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Cultivate Your Inner Leader With Alain Hunkins

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Who we are is how we lead. It’s not just about what we do in the world when it comes to leadership; it’s also about who we are. 

In this rapidly changing world, we frequently place more emphasis on doing than being in our efforts to succeed. We keep driving towards the success we want forgetting the path that is taking us there, forgetting ourselves who is taking us there and for the most important part forgetting others who are taking us there. 

Neglecting your inner life puts your mental and physical health in danger, which will negatively impact your leadership skills. Leadership is an experience that focuses on connecting with your actual self and realising your full potential as a human being on an emotional, intellectual, physical, and even artistic level (in yourself, and others.) Like Alain says, “who we are is how we lead.” 

Think about it for a moment, is it possible to file a divorce with one’s identity from the roles we play? I don’t think so. You must thoroughly understand who you are as a leader-as-person and maximise your leadership effectiveness in light of who you are. In order to become a more effective leader, you can use this knowledge to determine your leadership strengths and shortcomings. Then, you can try to build on your strengths and lessen your flaws.

This is what we talk about in this blog. In our latest conversation with Alain Hunkins in coaching matters, Alain talked at length about what it means to lead as a person. This is a transcripted version of the conversation that followed.

Digging Deeper Into The Concept of Who We Are

In the world where we live, people are evaluated based on their performance and the results that they achieve. How do you define the concept of who you are and how does that impact your performance?

In a world in which we are evaluated by our performance, and I think maybe the clearest analogy for all of us is the professional sport, because, in professional sports, they say you’re only as good as your last game. There are metrics you either win or you lose, you have more scores. So it’s very easy to measure the results. 

If you’re not a big sports fan, I’m not trying to be exclusive here, I just think of it as a very simple analogy we can all relate to. So we think about that in sports. So what we see is game time, what we do not see at a professional or Olympic level, the hours and hours and hours of training, of coaching. And the fact is some people embrace the practice, the internal work of development, to get to the playing stage, or the playing field and coaching and in sports, I should say, more than others, right? So obviously, I’m a recreational athlete, so I may go out and run a couple of times a week, ride my bike, and lift weights once every so often. But if I was a professional, I can tell you I have a much more rigorous practice regime. 

So I share all that because we’re all measured in terms of the score. First of all, I think it’s important for each of us to decide, what game are we playing? Who’s keeping score? Do we care who’s keeping score, because a lot of people and I meet lots of people who go onto the track, and they go through university, they start in their 20’s? And they’re like, “oh, I have to be successful”. And what success really means is, that I need to get a powerful job that earns a lot of money, that gives me status, and then I will be happy, right? That’s the kind of story they’ve told themselves. 

I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who kind of go along that track, and many of them accelerate, accelerate, accelerate. And they get to, let’s say, their mid-30s, early-40s. They’ve gotten a lot of this stuff, they’ve achieved these outward performance goals. And I think you and I, and I say they’ve discovered there’s a hole in the soul. It’s that sense of, “Oh, I’ve got here, but it hasn’t made me any happier”. 

So as I think and I ask all of us to consider, first of all, what is your scoreboard, and then if your scoreboard is about living a life of and it may not be money, it may not be, outward trappings of success, fancy cars, and jewelry, whatever, it doesn’t have to be that, in fact, I hope that you decide what it is for you. And certainly, those are not the things that drive your life. And so the question I would ask is, once you figure out, what is the result that you want, so if you want to be a kind person, a person of service, a person who feels love, and security, and also is of service to others, and in doing so because they say the fastest way and the research shows this too, the fastest way to be happy, is to make other people happy. And then that’s, there are tonnes of research on that. So if that is the scoreboard that you measure, then you have to ask yourself, what are the exercises that I’m doing every day, because that is not going to happen on its own. Just that doesn’t happen. 

Olympic-level athletes don’t run, at World Record paces out of nowhere. It’s not just natural talent. So then the question becomes, what are you doing every day? What is your practice? And so for me, so much of the practice of the score that I’m keeping has to do with? Do I take time to self-reflect, am I humble enough to take feedback from others? Do I have a coach? The answer is yes, I have a coach, I had a therapist, and I continue to work with people to develop myself because I didn’t come into this world that full born and I’m still a work in process. And I think it’s so important for all of us to consider the scoreboard and then what is the practice that you want to develop that is going to help you to achieve the score that you are aiming for.

What Differentiates Different Leaders

On one hand, we have leaders like Nelson Mandela of the world we have leaders like Donald Trump in the world, we have leaders like Osama bin Laden, and all of them are leading in their respective ways and are producing phenomenal results in their own ways. What do you think, what’s that one difference that makes all the difference? 

I think the difference, what is the difference that makes a difference? I think it is their values. So the fact is, values become this guiding Northstar, by which they kind of guide us towards. The thing is, different people can value different things to achieve a different result. Let me give you an example of that. So let’s just I’ll use Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump. Different, pretty different leaders. So when Nelson Mandela makes the incident, some people have heard the story about how after he spent all the time in prison on Robben Island, he comes back and decides, to let go of the rugby team. There’s a big contention because it’s, a question and they’ve done books about this in the movies about this. There’s a big contention of does he should just close the rugby team down, which is a big pride in the white South Africans, he on the other hand had realised “No, that’s going to create conflict”. Now what he’s trying to get to is unification. And so he’s willing to humble himself for the long-term picture and what he realises and by doing so the result that he wants to get is for people to come together. The result of that is going to create for him on a personal level, it’s going to create a sense of ego gratification because we can be of service. 

But the fact is, I get something out of being of service, I’m not completely selfless. My values say that being of service is great. That actually gives me this warm chemical in my brain to start releasing all the dopamine and the oxytocin. Oxytocin starts to release so that I get all that so if I’m Nelson Mandela, I’m getting all that through service through the value of unification. Now, if I’m Donald Trump, I want those warm, fuzzy feelings too, but because of the way that I’ve brought up the way that my brain is wired, and because of the reinforcement that I’ve got, for me, dominating people, cutting people off, having my way, they had things like, you know, throwing a tantrum, these are all things, I need to be in control. 

And my son, he’s got very different values, which create very different beliefs, which create very different stories about what’s going on, which create very different behaviors, both trying to create a result that creates something, but you know, it’s like they’ve been constructed may be out of the same genetic, basic, primal materials, but the combination is mixed up in a completely different way. So I’d say the difference boils down to what do you value? And I think it’s important for all of us to take some time to reflect on what are my values. And are the values that I’m currently living ones that I truly embrace, or these ones that maybe I’ve inherited, whether that’s from family, society, friends, and I think part of it is do we have the courage to put those values up in the mirror and go, that one fits? I don’t need that one anymore. That’s not really about me. And again, I think this journey continues, it goes on and on. So am I willing to let go of certain values? Or other ones because they’re not serving me? So to me, it comes down to values. 

Hire, Recruit, Retain

The biggest challenges that the organisation is facing today are to hire, recruit, retain, and help people grow in an organisation, the challenge is we are not been able to retain. What is the quick fix? How can we do that?

Well, first of all, notice the assumption that’s baked into the question, what is the quick fix? So that was the exact question. I think what it comes down to is, if you’re looking to hire and engage and then retain people in an organisation, you have to think about what is the organisation that they’re going to spend their time in, which leads me to culture and cycle? So what is the culture that you have created? How can you create a culture that is so attractive? That it by nature, attracts people who want to stay, who want to do good work, who don’t want to leave. 

The tendency of a lot of people is that they think that we have to look at our employee engagement, we have to look at the wrong question, the wrong direction. It’s, the only way to engage employees, is to engage leaders, and for leaders to realise it is up to us to create the culture in which people are going to thrive which people are going to be attracted to retain, be productive to engage. And if you think about that, and I asked, oftentimes, when I’m working with leaders, I’ll say, when you think about the word engagement, outside of employee engagement, and all that, when you think about the word engagement in life, where do we tend to use the word engaged? And of course, the answer is, When you get married, before you get married, you get engaged. And if I was to ask someone to like to be engaged with them to be married, what am I really saying? What I’m really saying is, I want to spend the rest of my life with you in the institution of marriage. 

So what we’re saying is, I want to spend time, attention, and focus on You. And I think, unfortunately, there are so many organisational cultures, where you’re in, here’s your desk, here’s your laptop, good luck, see, goodbye, and then we’re too busy. Because really what we all want to be seen, all of us as human beings at a core level, going back to human values, is we need to feel like we’re part of something we’re mammals by design, we’re not meant to be, you want to exile people, you put people in solitary confinement, these are the worst punishments we can do. So what are you doing to when you engage people, that means I am going to spend time with you, I’m going to care about you, I’m gonna see you, I’m gonna value and respect you. And you think about what do great coaches do, like part of the coaching? 

In the ICF, we talk about the coaching mindset and coaching presence. It’s around let’s say we were in a coaching session right now, and I was checking my phone and doing my email, I was coaching you, not a very good relationship I’m building. And so I think it’s important for us to ask, What am I doing to create a culture where people feel seen, recognised, valued, and yeah, we want to get good work done, too? But the challenge in so many organisations is we tend to be so scoreboard-focused, right, the numbers focused. And one of the things I often coach people on and leaders around is that you actually realise the numbers, those performance numbers, whether that’s sales, revenue, quality, whenever you pick your numbers in whatever organisation, those numbers are just a reflection of the behaviour of people like sales don’t sell themselves. There’s a salesperson that sold something. And so we have to stop being so numbers focused and be a bit more people focus because if we prioritise we’re not going to forget about the numbers we know we have a business to run, but we need to prioritise the people first, because if we prioritise the people Will the people will actually take care of the numbers. And I think part of the reason that people don’t prioritise people is that people are messy by nature, people don’t show up the same way every day. The fact is, numbers are much more distinct every day, I know the number seven will always be more than six and always less than eight. And there’s something that’s safe about that. So for many leaders, they can sit in their offices, look at the spreadsheet, see the performances, how things are coming in, and be okay with that. And so, I think, to go back to answering your question, I think it comes back to the willingness to recognise that working with people in an interpersonal environment, it’s up to me as a leader to create a culture that people want to be in. 

About The Speaker

Over his twenty-five-year career, Alain has worked with over 2,000 groups of leaders in 27 countries, including 42 of the Fortune 100 companies. In addition to being a leadership speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach, Alain is the author of the book CRACKING THE LEADERSHIP CODE: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders (published by Wiley, March 2020). 

Alain is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education and serves on the Academic Board of Advisors for the New Delhi Institute of Management. Alain’s work has been featured in Chief Executive, Fast Company, Inc., Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, and Business Insider. He’s also a regular leadership strategy contributor to Forbes. Alain was recently named #33 on the Global Power list of the Top 200 Biggest Voices in Leadership for 2022 by LeadersHum. A father of two teenagers, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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