? I think back to when I was younger and the leaders that I looked up to. I saw those leaders as having integrity, knowing the path (or at least knew better than me how to choose a path), and as kind compassionate people willing to guide me. As I move up in my career, and learn just exactly how much about the world I don’t know, I continue to reflect on the leaders in my life and wonder how they must have felt. Did the leaders that I admire and want to be like feel as happy and confident as I perceived? Did those same leaders feel insecure and vulnerable at times and I didn’t notice?

 

With curiosity I sat down and wrote what leadership feels like to me and then asked around to see what others thought leadership felt like.

 

For me, leadership feels like many things. At times I feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. Other times I feel grateful and enthusiastic. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable and brave, but at the same time insecure and curious. At other times I feel one way in an interaction and entirely different in another.

 

So, I asked around to see what others felt.

One friend, Abner Gonsalves, CAE, said it felt like pressure, responsibility, and motivation. He said that there were so many things he could not control, but as a leader he could control the culture. To him, that meant he felt the responsibility of needing to expel bad energy in a team and turn it into good energy so the team can be high performing and motivated to do their part. As a leader, Abner felt the mixed emotions that come with being responsible for how a team performs.

 

Fellow VSAE member, Sarah Mattes Marshall, CAE, said that she felt the uncomfortable feeling of having to be courageous to do hard things. She referenced a quote from James Robilotta, our final keynote speaker at the conference; “curiosity takes vulnerability and vulnerability takes courage.” She said that as a leader she felt it was important to be able to do hard things such as being focused on the big picture (past, present, and future), and letting go of your ego.

 

Our fellow member Cathy Guske reflected on the leaders in her life. She noted that the best leaders in her life have been willing to dig in and do the work to collaborate. She said that a good leader can work alongside the team to get things done for the good of the organization. She likened this to the servant leader style.

 

If we look at the feelings wheel (https://feelingswheel.com/), we see that feelings of being overwhelmed (or pressure) fall in the category of surprise or being caught off guard. Vulnerable feelings fall into the category of afraid, while uncomfortable is categorized as a feeling of shame and a self-judgement. When we look for courageous, it falls in the category of proud while thankful and enthusiastic are categorized as joyful. Curious feelings are categorized as intrigued or attentive, and compassionate is categorized as loving.

 

When we take a step back from the wheel and notice where the feelings of being a leader land, it is really all over the place. Interestingly, the fact that the emotions felt as a leader were everywhere made sense to me. Of course, it makes sense that a leader would feel so many different things, a leader is just as human as everyone else. Thinking back to those leaders that I looked up to, I’m sure they must have felt a wide variety of emotions as well. Around this point is when a shift happened for me. The possibility that the leaders I look up to feel the same emotions I do helped me humanize them, release the pressure I put on myself to be perfect, and made me doubly grateful for the compassion and encouragement I received from them.

 

In digging into what it feels like to be a leader, I found colleagues with similar emotions to mine and a new appreciation for the leaders I once held on a pedestal. We learn so much about how to be a leader, how to do the hard things, how to make the hard decisions and how to create a culture that thrives. It is comforting and opens up an entirely new collaborative mindset to realize that many of us feel similarly while being a leader.

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