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Authentic Leaders Among Us - Zoe's Story

Self-Awareness and Self-Identity in Leadership

Recently I’ve kicked off a project to tell and share the leadership stories of people from all walks of life with two specific objectives. First, to acknowledge their unwittingly positive impact on others’ lives. And second, to uncover lessons in leadership from different perspectives that can benefit current and aspiring leaders.

My first story comes from a former colleague, Zoe Williams. I first met Zoe in 2013 during my job interview with YPO - Young Presidents' Organization. From the moment she spoke with me, I felt her vibrant and unique energy. My firsthand experience with Zoe was watching her lead a highly significant global team of learning and development professionals. Her leadership guided this group of people who worked behind the scenes to support influential individuals. The team represented many countries and nationalities. One of the many challenges she faced with this highly mobile team was keeping the mission on target and the team cohesive. I observed her hard work and dedication to the well-being of the team. This group delivered exceptional results. Zoe didn’t take credit for individual's accomplishments. She was great about sharing team's success.

After all, Harry S Truman said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

It is no small feat to lead a team of brilliantly talented and globe-trotting individuals.

Three leadership lessons I've learned from Zoe

#1: Acknowledge, address and forgive yourself and others for the mistakes. Don’t ever scold people.

#2: Trust and allow your team make independent decisions.

#3: When leading others, treat them as a “whole” person. Be genuinely interested in who people are, not just what they do at work.

I met with Zoe in March of 2016 to ask her about her thoughts on leadership and to share her experiences.


Q: What is your definition of leadership?

Zoe: A little understated, but honestly, leadership to me is creating an environment where people feel GOOD about coming to work. And I use the word “good” deliberately, because I don’t believe that people have to or need to be coming to work “fist pumping the air” in some sort of “gung-ho style”. That is not the page that everybody is going to be on all of the time, because people have lives outside of their professional careers. To me, it is about creating an environment where, when people get out of bed in the morning, they feel O.K. about coming to work. Perhaps to some it is uninspiring or understated, but to me it is important.

Q: What are the top 3 values you live by?

Zoe: Loyalty, fairness, and consistency.

Q: What does consistency mean to you?

Zoe: Not being skittish in your behavior. When you manage people, it is really important to be consistent. You can have a bad day from time to time, like everyone does, but people generally need to know what they are going to get from you when you show up. It can’t change week to week. If you are unpredictable in your behaviors, it doesn’t forge an environment of trust. People need consistency if they are going to allow themselves to be open with you.

Q: What qualities must one possess to be able to inspire and motivate others to action?

Zoe: Two things: empathy and trust. It is important to look at the whole person, and not just the one who shows up to work. Everybody has stuff going on in their lives; they’ve got kids, marital problems, health problems, sick parents, or other circumstances, I think you need to understand the whole person and not just the ‘professional’ self.

Q: What worked for you to inspire and motivate others to be their best?

Zoe: Self-awareness. If you are not self-aware and don’t continue to try to be self-aware, it is very difficult to inspire others, particularly in the setting where you may want people to on-board the feedback or make incremental improvements. If you are not that type of person that can think: “I might have handled this badly”, or, “I could have done this better”, or, “I didn’t think what impact that comment would have”, then how can you expect others to develop themselves in that way? I think a lot of it comes back to self -awareness, and how we evolve over time.

I made some bad mistakes in my early management career. The first time I was put in charge of line managing people, I went through a 360-degree feedback process, and discovered that there was a whole host of issues that I had no clue about! 360-degree feedback should never be a shock if you have a good sense of yourself. It was quite horrifying! Right then and there, I had to make a decision to either stop managing people or develop far more self-awareness. The negative impact of my lack of awareness was really big. I made a decision to continue to manage people and for self-awareness to be a continuous evolution for me. And, this is something I have worked really hard on.

Q: Can you share a success story when you were able to influence either one person or a team to be their best?

Zoe: In cases with my last 2 teams, I had instances where people wrote or told me, often a long time after I had stopped being their boss, that during the time I managed them, I helped them feel more confident in their own skin and about the work they were doing. People acknowledged that I was a part of their growth. It might be such a small thing, but you do realize then the impact you have made on someone. If they are taking time out of their lives, years later, to write to you and acknowledge you, that’s a big deal. It might not seem that way but going back to my mantra of leadership, I think that these individuals felt good about coming to work and doing their jobs and hence appreciated that after the fact too.

Q: What is one lesson that you have learned since your leadership journey has begun? What would you do differently?

Zoe: Along with self-awareness it is about understanding your own identity and what you stand for. You can never be all things to all people. You can be self-aware but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should try to bend yourself in all different shapes and directions to fit everything that everybody else wants. Tastes are different, and you can never be to everyone’s taste. You’ll only lose sight of yourself if you do try to do that and that makes for a very unhappy leader. You can be self-aware and be empathetic, and you can listen to people and try to take an individual approach to people, but you also need to have a clear sense of your own identity as a leader. It might be that some people don’t like certain things about me so much, but I recognize this is a part of me, and I am OK with that. I think that is what my learning is.

What would I do differently? Earlier in my career I would have been much more open to soliciting feedback and understanding what people thought of me. I was scared to ask because, I guess, I didn’t want to know. But what I learned is that it is far worse to not know and be surprised by feedback than to know it and have the opportunity to do something about it.


In summary, Zoe believes in the power of self-awareness and authenticity. She recognizes the evolutionary nature of a leadership journey and continuous self-improvement. She is as bold and authentic as they come -- no pretense to be someone else. She is a strong and assertive leader, and when the times are tough, you can count on her support, guidance and compassion.

Thank you Zoe for sharing your learning with such honesty and hope others can discover a few lessons from your experiences.

Who is the leader that inspired you and what are their views on leadership? Please send the story to me,, and I will share it on my website, blog, twitter, LinkedIn and will incorporate it in the book I am writing.

Thank you and let's celebrate the unsung heroes who are making a difference in people's lives!

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