top of page

The best leaders I know

What makes a good leader? Is she brave? Bold? Accessible? Is he confident or vulnerable? Does she inspire us to look within to become a better team or push us toward a bigger goal, together? Is he firm and direct, or curious and compassionate?

As part of my training as a Co-Active Training Institute coach, we study the fundamentals, or the philosophy, of the institute’s approach to coaching. There are four principles to which we agree: 1) people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, 2) focus on the whole person, 3) dance in this moment, and 4) evoke transformation. There’s a process around designing an alliance with your client with deep listening, learning, and self-management that allows you to both stay present to the "dance" and evoke transformation.

When I read this in our learning guide, I was mildly unimpressed. It's not rocket science, this model. In fact, it’s common sense. There are some things we just know about how we’re supposed to be in this world. Everyone knows it. Right?

In one training exercise, we were asked what happens when someone – a boss, a co-worker, a partner, or a relative – takes one of the fundamental principles away from us. What do we experience if our boss doesn’t focus on the whole person or doesn’t believe that we are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole?

My reaction to this scenario is swift, and two-fold. I immediately bristle (She doesn’t think I can do this. I’ll show her!) and simultaneously second guess (Crap. Can I actually do this? Maybe I’m not ready?). So now, I’m pissed off and self-conscious. This is not how I bring my best self to work.

What motivates us has a good deal to do with our values, and how aligned we feel to them in the work that we get to do. And while there’s a great deal that unites us, we all have distinct values, and feel inspired and supported in different ways. The best leaders in my life recognize my values in what I say and how I show up for others, and can help me tap into my full potential.

Practice Exercise: Identify your Cornerstones of Leadership

I’ve been working through a simple exercise with my team to help each of us identify what we value in our best leaders, and how to ask those leaders for what we need.

You can do it now.

First, grab a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I do mine in pencil because I can’t spell, can’t read my own handwriting, and don’t love to commit. As you’re securing your supplies, take a moment to reflect on the best leaders in your life.

I think about two theater coaches in high school who were wildly different, and unstoppable as a duo. I still call upon several bosses who were fierce champions of their children and their teams. I am awed by my great grandma Allie who, during her work in a warehouse in World War II, was scolded by her coworkers for roller skating too fast and making them look bad, and who taught me how to saddle and ride a horse. I admire my dad, who was often recognized as an incredible collaborator and consensus builder (but was not good at cinching, and once cinched my saddle too loosely and had to pick me up off Grandma Allie’s pasture when I fell off the same dang horse she taught me to ride).

Exercise Steps

1) Grab supplies. Reflect on the best leaders in your life.

2) Title your paper Cornerstones of Leadership. Subtitle: The best leaders I know…

3) Draw a large square with four boxes. Label each box with this word or phrase: Understand/Know, Believe, Care About, Are / Be

4) Conjure your leaders, and fill in the blank for each box. First word responses here are fine. Don’t overthink it. Write down what you know to be true.

a. The best leaders I know believe…

b. The best leaders I know understand (or know) that…

c. The best leaders I know care about…

d. The best leaders I know are…(try to stay in the realm of “being” here, rather than doing)…

Articulating my Leadership Values

The best leaders I know understand when to say no, and how to get to yes. They know when to say “F it,” and when to fight. They believe family is just as important as work, and that we can make the world a better place. They laugh at themselves. The are honest even when (especially when) it is hard. They care about the whole person, the greater good, and themselves. This means they make time on their calendars to exercise, recharge, think, and have fun.

This is what I value in a leader, and many of the leadership strengths to which I aspire. I recognize my building blocks of leadership won’t read the same as yours. Or possibly, the same as anyone else’s cornerstones on my team. Some of us will value flexibility, accessibility, focus, mission, and loyalty. Some will care more about selflessness, bravery, business acumen, and clear expectations. All of us get to be right, and none of us gets to be wrong.

When our leadership values are in alignment with our environment, we hum. We thrive. We kick ass. When our leadership values are out of alignment with our environment we push back. We get stuck. We struggle. We leave.

Asking for and offering help

Understanding our leadership values helps us ask for what we need, and helps our teams ask for what they need from us.

How many times have you been through a crushing personal or professional experience and had a well-meaning colleague or friend lean over and say, “Oh, I am so sorry you are experiencing this. How can I help?” Those four words can be paralyzing when all one can think is: I’m in trauma! I don’t know what I need! I just want this feeling to stop. Often, our well-wisher is asking the wrong question.

The best leaders ask a better question: "What does support look like for you right now?"

When we ask this question as leaders, we may hear:

  1. “Nothing. I just wanted you to listen. I need to be heard.”

  2. “Support looks like you having my back in this meeting, and saying so out loud.”

  3. “Be honest with us. The information you have is powerful. And without it we are in the dark.”

  4. “I need time to think. You put me on the spot, and I’m not ready to respond thoughtfully.”

  5. “Support looks like you making up your mind about our direction. This indecision is killing us!”

We should also be prepared to share what support looks like for us, right now.

To my supervisor I might say:

  1. “I understand the value of saying no to create space for immediate impact. If I say yes to this, what can you take off my plate?”

  2. “Please don’t respond to email on your vacation next week. When you do that, I feel like I need to as well.”

  3. “Support looks like you not setting important, in-person meetings on Fridays. Our company committed to working from home on Fridays as part of our back-to-the office strategy during COVID. Working from home has allowed me to be present when my boys walk in the door from school, which has been a powerful connection for our family. I want to honor that with my family, and my team’s families.”

I encourage you to try out the Cornerstones of Leadership exercise with your team. Post an image of your Cornerstone Squares, and share with us:

  1. What do the best leaders in your life understand, care about, believe?

  2. What does our (collective) support of you look like right now?

Jena is a storyteller, environmental leader and leadership coach committed to making the world a better place for wildlife and people. After nearly 20 years on the road pioneering sustainability campaigns for big companies, she’s now working to create a more sustainable version of herself. Follow her adventures as she camped and hiked her way across the Pacific Coast with her 8-year-old son during the Covid-19 pandemic.


bottom of page