How to Step Into Your Own Empowered Leader

04/09/2015 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015
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Recently I flexed my mental muscles during a three-day leadership course called "Team Empowerment Training." I thought I'd pick up a few conflict-resolution techniques, learn how to be a better influencer, and empower others through interpersonal skills and guidance. That was part of the experience, but I was blown away with what else I learned.

Instead of walking away with a few new and improved skills in these areas, I came away with an entirely new perspective on leadership. I know now that optimal leadership is a direct outcome of awareness of my own emotions, and using them to lead my own sharing and fighting for what I believe in. In other words, amping up my emotional intelligence helped not only myself, but also everyone else as a result. Here's a recount of what went down as I revved up my "EI" dial.

During the weekend, we formed smaller teams of ten people, rotating responsibilities two or three times each day between team members. It felt like we were a petri dish for team dynamics where anything could happen. We had several tasks to accomplish between lectures and team projects, including one big, daunting task of preparing, cooking and serving a meal to all forty participants. Like any newly formed team, we encountered a few hiccups that tested our cohesion and communication skills as we handled personality conflicts and inevitable differences of opinions. On the morning of day two of our training, I was elected team lead, meaning I was in charge for the day, which was also the day we had to make dinner for forty people. I had to steer my team to a successful outcome. Sure there were a few obstacles to tackle, but I felt confident and well equipped to lead. What could go wrong, I wondered?

The chaos started with our first forty-five minutes dedicated to prepping our menu items: forty fresh tuna steaks, homemade marinade, boiled white rice, green beans sautéed with butter, a simple green salad and dressing, and ice cream. The 'kitchen expert' on our team helped organize who needed to get what and when, along with mixing the marinade. The rest of us helped get the pots, pans, and other food ready.

We were functioning as a team, but at times it wasn't clear who was doing what, when things were completed, and what would happen next. Was our kitchen expert leading, or was I? I helped shout out times on the clock when needed, identify owners for cooking and serving, and overall making sure things were getting done on our checklist. No matter how well things were going, there was no way to avoid the mayhem any big kitchen effort involves.

It was the closest I'd ever gotten to Iron Chef. We were about as skilled in the kitchen as we were on a ropes course. I don't spend a lot of time cooking and wasn't sure about my own abilities to feed forty people. I know it was 'only dinner,' but how hard could it be? I can whip up a meal for one or two upon request, but the group size and expectation was daunting. I envisioned beads of sweat on our foreheads in the final minutes before time was up according to our facilitators. This was precisely what we where here to learn: not to cook a meal together for the sake of it, but to realize how to empower ourselves and any team to perform optimally no matter what the circumstance or conditions.

We were getting the job done, but we lacked cohesiveness and were pretty rough around communicating clearly and smoothly. Something was missing, but I was at a loss on how to fix it with people spread out, running to the storage shed getting ingredients and prepping, and under deadline. I needed to act fast and make a change. Otherwise my team would not deliver.

I took a leap of faith and stepped into my power when my teammate shouted, "Are you satisfied, Rachael?" I wasn't. My heart was pounding heavy inside my chest. I was afraid to shout, it wasn't my typical demeanor. This was hard! I had a choice: I could break some of my beliefs about yelling at people and stop them from their own individual tasks of the moment, or, let the situation at hand continue as is and get the job done, but not in a satisfying way.

"STOP!!!" I yelled. My team froze sensing my unusual booming voice and command. I scanned my team's faces. They stood at attention, ready to follow my lead. I saw surprise and shock, but also a willingness to listen. In that moment, my needs weren't being met. I was not happy about it. Communication lacked, there were still things to do, and we had five minutes left to finish what seemed like everything.

I was using my own dissatisfaction, my own anger, to get results. I barked, "We need to work together, right now, and we are not together." I paused. "We need to work as a team. We have five minutes left, I need each of you to tell me what you have left to do right now, and we need to organize a plan to finish it, fast." I was firm and direct.

I jumped at how intentional I was. My own assertion startled me, and my voice was an octave lower. I had dipped into my own emotional well to empower my entire team. I was frustrated, but I used it responsibly and for getting my own needs met. By acting on my own dissatisfaction, in a few moments I had changed the course we were on and demanded what was expected to finish the job. We quickly flagged what was left to do, and re-assigned tasks to meet our rapidly approaching five minute deadline. For the first time since I was in charge, I was acting like a real leader and acting on my own urges and emotions, using them to move us forward. We were all now in sync, and I felt empowered.

Looking back on that experience, I wonder why we often don't speak up when we are dissatisfied or frustrated when we innately know it would probably make things easier. Why didn't I speak up sooner? I was afraid of pissing people off. Like so many of us, we don't say what we really feel because rocking the boat is sometimes not 'culturally accepted,' and we fear disrupting the "balance of power." Sometimes we're so used to someone else speaking up, we forget to do it ourselves. Our awareness dissipates. We begin to think it's no longer important to voice a minority opinion or take a stand even if we firmly believe it or think its necessary.

Withholding thoughts is a move to play safe and play small. Most of us cross a mental threshold when the stakes are high: we push beyond our comfort zone and speak up at the risk of rejection. Just like that day in the kitchen, it's important to listen to everything, discount nothing, and nurture a supportive and safe environment to allow the best ideas to emerge.

Though it felt unnatural, I kept asking myself how I was feeling. In every instance of leading us to create this meal I had to ask myself how I was feeling. I learned that it was about my own awareness, and acting on it. How was I feeling, and what could I do about it? What was behind that? Could I use it to lead my team through a challenging time? I used my own awareness of my thoughts and feelings, and then acted on them, to empower myself, which in turn empowered my team. However, first I had to overcome my own fears and step into my own power to effectively lead. I needed to be ok with this, and use fear to my advantage.

This happens all the time, and not just in business. As a young girl, I wasn't encouraged to speak up when I was dissatisfied out of fear of not fitting in. Girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem "bossy," according to and Girl Scouts of the USA's campaign to "bring bossy girls back." This was partially due to my own personality, but part of it was cultural too. Eventually, I got over it out of my own persistence and self-confidence. Many of us can relate when wondering how often is it safe to speak up, or when it is safe to speak up? Often, instead of speaking up out of our own frustration, we choose to stay silent. I choose to be okay being the boss lady in the kitchen.

Later that evening, my team faced another challenge. We had to present a leadership topic for the rest of the class to learn from and evaluate. After our critique from our presentation, I realized I hadn't offered up a few ideas that I thought would help us. These were the exact things we were missing from our segment. At the time, I convinced myself my ideas weren't that important and didn't need to include them. Again, I was proven wrong. Had I followed my instincts to voice my ideas, we likely would have had a more successful presentation.

This was proof enough about putting everyone at risk when I didn't speak up. I was determined not to repeat this mistake again, and promised myself to no longer discount any ideas, input, or critique. I would honor my own ideas and share them for the benefit of the team and myself. I would speak up early and often, especially when my inner critic wanted to hush me into passive silence. I would be sure to voice my own ideas and feedback, but make sure I stayed open to others, listened to all ideas, and offer any supporting evidence or data as needed.

This promise led me to my first epiphany: I was out of alignment with my values of speaking my truth, having a bias to action, and believing in myself. If I remained silent, I would be dishonoring these values. During my Iron Chef dinner, I let my standards slip before I bellowed out to my team to stop. Only when I spoke up was I then backing my own ideas and moving forward when something needed to change.

Lesson learned: Embrace the values of listening to everyone, and discount nothing so everyone feels safe to speak, share and contribute. For a team to perform optimally, everyone's ideas must be heard. If I believed my ideas had potential or were worth sharing, it was my responsibility to express them and get others to listen.

For the remainder of my leadership training weekend, my actions and attitude shifted. When I moved to a new role, regardless if it was to lead or supporting, I no longer held back, and honored my thoughts and voiced them. I listed to everyone. I asked for feedback from my teammates and facilitators on how I was leading, or what I could do better. Several times I heard my inner critic voice pipe up, which I expected. I got defensive (why should I do that?), made up excuses (I'll say it later), played the victim (they don't understand what I'm trying to do), and let my ego control me (my idea is waaaay better that that!). I decided to push through all these thoughts, stand my ground, and lead based on my new promise to not discount anything, in this case my own ideas. I witnessed my own emotional intelligence in action: I was using my own emotional radar, my dissatisfaction, to guide my behavior to speak up and listen fully.

These values, combined with emotional intelligence, can optimize any team whether it's personal, social, or business related.

Here's the top lessons I walked away with that day. I want to share this new perspective on leadership so everyone can amp up his or her own emotional awareness and intelligence so that anyone can benefit.

Pause from the inside to change the outside. Each time I found myself in a challenging situation, like feeling frustrated because I didn't speak up or annoyed by someone else, I used it as an opportunity to stop whatever I was thinking or doing, and just be with myself. I took a breath, and took that time to return to a calm, clear frame of mind. I would then choose my next action. This was my emotional intelligence in action, pausing to take note of my own emotional state, and realign with my values (e.g. voicing my ideas).

How you can apply it: When feeling stressed or anxious, take a five-minute pause. Go outside, walk around the office, or stretch. Focus on your breath and take five deep inhales and five slower exhales to shift your mind out "the doing" and into your body.

Embrace healthy debate.The best teams fight for airtime during meetings. Listen to all ideas and let others know you aren't satisfied in a supportive, constructive way. Discount nothing. It's better to be on a team where everyone is speaking over each other, versus a silent, unsupportive or relatively silent team. Allow everyone to be heard. It isn't a sign of weakness; it's a sign of going for what you think works best. You can apply your best poker face, or what I call a "resting face," to get a clear read.

How you can apply it: Establish a standard where contribution is supported and encouraged, even if it is not the norm. Imagine how much longer we would have thought the Sun would've revolved around the Earth if Copernicus hadn't voiced his theory that got him, at the time, dismissed from the Catholic Church.

Optimal teams are at their best when everyone is present and engaged. The whole is the sum of its parts. Being your best means being present, participating, collaborating and contributing, regardless if you are in agreement or not.

How you can apply it: When you're meeting with your team, create standards to get full participation and engage team members like having a "laptops down" policy or 'no cell phone use' during meeting time.

Accountability starts with you. A leader can't hold others accountable until taking accountability herself. This means following through on expectations and deliverables. It means contributing ideas regardless of the risk of being rejected. Check in with your emotions. If you're hesitant to speak up, chances are there's a natural fear of humiliation, rejection, or fear of disrupting the status quo. Let it guide you, and recognize your responsibility to yourself to be accountable for your own actions, and voice it. Share openly and honestly up, down and across the organization even if it goes against the culture, politics, or norm. Speaking up and supporting one's own ideas is the first step to optimizing team performance. If you're dishonoring your own values, your team may be missing out on its maximum potential.

How you can apply it: If you have an idea and don't express it, find at least one person to bounce your idea off. Express calmly and responsibly and be prepared to add supporting evidence or data.

Anyone on a team can lead even if they're not the designated leader. An optimal team requires each member to be an active, engaged participant. This means sometimes going against the grain and speaking up when everyone else isn't saying anything. It means getting comfortable with disruption when there's a conflicting suggestion.

How you can apply it: When team members offer their own ideas, feedback or contributions, voice your support for or against it and agree or disagree. Challenge it for healthy debate if your emotions are telling you to speak up.

Be messy. Teams can be messy; Conflict is ok and often generates the best ideas. Sometimes it's taken personally and doesn't need to be.

How you can apply it: Encourage healthy debate and don't suppress it. This is different than arguing. Interpersonal conflict may arise, which is normal, but clear quickly. Remember it's business and not personal. Even if it is personal, which really anything is in the end, aim to quickly clear the conflict by talking about how you felt and your experience.

A leader's job is to finish whatever task is at hand. Everything else is a distraction. I work in sales, and my manager's job is to meet the numbers. Every quarter, this is our priority and if it doesn't look likely, we shift into high gear. Until we do what it takes to achieve our goal, everything unrelated gets put on hold until this task is complete.

How you can apply it: Pitfalls will arise, but stay the course and don't compromise standards.

I returned to Google with my new promise to express, take action immediately and never second guess myself as an empowered team member and leader. As a result, I do a better job of supporting any team. I hold myself accountable and speak up when I'm dissatisfied. By tuning into my own emotional intelligence, I can use the queues not only to empower myself, but also to benefit any team, relationship, or organization I am a part of.

That is true empowerment.