Top 10 discoveries on what it takes to grow your leadership.

Top 10 Discoveries on Growing Your Leadership by Cathy Jacob at

Photo Credit: Kids with Magnifying Glass by Damircudic

f you’d rather listen than read, find the audio version on my podcast, Sound Insight.

Almost 20 years ago, a leader I knew and respected asked me to facilitate a meeting with a group of her peers. They were disenchanted with the autocratic and bureaucratic style of leadership in their organizations.

The question on the table was, “Is there a better way to lead?”

The conversation caught fire as we explored our collective hunger for something different – a more connected, compassionate, inspiring, and effective way to lead.

By serendipity, two other coaches, who eventually became my business partners, were also in the room that day. And what I thought was just a great conversation became our first leadership community of practice. Those meetings and subsequent conversations other leaders inspired our flagship leadership development offering, the Peer Leadership Program, and our company, Fire Inside Leadership.

Since then, we’ve worked with hundreds of leaders from all walks of life, alongside a larger team of gifted leadership coaches. Today, a new generation of leaders owns and operates Fire Inside Leadership, and I am very proud of the work they do.

It has been a thrilling, interactive process of discovery about what it takes to grow outstanding leaders.

This month, as Fire Inside opens registration for its full suite of leadership development programs, I thought I’d share our top 10 discoveries (so far!) of what it takes to grow your leadership.

1. Leadership is a practice.

“The difference between a beginner and the master – is that the master practices a whole lot more.”

Yehudi Menuhin, American born violinist and conductor

Most of us think of leadership as a role, a set of personal qualities, or a set of competencies. Each of these frames is valid and incomplete.

There are significant advantages to developing your leadership if you begin to treat it as a practice.

  • When leadership is a practice rather than a particular role or set of qualities, it becomes accessible to anyone with the desire, courage, and stamina to enter the practice.
  • Practice is something you do to build skill and capacity. As a result, your lack of skill is implied and not something to be ashamed of or feared. It is simply a measure of where you are now.
  • A practice implies an ongoing, even life-long, commitment to continuous improvement.
  • Practice implies applying what you learn in the real world.

2. There’s a big difference between training and development. Growing your leadership requires both.

Where many leadership development programs fail is in not considering two things.

1) The difference between training and development and,

2) The difference between acquiring skills and growing.

You need both.

In their book, Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey use a technology metaphor to describe the difference between training and development. Training is like adding a new application to your computer operating system. It delivers information and supports you to build skill. Development involves upgrading the operating system itself. It supports your growth as a human being.

Any leadership training aimed only at adding competencies and not at the growth and development of leaders, themselves, will not develop the underlying cognitive, psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual horsepower you need to meet the challenges of your world. 

3. Outstanding leaders have a ‘fire inside’.

We named our company Fire Inside Leadership for a reason.

Fire Inside points to the intrinsic motivation that is essential for developing your leadership. If there is no fire, there is no curiosity or inspiration. No fire, no perseverance when things get hard. No fire, no growth.

Using this lens, I can divide potential clients into two broad categories.

There are those who say, “I am here because my boss or colleagues or spouse believes I need coaching” and those who say, “I am here because I need, or I want, or I’m struggling to, or I’m curious about…”

The first group are extrinsically motivated. They come to coaching because someone else wants this for them. As a result, they don’t own their process. It’s their boss’s process or their organization’s process. The second group is intrinsically motivated. They are here because there is something they want.

In his book, The Art of Impossible, Steven Kotler points to five psychological drivers of intrinsic motivation– curiosity, passion, a sense of meaning and purpose, autonomy, and the desire to be the best you can be.

When I begin to work with a client, I look for one of these five drivers. Can our conversations ignite one of them? Can we fan that flame to ignite a serious fire? If so, we have the essential fuel for growth.

4. Leadership development involves the whole you.

Developing your leadership involves working with your ability to meet the world with your full self. For example, developing your cognitive intelligence and ignoring emotional intelligence, leaves at least two-thirds of what you need to succeed unaddressed. Developing your core navigation system including your sense of purpose, values and character impacts your ability to inspire and build trust. Likewise, studies in human performance point to clear links between your physical development and the energy, resilience, and stamina needed for peak performance.

We also discovered that no matter what area of a leader’s life we work with, the same challenges, growth edges and blind spots show up.

Or as physician and meditation teacher Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Our clients report they get as much insight by practicing with situations arising in their personal lives as they do from situations arising in their professional lives.

The good news is that if you devote yourself to the practice of leadership, you will grow and improve your impact in all the areas of your life. It can help you become a better spouse, a better parent, a better little league coach as well as a better leader in the workplace.

5. There is no one ideal leadership personality, style, or type.

“I can’t make the changes people want me to make. I am who I am. I can’t be somebody else.”

We hear this a lot.

Our clients report that they feel pressured to “look and act a certain way,” to develop a set of prescribed personality characteristics, to adopt a certain prevailing style or worse, suppress aspects of their personality that their colleagues find challenging.

You don’t need a personality transplant to be an effective leader.

Effective leadership is not a question of a particular style or personality, it’s a question of impact. One of the mistakes managers or executives make when delivering leadership feedback is they try to prescribe different ways of being to leaders who are having an unintended impact. They assume that it is their style or personality that is the problem – they are too abrupt, not diplomatic enough, not assertive enough.

Development does not change who you are; it changes how you see, and how you make meaning and sense of your world. It builds your self-awareness and awareness of your impact. As a result, it gives you greater capability and range to close the gap between the impact you want and the impact you are having.

As you develop, you begin to express your unique personality in more mature and effective ways. For example, abrupt grows into candor and transparency; controlling grows into empowerment and accountability; people-pleasing grows into compassion; passive aggressiveness grows into courageous authenticity.

Evolution, growth, and change? Yes. Turning you into someone you are not? No.

6. Emotional intelligence plays an outsized role in determining leadership effectiveness.

In his seminal book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman revealed a stunning finding from a study involving more than 300 executives in 15 global companies. “…on average, close to 90 percent of their success in leadership was attributable to emotional intelligence.” Since then, many more studies have supported the finding that emotional intelligence has an outsized impact on determining leadership effectiveness.

There is both good news and bad news in this discovery. The good news is that emotional intelligence skills can be developed.

The bad news is that these skills are more difficult and take more time to develop than technical and cognitive skills. They target different regions of the brain and need a different approach from standard classroom training. They require experiential learning approaches, real-world application, and deliberate practice. However, as demonstrated in longitudinal studies involving students and executives conducted at Case Western University, once developed, these skills last longer and are more sustainable throughout life.

7. It all begins with training your attention.

If you asked us, what one thing you could practice to make the greatest positive difference to your life and leadership, we would not hesitate. That one thing is the skill of paying attention. It is one of the first skills we introduce in the Peer Leadership Program, and it is the skill that enables everything that follows.

Most of us spend our days in a state of wakeful unconsciousness, slaves to our own programming. Most of us are not present, let alone in any kind of command of where we place our attention. We are neither fully conscious nor intentional.

We begin by training leaders to practice “attending to” three spheres of leadership influence – leadership of the self, leadership in relationship and leadership in the world at large.

In this complex world of constant technological distraction, training your attention is no small feat. And for leadership, becoming skilled in focusing, directing, and sustaining your attention is vital.

This one skill takes a lifetime of practice and can transform your life in a single instant. Gently and purposefully placing your attention where it is most needed in this moment has the power to completely transform your leadership, your relationships, and your world.

8. You can’t do this alone and you can’t improve by just doing.

Despite years of trudging out to the golf course each week, my golf skills have not improved. In fact, they’ve declined!

There are two reasons for this.

  1. I don’t get help, and
  2. I try to improve by simply golfing.

The problem with these two strategies is that all I am doing is ingraining bad habits.

Unfortunately, this is also true of how many of us try to lead.

If you truly want to improve, you need the help of good mentors, teachers, and coaches throughout your career. You need feedback from your colleagues and direct reports about your impact. You need the support of trusted peers who are experiencing similar issues and problems. And you need to practice in a systematic and methodical way.

If you want to get better, you need to do more than lead; you need to ask for help from people who can coach you.

In our experience, leaders who invest in their development in an ongoing and systematic way, improve. Leadership development is not “a one-and-done” or as we sometimes joke, “take a workshop and call me in the morning.” Our most successful clients, those who continue to grow and strengthen their leadership, their impact, and their results over time, are those who engage in the practice in a variety of ways throughout their careers.

9. In one way or another, we are all in over our heads.

“We will never be able to solve our problems at the same order of complexity we used to create our problems.”

Albert Einstein

Our species is the most innovative, creative, and destructive on the planet. As we continue to innovate and expand our capability to connect, to communicate, to invent, we create complexity in the world that far outstrips our ability to manage it. Our organizations and institutions are increasingly impotent in the face of the immense social, environmental, security, and economic upheaval all around us.

These challenges are symptoms of the same fundamental problem.

There is a gap between the complexity of our rapidly transforming world and our capacity and development as human beings to adapt and respond. This is the leadership gap.

We are struggling to keep up with the implications and fallout of our own remarkable ingenuity and creativity as a species. We have opened Pandora’s Box.

“When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment.”

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change.

We see evidence of this gap when we get the morning news, when we check our smart phones, when we come into work in the morning and when we tuck our children into bed at night. It is everywhere. It is a threat and an opportunity. It is both dangerous and essential. It is new and as old as the species itself. It is the space of our growth and evolution. The choice we get every day is to ignore it, be overwhelmed by it, or to grow into it.

The uncomfortable truth is, these challenges cannot be solved by quick fixes, exercising control, building complicated bureaucratic systems, or finding a hero to lead us out of this mess. It requires a form of leadership that focuses as much on the internal conditions of the leaders, themselves, as it does on the problem to be solved. These complex problems demand that we grow and develop our capacities as leaders and human beings. They demand that we recognize that we are an integral and inseparable part of the problems we are trying to solve.

10. Developing your leadership may be the single, most urgent, challenge you face.

Your ability to narrow the gap between the complexity of the problems you face and your capacity to respond lies not in looking around and complaining that your leaders are letting you down. It will come, in part, from looking inside yourself and asking, “How am I contributing to the very thing I most want to change?”

If we are to narrow the leadership gap, we will need to call on and develop the leadership capacity within ourselves and each other. Leadership that makes a difference is not coming from the select few but from the engaged many.

The call for leadership comes in each moment to each of us and can be answered from any chair in the room. Developing the capacity to effectively answer that call takes courage, growth, and a commitment to the practice of leadership.

More about Fire Inside’s Peer Leadership Program

The Peer Leadership Program is a powerful development experience designed by Fire Inside Leadership to grow your leadership capacity, resilience and impact. In addition to learning practical and relevant leadership skills, you’ll enhance your self-awareness and ability to make a difference in your organization… and your world.

To get a taste of the experience and the difference it can make for you, you can register here for a free, live 2.5-hour online Peer Leadership Program Test Drive. Don’t delay – space is limited.

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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