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  • Sonja Kirschner

Thoughts on Leadership on Independence Day

I admit that sometimes the word “leader” throws me off even though as an executive coach I work with leaders on a daily basis and I love all my people. I am originally from Germany and “leader” can also be translated to “Führer” which is how the world referred to the most brutal, tyrannic and disgusting monster in world history, to Adolf Hitler. I wasn’t born for decades after his countless crimes against humanity but knowing a lot about that time, sometimes that lump in my throat builds when I unconsciously translate the word leader to my native language in my head. Leading in any context is not about creating obedient tirelessly nodding followers, that is what we have hopefully learned from history and also from more shining and recent figures like Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

At the very same time I’m convinced that leadership is something very positive, of course. As a psychologist I know that people look at leaders for guidance, for support and with hope. A good leader brings out the best in people. A good leader therefore needs to be a good person, I believe. But I know that this is not always a given. Way too many times during my career in consulting and in the corporate world I have seen the opposite of what I consider to be good: it is sad to say but disinterest in people, dismissive behavior, self-centeredness, mistrust and pushing only one’s own agenda was just a present as desired characteristics of good leadership: interest in the human behind they employee (as Prof. Emma Seppälä stated it in her opening remarks), authenticity, listening, coaching people for their development, inspiration and trust - to only name a few. I’ve seen those characteristics and behaviors very often being naturally present in women and while I work with men and women I feel it is time to tap into this huge resource and inspiration held by women and that it should therefore be self-evident for organizations to bring more women into leadership roles. Getting back to my own journey in the consulting and corporate world, it remained a shocking experience every single time when I realized the gap between my leadership expectations and reality.

I started leading my first team on an international assignment. At that time, I used to work for the leading chemical company in the world and was delegated from their global headquarters in Germany to their North American one where I served in different Talent Management roles. I had always appreciated the criterion of international experience for their executive track incumbents, it creates better understanding for each other in many ways. Together with my first team I was in charge of Learning Excellence before I later headed Learning & Development overall. When I became a people leader I looked back at the experience with my own leaders and started making some very deliberate choices of who I wanted to be in this role. Some people who know me well tell me that I tend to overthink things but I felt this was worth every single thought especially because I wanted to bring more humanity into this role and because over time I came to realize that some of the difficulties around the topics of leadership are systemic in organizations, e.g. hierarchy extinguishing sparks of innovation and creativity, siloed organization hindering collaboration etc.. I wanted to break that up. And I liked leading people because people fascinate me, I liked building our team’s strategy, purpose and vision because I like contributing to a great good, I liked taking hurdles because it feels good to overcome challenges and I do like to work hard which I think is expected from every single leader. What I didn’t like was politics, being tested all the time, the specific vibes around power and a certain way of playing the system and most importantly endless alignments across all levels, regions, functions, silos etc. before any action could be taken - all requirements I felt coming strong with being a leader.

And then I was invited to participate in an Executive Leadership Training back in the German HQ and it changed my world. Before I flew to Germany alumni of this Oxford Leadership program had told me that it would do exactly that. I smiled at them thinking to myself “I am the Head of Learning & Development and I have never seen a training change someone’s life.” What can I say? I was proven wrong. On the second day of the program I sat on a park bench next to a little chapel and cemetery in the rolling hills of one of Germany’s largest wine regions which is my home, my calm but all of a sudden it felt very disruptive: I realized in this moment that leading teams inside a big corporation, leading in this classical sense and leading the life of large corporation executive was not for me. And that was a shock. The last 15 years of my life have been wired towards exactly that.


Still in shock I flew back to New York and four weeks later I quit. My double human blog post about “Unbecoming and Becoming” from exactly one year ago sums it up pretty well: “First, it was “quitting on hold”, I must admit. It started out with a return option and a sabbatical, i.e. a lot of time to travel, to finally take some time for myself, to explore and learn and to relax after 15 intense years in consulting in a small very specialized agency and the big corporate world. But soon I realized I wanted to entirely follow my calling for independency, for being fully in charge, for entrepreneurship and most importantly for realizing my purpose: I want to have a positive impact on people’s work and personal lives and I want people to be able to connect with me, empower and support them to reach their goals and give them an opportunity to (re-) charge. That said I wanted to extend my reach from one organization to many, from leading one team to empowering many, from supporting one line of leadership to helping many, from accompanying a few colleagues and friends through big job decisions and life-changing situations to being there for whoever wants to take advantage of this opportunity at any time. With this purpose in my heart I started my coaching training and completed it with clarity, added detail, nuances and experiences regarding my values, my inner team, my balance and my own goals. […] In order to become a coach [which I see as a form of leadership] I had to unbecome some other things first. I needed to get rid of or at least re-interpret some tags and titles which I – intentionally or unintentionally had collected over many years: “workhorse”, “outstanding performer”, “perfectionist”, “coward”, “executive candidate”, “pleaser” to just name some of the most important ones. I needed to re-connect with myself and take time to explore who I want to be, why and how I want to show up.”

Today, I’m clear on my very own definition of the leader I want to be: One with a positive impact on people, one you can lean on to and recharge and most importantly one that holds your vision with you and helps you to become the most natural and human leader yourself and supports you to achieve whatever you want: leader or expert, accountant or artist, background singer or rockstar - most important and for all: happy.


To me, leadership is not only a capability or skill, wanting to be a leader is equally important and being successful as a leader highly depends on your values and purpose and the ability to honor them in your workplace. “To serve people, you have to love people.” (from Motherless Brooklyn)

This text has become longer than I thought. Thank you for reading it to the end. I would love to hear from you regarding the above and in general.


Be happy, “Follow your heart but take your brain with you.” (Alfred Adler)

Sonja


About this text

This text was written as an assignment for the Executive Education Women's Leadership Program which attend at Yale School of Management. The task was to reflect on your own leadership journey. At Yale it is titled “Unbecoming and becoming for a more human approach to work”. Today, a longer goodie from the Ivies as it feels timely: Independence and leadership must go together. Happy Independence Day!


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