How can I be a true leader?

Our award-winning coach, Kim Morgan, helps a young woman who has been promoted, but feels she needs to gain her colleagues’ respect


How can I be a true leader?

Coaching session one: define the problem

Katie* had recently been promoted to a senior executive role, but she felt that nobody in the team was taking her seriously as a leader. She had asked her manager for advice. He told Katie that there was nothing wrong with her work, but she needed to have more presence and credibility; more gravitas, in how she came across to others. Katie had come to me because she had lost confidence in herself and was desperate for help. ‘I don’t know how I suddenly get more gravitas,’ she told me. ‘I don’t even know what it is, let alone how I get it!’

We agreed that ‘presence, credibility and gravitas’ are tricky terms to define. I asked Katie what would be different if she had these things, and Katie said that she would have authority and confidence, and that her team would respect her. I asked Katie to tell me about some people she knew who had these qualities, and to describe what they were like. Katie came up with a list of attributes and behaviours, including good eye-contact, strong posture, certainty and clarity, being approachable and trustworthy, knowledgeable, at ease with themselves, self-confident and well-presented.

For homework, I asked Katie to review herself against all these qualities and be honest about how she felt she was measuring up against them. I also asked her to get some feedback from friends and colleagues whose opinions she really trusted.

Coaching session two: understand behaviours

Katie had received some honest feedback. Everyone had said she was knowledgeable and trustworthy, and that she looked like a leader, but people also said she did not come across as confident. Katie’s colleagues had noticed that her language was apologetic and hesitant:

  • She would often use the word ‘just’, for example: ‘I was just wondering…’ It made her sound childlike and apologetic.
  • Katie had a habit of apologising at the start of every sentence: ‘Sorry, I just wanted to say something…’
  • If she asked someone to do something, she’d add a question at the end, such as, ‘Is that OK?’ This added to the impression that she had to seek permission from others.
  • Katie often discounted her own knowledge and achievements: ‘I don’t really know much about this, but…’

Katie’s homework was to start noticing how often she used these communication patterns in her speech, and also to look out for them in her email communications. She agreed to work towards eliminating them, and to practise clear and assertive communication.

Coaching session three: progress and change

Katie strode into my office with her head held high. She looked so different! She couldn’t wait to tell me how making small changes in her language had made a big difference to how she felt about herself, and how others responded to her. She realised that undermining herself was inappropriate in her new role as a leader. I reminded her that, as well as other people hearing her being apologetic and self-deprecating, she had been hearing herself, every single day. The words we say to ourselves are received by our unconscious minds in the same way as if someone else was saying them to us.

Katie was delighted with the quick win she had achieved by changing her language, but she knew that she had a lot more work to do. She continued to have coaching for several months and worked very hard to increase her self-belief. She has become a role-model leader in her organisation.

*Name has been changed

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Illustration: iStock

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