Leadership and Full Expression

The Leadership Range host Neil Edwards talks about the meaning of leadership removed from typical corporate definitions. He uses metaphor, a coaching case, and the perspectives of famous black leaders to illustrate his message. He invites everyone to do a systems-check, examining their own notions of self. He gives listeners two approaches to explore and connect with their natural leadership and leaves a specific message for men and people who are white and in positions of power and privilege.

You can connect with Neil on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can email him by clicking here.


Neil: I am Neil Edwards, and this is The Leadership Range, where we elevate the voices of Black and brown coaches and allies and have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, teams and relationships, well being, and inclusion. Today’s episode features yours truly, me. I talk about the meaning of leadership in this episode. I talk about it somewhat removed from the typical corporate definitions. I do this for two reasons. One, because it is important for people to understand leadership is not owned by capitalism and everyone does not need to pursue a notion of success as defined by corporate lords. Two, this perspective on leadership still influences one’s ability to lead in corporate settings. It is foundational to leading well, but it does not focus on technical or specialist skills needed to function in specific vocations. As you listen today, really go inward, and I hope you’ll be reflective afterward too, because the world needs us desperately right now to be better. We are divided. We are harming each other. We are self-destructing. And it doesn’t need to be as it is. There is hope. But it starts on the inside, where leadership lives, and we all have the capacity to lead.

Neil: Imagine for a moment the most amazing and beautiful expanse of land and environment on Earth with as much diverse characteristics as you desire, wherever you want it to be. Every tree, bush and flower, animal, rock, earth, water, whether it’s flowing, stale, or tidal, the air, the temperature, the sky, the camber of the land, all of the sounds and aromas that might be around, all the things that keep it self-sustaining. The things that you can see from a bird’s eye view, and perhaps, like the less pleasant things that lurk in the underbrush under the soil, worms and things like that, each aspect having its own unique expression. Together, they’re fully integrated. This land is wholly and fully in harmony with itself. Nothing has authority over it. It has natural dominion over itself. It’s so beautiful. You just want to look at it, be with it, or even be it. It is fully expressed. I know I’ve seen land like this in a number of places, and I could just sit and be with it indefinitely. Imagine for a moment that you are this land. Most of us in corporate spaces have been hijacked, occupied or colonized. We are not fully expressed. While the meaning of leadership espoused by most corporate spaces serves a purpose, they miss essential ingredients. The greatest leaders in all of history don’t fall within any of the corporate leadership development frameworks that I’ve seen. There’s something else going on. These leaders also don’t fit into any other diagnostic tools that measure leadership, these tools that we use as coaches all the time. Not one leader that I can think about fits into this. So I’ve been trained several times over as a leadership coach and a leadership, developer, life coach. I train and supervise coaches now from all around the world. I coach other coaches. I’ve led scores of leadership development experiences and participated in several myself, and I just have this alphabet soup of certifications in the vocations of coaching and leadership, development and human development. I have worked across multiple industries with people educated in all sorts of fields, from engineering and medicine, to business and finance, arts, government, elected officials, law and more, and I’ve worked with students and senior executives alike. And I have thousands of hours on the ground, doing leadership development work with people who lead others and lead organizations. This is what I do for a living. And my bet is nobody is in doubt at all that the world needs great leadership right now, and I say the world needs you right now. The world needs needs you to be the personification of leadership right now. So I am going to address the root of great leadership today, and this is really just a start. So at the end of this episode, you should have a better sense of what leadership is from this point of view, what it means for you to be a leader, wherever you go professionally and in life, and where you need to focus your energy to direct your own life and your own career. You can think of this as Leadership Range 101. Many people may be feeling a sense of some confusion, uncertainty, low confidence in their abilities and what’s possible for them. They maybe feel stuck in a place they don’t belong or under the control of something outside of them. Some people may even feel a sense of hopelessness. But a true sense of leadership addresses all of these things. Getting clear on the core, the yoke of what leadership means, is a solution to unlock the door between you and what you can do to shift from where you are to where you want to move next. So let’s just get to it. First, leadership begins with self-knowledge. So growing up, my mother always used to tell me, “Neil, first know thyself.” My guess is many of you have heard it because my mother didn’t make it up. Legend has it that, I don’t know, six, seven sages inscribed it on the entry to Delfi, home of Apollo and the great Oracle, if you like Greek mythology and that sort of thing. But self-knowledge, learned at any stage of life or human development, can be applied at all levels over the rest of the course of your life, which makes self-knowledge an ongoing process. It’s iterative. Leaders know who they are. They have self-knowledge, a strong sense of self-identity. This is absolute for all leaders, all great leaders. Frederick Douglass said, quote, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and to incur my own appearance.” Why would a leader want to be self-loathing? That makes absolutely no sense. I have had, I don’t know, scores of clients who come into coaching for one thing or another and don’t know themselves or don’t know as much as they should for where they are on their journey. I shouldn’t say should, but it seems to me like they would know more. Sometimes clients thought they knew themselves, but then they discover they missed something revealed through some set of circumstances that they were in. So for example, I had this client, and let’s call her Robin. Robin came to coaching to work on communicating with impact and to improve executive presence, whatever that means. Robin was a senior leader who was transitioning to being an executive. You know, she was right on the edge, and she wanted to be at that executive level. I think it was the second session where Robin said, “I don’t know who I am anymore. I lost it. I lost it. It’s gone.” And she started crying. And through these tears said, “It’s not that I don’t know how to communicate properly or how to have a strong executive presence in the room. I just need to find myself.” Robin had something in the hidden places, perhaps in the underbrush of her land, that she needed to explore. And clearly, we have to do work on self-knowledge and identity, and we needed to do this so that she could be fully expressed in her self-knowledge. Robin also said, “I hate that …” Just to not get too much into the story, “I hate that this thing happened, and I’m so disappointed in myself, and I don’t like this thing that I’m discovering about who I am.” Tyra Banks said, quote, “Self-love has very little to do with how you feel about yourself. It’s about accepting all of yourself.” Actually, I think she said about your outer self it’s about accepting all of yourself. It sounds like Tyra had a coach. This brings me to my second point on leadership. Leadership requires self-love. You see, Robin started to fall out of favor with herself. She had discovered an aspect of herself that she didn’t like much. Something was in the underbrush of her land, and it’s not only important to have knowledge of ourselves, including the aspects we don’t like very much, it is crucial that we accept and love the parts we don’t like so we can grow, to understand how they served us perhaps in the past or when they best serve us now, so we can be more skillful at self-managing, you know, ourselves in any situation. A balanced ecosystem where there is symbiosis between seemingly incompatible elements is healthy. They’re integrated, and they are whole. They are fully expressed, and they have the internal power to maintain dominion over themselves without controlling intervention, you know, because of some of the things that lurk below the soil. These things help us to manage and to maintain integrity and wholeness. We need earthworms. Alice Walker, a novelist who wrote The Color Purple–that’s who Alice Walker is. She said, and I quote, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” So point number three – leadership requires self-sovereignty. See, Robin started talking about who she had to be and what she couldn’t say, according to other people, else she would not achieve her goal to become an executive. She started talking about maybe not being cut out for this. You know, she was giving up her power to everyone else and living in fear based on events from the past, which we can all appreciate and empathize with. It was a choice point for Robin. She could choose between continuing to be a victim or martyr, or she could choose to reclaim her power. Of course, sometimes people could use a little bit of help, a helping hand of a coach or therapists or even a good friend, depending on the circumstances. But nonetheless, your land is your land. No one has the right to take it from you, and you have no obligation to give it away. You either give away dominion over yourself, your land, or you maintain self-sovereignty and the capacity to be fully expressed. It doesn’t mean that you won’t run into obstacles. Another important leader in our world, the late Booker T. Washington, who was born enslaved and became an advisor to multiple presidents said, quote, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome while trying to succeed.” Unquote. Point number four – leadership requires resilience. Do I need to convince anyone that life has setbacks? That businesses have setbacks, that people get in the way, that we get in the way of ourselves, that pandemics happen and forests burn? Do I need to convince anybody of that? I don’t think so. Robin was down in the dirt. She was going to quit. Even though she wanted that executive role and had a clear reason why that was on purpose for her, she knew who she wanted to become, but the choices dominating her consciousness while we were working together were not lining up with the future she desired. Resilience, the ability to recover from setbacks, is established in good well-being and based on cultivating your intellectual, emotional, relational, and physical health. Robin used to exercise. She wasn’t sleeping. She hadn’t been spending quality time with her husband and had lost contact with close friends. She was working what she described as “a billion hours,” barely sleeping, again, crying all the time, and her diet was crap. She had little energy and almost zero creative capacity to solve the problems she had with herself. And so we worked on a weekly well-being plan. Natural land has the intelligence of life built in. There are natural cultivators in the earth and the trees. The symbiosis between living things and physical structures offer different types of growth and function, and it’s this combination that allows the land to thrive. Nurturing the intellectual, emotional, relational, and physical health of your land is necessary to be fully expressed. When I think about resilience and full expression, I think about someone like the late Maya Angelou, who said, quote, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope for the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise.” Maya Angelou was one leader, the personification of leadership at its core. She was fully expressed, and that is what leadership is – full expression. When someone is fully expressed, they are unstoppable at whatever they do, from loving and feeding the destitute like Mother Teresa to a grand creative performer like Michael Jackson to the modern, creative product ingenuity brought to us by the essence of Steve Jobs and any other thing we can imagine in the world. Leadership shows up everywhere. At its best, it is the full expression of a human. So to recap, leadership, at its core, is full expression from the inside out. It’s an encapsulation of self-knowledge, self-love, self-sovereignty, and resilience. And so to begin getting unstuck, developing your confidence, gaining your clarity, taking control of your life and regaining hope, do a systems check. Give yourself the gift of full expression. Your work, whatever it is, will benefit if you are fully expressed. A simple thing you can do to start working on this is recalling a time when you felt you are at your best and writing down everything that was going on. Who was there, how you felt, what you saw, what was important to you about it at that time, everything you can remember in exquisite detail. In it, you will find what is important to you – what was important to you during that experience, and therefore what is important to you as a value. If you don’t have an experience like that, then think about someone you admire someone close enough in some dimension, that’s important to you, so you can relate to that person. Write about it. Talk about it. Draw something about it. You know, anything that inspires you about them, put it down on paper, whatever your style is – writing, talking, drawing. This is important to do if you don’t have an experience of your own, because people inspire people, and you can find inspiration through the work in the life of others. If you have the financial means, then hire a coach, because what can take you, say, a year can be accelerated when you work with someone who does this kind of work. It’s an investment in yourself so you can speed it up. It’s like getting a good personal trainer if you find yourself continuously avoiding exercising. In any case, you will become a creative designer of your life. You will take ownership of yourself and begin the process of chipping away at the edges of your leadership so you can be more fully expressed and more fully expressed more often. This is really about happiness and about fulfillment and about success according to your own definition, however you want to look at it. Now, for folks in positions of power, especially men, and especially people who are white and also in positions of power, last week I had a conversation in Episode Two with Kimberly Tiedeken about microaggressions. Microaggressions are not always so micro from a position of power. A microaggression can be extremely harmful to a person’s sense of self, which means it can limit their ability or opportunities for full expression. Folks in positions of power and privilege have a responsibility to business and humanity to create environments that support full expression. As I close today, I want to leave you with another quote from a Caribbean-American poet, Audre Lorde. Quote, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.”

Neil: Leadership is full expression, full human expression. It is born within us and expressed in as many ways as there are humans, at least. Humans are born creative. Modern society–capitalism, unfortunately, has co-opted the meaning of leadership and shaped it to suit productivity over creativity, which might actually be counterproductive to the emerging future. My hope is that you will revisit yourself, revisit the natural sources of your leadership and begin to expand from there, chipping away at the edges to deepen and extend your expression as far as possible into the life-affirming work you are meant to do, whatever that happens to be. If you are different, creative, seen as odd, then you too. George Washington Carver, an American Black agricultural scientist and inventor, said, “When you do the common things in uncommon ways, you will command the attention of the world.” Unquote. You can listen to new episodes of Leadership Range every Monday. Connect with me on LinkedIn.com/in/nedwards07 or on Twitter or Instagram. If you have a topic suggestion or want to join a conversation here, send an email to Neil@NeilEdwardsCoaching.com. I look forward to you listening to future episodes.

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