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Open leadership in practice: Unsung hero skills

Recently, I have done much work in leadership development. Both in the workplace and when I coach clients, I come across emerging and established leaders who have developed strengths and skills gradually over time, whether through informal learning or through practice or also outside of work. Especially where skills have come easily, grown over a period of time or when we have learnt something just for fun, these are often overlooked in favour of those skills we find hard to acquire or that are formally accredited by others. These strengths and skills often serve us well, but don’t get recognised. I am curious how we identify and appreciate such strengths or skills, and how we can move from seeing them as something we can simply do, to something we’re good at.

Recognising and celebrating our ‘unsung hero’ skills is a powerful habit to cultivate in order to build confidence and develop as a leader. For example, when I coach leaders I always listen out for how they well they recognise their own strengths. Knowing your own strengths (and weaknesses) helps enormously with everything from effective delegation to seeking expert input. For instance, we might explore a narrative in which someone has applied their considerable skills to a problem, analysed the issues, found a solution and prepared to present this at a meeting – only to miss the chance to speak because something else comes up. Often this individual will end up with a sense of failure because they didn’t achieve the outcome they desired. All the good stuff that happened along the way fades into the background, and the most recent, negative interaction stays at the forefront of their mind. Sounds familiar?

On my own journey as a leader I have certainly had experiences like this, and in my haste to keep up with the pace and to move from one milestone to the next I can easily forget to take a moment to appreciate what I have accomplished or learned along the way (regardless of whether I did get to speak at the meeting or whether others even saw my effort). Cultivating a habit of recognising and even celebrating the skills and strengths that help me accomplish my goals especially when constructive feedback, recognition and positive reinforcement are lacking, helps me value my own work.

Yoga, one of my unsung hero skills

One of my unsung hero skills is yoga. It’s probably been seven or eight years since I started practicing yoga, and it’s not a skill I ever really think about as something I am good at. I am neither as flexible nor as strong as I’d like to be, and even after years of practice, my down dog pose has me bending my knees and my heels have never yet touched the ground (thank you, hamstrings!).

Still, when I take a moment to think about it, I quickly realise that I value my yoga practice deeply, and the benefits it brings for my physical and mental health. It’s also incredibly helpful to get out of my head and away from the screen, shifting my focus away from the digital realm and on my body and my breath.

How did I develop this skill?

I have been fortunate to have found teachers who I find both inspiring and practical, I have enough yoga stuff at home to make my practice as comfortable or as challenging as I want and I also have excellent online video classes. Each mode of engaging brings me something different:

Home-practice: I started yoga with one to one lessons with a new teacher, who was developing her way of teaching as I learnt. I loved it and I benefited enormously from the attention of someone who got to know me and my body very well. I also got to explore a whole range of poses that take up too much space, set up or wobbling to be practical in a busy class. I love putting on music and setting myself up for a good session at home, knowing that I can spread out and wobble as much as I wish, repeating poses that feel good and make me happy. I love setting my own pace of practice and I enjoy the creativity of following the flow of movement according to what feels good.

Online classes: It’s been only in the past year that I found an online/video class platform that I enjoy (Apple Fitness) and up to this point my only good experiences of online yoga was with teachers I personally knew. Unfortunately my current schedule is pretty unpredictable and changes from week to week, which is fun but makes attending a class regularly a challenge. And that is where the online classes are a great help. I tend to not push myself as much in terms of speed and strength when I practice on my own, and these classes help me build stamina and strength. I know enough about what I can and can’t do to modify when I need to rather than attempt to follow each and every pose the instructor show.

Taught classes: My favourite way to practice by far is to attend a class, and I am very fortunate to have found several teachers that I love, which has made a big difference to me when I moved cities. My current teacher, Osk, who runs classes at Physio Space here in Cardiff, is not only a wonderful teacher, but also has a real gift for holding space. Her holistic approach to yoga provides just the right balance between being mindful and challenging. In her classes my form has improved just as much as my enjoyment of the practice.

I’ve never sat down and thought about how I developed yoga as a practice, and even now that I have written it down, it very much feels like something that happened on the side or along the way as many of these kinds of strengths and skills often do. It’s also a skill that isn’t directly related to my work, so it feels less… I am not sure what the right term is.

There are plenty of skills, my own unsung hero skills, that I would never put on a resume or list on a profile simply because I either take it for granted that this is something ‘everyone knows’ or a strength that is hard to quantify.

Listen to the podcast :

Identify your unsung hero skills

What is important to reflect on here is that leadership is a holistic, embodied practice. Being a leader doesn’t just happen through formally recognised work skills or on good days, and by extension the skills and strengths we utilise aren’t limited to those that we earn degrees for or that are hardest to gain. The unsung heroes in our skills and strengths often make a bigger difference to our journey.

If you’d like to identify some of your own unsung hero strengths or skills, here are some prompts to get you started:

  • What activities do you enjoy?
  • What skills or strengths do you use for these activities?
  • What would a friend or colleague say you are good at?
  • What skills did you enjoy learning?
  • What comes easily to you?

Use these for reflection, journalling or in a conversation to get you thinking about what in your toolkit might deserve more recognition.

Image credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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