Stepping up as a leader

Leadership can be challenging to define, but we all know when it’s missing. In a meeting, for example, where no one takes a leadership role, it can go round and round for over an hour. On the other hand, inspiring leaders can make us want to help create a better world for everyone. While leadership can be scary, lonely, and frustrating, it can also be incredibly rewarding, fascinating, and heart-warming.

When I began my leadership journey 40 years ago, it seemed almost unpredictable that I would reach a stage in my career where I regularly coach CEOs. Today I absolutely love making a difference through the service of leadership. But in my youth, I was critical of anyone who stepped up to lead. Growing up as a ‘mixed-race’ girl, I was somewhat wary or afraid of the mainly white, middle-class and male authority figures I saw around me. I didn’t see much opportunity for people like me.

Although at the time I thought I was avoiding putting myself in visible leadership positions, looking back I can see I actually did lead in many ways. I rallied my fellow students to raise funds for the anti-apartheid movement; in my early twenties I stepped up when I entered the world of work; I managed a small theatre company; and I spoke in Sweden at a UNESCO conference about diversity.

My decision to embrace leadership more deeply came with my growing interest in personal development and the power of coaching. In my early thirties I took my first ever leadership course, and for my ‘homework’ found myself founding and leading a community-led arts festival (on a volunteer basis) in south London. This was on top of my full-time work as an Arts Marketing Consultant. As that event grew, I suddenly found I was now a Director without really knowing what that meant.

I handed over leadership of that arts festival – Streatham Festival – after five years. I’m happy to report that it’s still going strong over 21 years later, along with two other festivals I founded in that area: the Streatham Food Festival and The Little Big Peace Event. Working alongside my incredibly generous and committed teams of volunteers, the experience of leading those events both thrilled and terrified me in equal measures.

Some days the responsibility felt like a huge burden. Yet the challenges forced me to grow in exciting new ways. What carried me through all of it was a tremendous sense of purpose. Myself and my teams really wanted to make a difference to our local community. We wanted to serve, which along with vision, purpose and relationship-building is a major key to successful leadership.

Those experiences led me to take on many other more visible leadership roles such as speaking on much bigger stages and working internationally as a Business Coach, Consultant and Trainer.

Every time I need to step up even further as a leader, it still feels hard at first and I always want to shrink down into my comfort zone. But instead, I choose to rise and learn to make a difference at a new level.

Leadership is not getting easier for others either. Today’s leaders need to lead through a high degree of local, national and international volatility, chaos and uncertainty, as well as rising to an unprecedented set of opportunities. It’s a big ask even for the most experienced leaders, let alone anyone who is new to the role.

This is why I enjoy serving as an Animo associate, as it’s a great way to share my skills and experience to support a range of different leaders through the familiar and emerging challenges.

So if you’re feeling isolated or challenged in your leadership, do contact us and let’s explore how we can support you.

Written by Mel Larsen, business growth and team performance expert at Animo Leadership

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