• Leadership is about who you are, as much as what you do

  • That's why working with a coach or psychotherapist can help you become a good leader, says therapist Kate Graham

  • You can connect with a coach here or therapist here

A client said to me as she shifted uncomfortably in her chair: 'You know, leadership is about being, not doing. And I am good at doing. I was a very good manager, but I am not sure what sort of leader I am.'

She is probably a very good leader, but she exemplifies the dilemma faced by many people as they move into leadership positions. They know what they are good at doing, but they are less sure who they need to be in order to be a good leader.

Part of this is down to the images of leaders we hold inside us. I notice the images that come to mind for me first are predominantly male (followed at a distance by Margaret Thatcher): people who are out there, leading from the front, big, strong, getting things done, telling people what to do.  

Then I think of the truly inspirational leaders, such as Martin Luther King, the Pankhursts or Greta Thunberg, and many people who have changed the way we think, such as Einstein, Jung, Freud or Newton.

They are all very big, very 'out there', larger than life, and so rather on a pedestal, and that’s where we can get caught. Leadership can feel like stepping into very big shoes, which can be a challenge, but it isn’t about stepping on to a pedestal. Pedestals are for statues, not real people. Real people step into shoes, and the challenge is in growing to fit those shoes, and adjusting the shoes to fit.

What do we mean by leadership?

Starting with what the shoes themselves look like, what is leadership? There are an infinite number of answers to that question!

'Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.' – Dwight D. Eisenhower

'Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.' – Professor Warren G. Bennis

Or more prosaically:

'Leadership is the ability of an individual or a group of individuals to influence and guide followers or other members of an organisation.' – Mary Prat

Leadership involves a wide range of skills and qualities, such as;

  • strategic leadership skills
  • relational and communication qualities
  • an ability to make decisions
  • an ability to learn quickly
  • an ability to manage and organise others 
  • and having personal qualities such as integrity, self -awareness, self-confidence, humility, tenacity, determination, energy and enthusiasm (Margie Buchanan Smith, 2016, ALNAP)

Leadership is a relational practice, and one that involves an inner strength, that comes from a real connection with yourself, with who you are. I also believe it is a practice that benefits from a deep compassion, for oneself and others. And that is where psychotherapy can help. A therapist won’t teach you how to manage and organise people, but they can help you explore who you really are and to find compassion in this.

So when we look at how step into these big shoes, a psychotherapist may be able to help. The question 'what does psychotherapy actually do?' is rather similar to the question 'what do leaders do?'  

It can be described as some activities and the application of some skills, in particular deep listening, awareness, and a commitment to being present, being authentic. But otherwise it can seem a bit hard to pin down.

In attachment terms we are helping to provide a sense of a secure attachment, a safe container, in which the parts of us that got stuck at different developmental ages can be free to express themselves and to grow. After all, we wouldn’t expect a two year old, or seven year old to be leading a group of adults (even if they have an innate sense of how to control them).

Some of the growing to fit the shoes may involve an exploration of the different parts of yourself, and where you may have younger versions of you being triggered, or taking charge at inopportune moments. It also involves meeting that critical voice, the one that has probably driven you to succeed in the first place, but which now takes you away from moments of confidence and trust. The one that says 'helpful' things like:

  • You're not worthy
  • You aren’t really a leadership type
  • You aren't good enough
  • You aren't qualified enough
  • You just aren't enough……(add your own particular limitation!)

Much leadership (and sports) coaching is about helping you to get out of your own way, to let your real self shine through, with whatever talent you have.

But as well as growing to fit these shoes, there is also a process of designing the shoes to fit. There isn’t a fixed model of leadership – there are leaders everywhere, in our families, in our communities, in small ways, in big ways. Some leading very visibly from the front, some less visibly inspiring people to act from within the group, providing support and challenge, enabling people to move forward to achieve both their organisational goals and their own potential. The Greenleaf Center calls this servant leadership and describes this approach as:

'A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and wellbeing of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.'

Laloux in Reinventing Organisations takes this a stage further describing an organisational structure that he terms Teal Organisations where the structure itself involves leadership at every level, through self-managing teams, a commitment to wholeness and sense of deep listening to the context and evolving in response. Getting the structure right still requires leadership, but in a very different way to the leadership model practiced by most big corporate organisations. It’s a very different style of shoe to step in to.

Working out what leadership is for you, what the shoes are that you wish to walk in, requires time and space, time to really be present with yourself. Psychotherapy or coaching offers a relational space in which to find more parts of yourself and to release the creativity that may be locked away with childhood parts that are still following strict rules to stay safe. It gives you a space to strip off the you that you were expected to be, and to explore who you might be if you were free of the  expectations of others. It gives you a space to test out your own authenticity, to explore where you are most congruent, to establish your integrity, revel in your wisdom and gain a clarity. Most importantly, perhaps, it helps you to trust yourself.

Is it therapy or coaching? 

Nick Totton takes the view that it doesn’t matter what you call it: it is the same process of being fully present with yourself. Therapy happens weekly and coaching tends to be monthly, and rather more expensive. 

I moved from coaching to becoming a psychotherapist because I could see many of my clients needed some reparative work, to help them break free of old beliefs and fears that were keeping them stuck, and sometimes this needed a deeper attention than coaching and NLP offered. Therapy goes deeper, and is potentially more challenging, but both therapy and coaching are excellent supports on your leadership journey.

Kate Graham is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Ilkley 

Further reading

How hypnotherapy helped me regain my confidence

How coaching can help you overcome negative self-talk

In therapy I feel validated – there is no greater feeling

Coaching helped me get my life back on track

My therapist told me I didn't know myself – they were right