Gentle and strong

When I consider my own personal character, as both a mummy and as a leader, strength is not one of the first words I would probably associate with myself. I’m extremely driven, but despite this, I doubt most of the things I do, and am highly self-critical of my actions, thoughts and judgements.  I’m a very emotional person. I cry easily.  As a reaction to both good and bad situations.  I get overwhelmed.  I’ve been criticised as a leader for being ‘too nice’ by a former colleague.  My body is fairly strong, but recently has been exhausted and prone to illness.  So, if we are measuring strength on emotional and physical qualities, I would say I don’t feel particularly strong at the moment.

But then I found this quote:

‘There are two ways of exerting one’s strength – one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.’

I really liked the sentiment of this and agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, in the context of leadership, I think it is a very powerful analogy. 

I’m sure we can all think of strong leaders.  Now consider whether their strength was used to push down on their teams to influence and control them.  Or whether they used their strength to pull up those below them, empowering teams by modelling resilience, compassion and integrity. 

Thinking of leadership through this lens, perhaps helps me to unpick some of the qualities I may have doubted, and frame them in a more positive light to help me celebrate my own remarkable strength. 

It’s taken me a while to realise, but strength doesn’t have to be the loud, confident voice.  Strength isn’t always about having all the answers.  Strength is rarely about using your power to force your views on others.  And strength is never aggressive behaviour used to control others or make them feel inferior.  Leadership in this style creates insecurities which breed fear, alienation and lack of ownership.  Unfortunately this toxic concept of strength, is prevalent in many organisations.  But there is another way.  Strength can be about more than power.  Being both soft and strong is a combination very few have mastered. 

Strength can, and does come from setbacks, struggles and challenges.  It is characterised by perseverance and determination.  It often grows from a quiet voice inside which keeps reminding the self to keep going, and try again tomorrow.  Strength is being human, and admitting when you are vulnerable.  Strength is carrying the burdens of others, alongside your own.  Strength is encouragement which builds other up. 

I would like to think I model all of these.  When I’m overwhelmed, I hope I can learn from the feeling.  I hope it helps me be more empathetic to others, and aware of the challenges they face.  I hope the pride I feel from recovering from hard times, is able to inspire and encourage others.  I hope that I can make a difference through the thoughtful, persistence of my vision, and the strength of my values, not necessarily the volume of my voice or the power to dominate others.  When I express emotion and display my vulnerability, I hope others recognise that I am human and it is ok for them to do the same because I will understand.  These qualities all show strength but perhaps not what others might initially consider as strong.

This does not mean I don’t have difficult conversations.  Or challenge poor decisions, actions or incidents. But I do so with quiet confidence and strength in the belief that by leading by my values, I will be strong enough to take others with me, instead of dragging, pushing or forcing them.   Building others up, making connections and helping people feel valued, encourages them to be the best they can be. To feel stronger together.

Like one of my most inspirational leadership heroes, Jacinda Arden  ‘I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

Thanks for reading.

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