The following is adapted from The Power of a Graceful Leader.
Learning to be a graceful leader starts with internal work.
We must learn to align our personal and professional life. We have to work to give ourselves compassion and see ourselves honestly and without judgment.
In fact, this is why some of my clients have a difficult time completing their work to become a graceful leader—the work feels like it will change you, but not your workplace.
However, I would like to joyfully inform you that while graceful leadership starts with internal work, the full scope of graceful leadership is not just an internal adjustment. The inner work that you will do will show up in myriad ways in your workplace.
In fact, a single graceful leader can set off a domino effect of grace within an organization. Let’s take a look at what kind of change is possible with one of my favorite stories.
Identifying Where Grace was Needed
Nadia was a finance executive in a global healthcare system. She was a perfectionist, with a command-and-control leadership style. She’d been called a “battle-ax.” She was very linear and had high executing skills, which had allowed her to rise to senior VP, where she was running billions of dollars in business.
Like many leaders, Nadia struggled to shift from executing to influencing. She struggled to delegate. She was often out on the floor, looking in people’s queues and completing tasks that were two layers below the level she wanted to be focusing on. When there were problems, she found it easier to fix it herself than to let her team figure it out. If you’ve ever had a boss like this, you can probably imagine how her frequent hovering and micromanaging grated on her team.
When Nadia and I first started working together, we knew that her perfectionism was an issue for her team. Sometimes, perfectionism was needed: a misplaced decimal, for instance, could have huge ramifications. However, Nadia’s perfectionism extended to everything. Her team would develop a project plan that was 90 percent of the way there, and Nadia would handhold and micromanage them until they got to 100 percent.
The result was a stifling of creativity and co-creation. There was no room for dissent with Nadia’s leadership style: her way was the right way.
As Nadia and I worked together, we started to do the inner work of discovering where her perfectionism came from. We uncovered that “perfect” had become a label others applied to her. She was tall, beautiful, and physically fit, and she had a lot of energy that made her a pleasure to be around.
Though it may seem nice to be called “perfect,” positive and negative labels can be equally damaging. The harm occurs whenever we force ourselves into molds that do not reflect our truth. For Nadia, this idea of perfection seeped into many aspects of her life—her leadership, her appearance, her parenting. She struggled to live up to her own as well as others’ ideas of perfection. The “perfect” label was imprisoning her.
When we began uncovering the root of this perfectionism, Nadia’s professional life improved. She grew brave enough to examine how she came across to others with different ages, backgrounds, and status in the organization. She realized that she sometimes exuded an intimidating intensity and often used body language that was unconsciously demeaning.
Nadia started making changes. She began by extending grace to herself and then others. Her personal evolution soon had a wide impact.
Nadia’s Evolution and the Resulting Culture Change
From the outside, it might have appeared as if Nadia were changing everything about herself. Really, she hadn’t changed at all. She was who she always had been; she was simply allowing a more holistic version of herself to show up at work.
Her team had always liked her for her intelligence and effectiveness as a leader; now they loved her for the person she was, because she was finally allowing them the opportunity to know that person. As they witnessed her humor and vulnerability, they began to respond with the same.
Nadia supervised over 170 people in a systemwide support function, and they were all affected by her transformation. These effects were not wishy-washy; they were concrete, objective improvements, measurable through two different employee surveys—a Leadership Culture Survey and an employee opinion survey—administered over three years.
In the Leadership Culture Survey that we executed in the first six months of our work together, 56 percent of Nadia’s staff completed the survey, and 57 percent rated Nadia highly in controlling.
A year and a half later, we redid the survey. This time, 81 percent of the staff participated—a 44 percent increase. This much-higher employee engagement indicated that trust was building. Additionally, Nadia’s controlling score reduced and showed her behaviors trending in a positive direction toward becoming a more creative leader.
In the company-wide annual employee opinion survey, Nadia had created a decrease of 70 percent of the concerns that had shown up the year prior. According to this survey, employees were now more willing to refer a friend to the team, felt stronger in their ability to receive the help they needed to complete their job tasks, and were better empowered to complete their work fully and accurately.
Internal Work With Concrete Results
Nadia’s personal transformation resulted in clear culture change within her organization. In addition to improved employee satisfaction, her department achieved impressive business results that culminated in a $65 million increase in revenue. They also exceeded the year goal at 102 percent, when the year prior, they had not met the target.
The change in Nadia was remarkable. Witnessing and supporting her through this transformation was one of the most humblinfg experiences of my coaching career. It was a metamorphosis that reminded me how resilient the human spirit is, and it proved how powerful grace is when we first extend it to ourselves and how transformative the resulting impact to a company’s culture can be.
For more advice on graceful leadership, you can find The Power of a Graceful Leader on Amazon.
Alexsys Thompson offers this body of work as a testament to her own leadership journey, as well as the journey of hundreds of other leaders. For Alexsys, the tipping point came when she established her gratitude practice and spent a decade refining it. Today, developing a gratitude practice is a key element of her work as a board-certified executive coach. Alexsys also serves as adjunct staff for The Center for Creative Leadership and is a member of the Forbes Coaching Council. She authored The Trybal Gratitude Journals, curated a collection of short stories called Gratitude 540, and is building a retreat center in Vermont that will be a “safe space for souls to show up.”