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It’s always about me.

Why understanding yourself is the key to successful leadership.

by Maria Cabral da Câmara
by Maria Cabral da Câmara

My first experience in managing a team was recruiting an assistant at 26. I remember wanting someone ‘like me’, only quieter, less ambitious and definitely less sarcastic. I also wanted someone smart, industrious and autonomous. I don’t think I thought much about complementary skills or the need for my own personal growth – how having someone around to question my decisions and challenge my viewpoint would be a value-added. Probably because my 26-year-old self was terrified of making mistakes, being perceived as inexperienced or inadequate and pumped with this newly discovered power – leadership. Face it, I hadn’t a clue.

I’m happy to say that as someone who is fairly decent in their interactions with others, for the most part, I succeeded to carve out a career for myself through grit and goodwill. It was only in my 30s and more so in my 40s that I started to really question my behavior. Why did I respond to challenging questions in the way I did? Why did criticism from my team weigh so heavily on my mind? Why did I value the ideas of some over others? Why did I feel very uncomfortable requesting things?

I am much more comfortable with my identity as a manager and a leader today. But I am also still on the road of discovery. I don’t know why, sometimes, I need to request things in bold letters using the yellow highlighter. Is that me? Is that he/she/them?

We need to become acutely aware of the person we are bringing to work every day.

I’ve been managing teams since I was 26. That seems late in life looking at it now. I have students who at 21 are already working as team leaders, by 30 they are Directors of enterprises. I’m 44 and the Associate Dean of Nova SBE – a Portuguese business school.

I lead five different departments and a total of 18 people. By university standards, that’s actually quite small.

Someone asked me yesterday, “how do you like working in Southern Europe?”. Acknowledging that most of the time I love it, I explained: “it depends on me. It’s always about me“. Cue mock disbelief.

We are the product of our lives and experiences. We are also all very different. This diversity is the very thing that I fight for on a daily basis; I abore sameness and my team is better for this. But by actively seeking people who complement me and who bring voices and experiences to my table that I could not – for inexperience or socio-economic extraction, I am taking baby steps towards a world of inclusion and acceptance. A world where I need to be ever more sensitive to my response to this difference.

Ken Robinson once said the UK education system is “an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people” and this notion of conformity prevails across sectors and throughout careers. As such, we as educators and as leaders need to champion diversity of thought. But to champion diversity, we need to also be capable of celebrating our personal and unique experience, way of thinking, and intellectual bias – first.

We need to become acutely aware of the person we are bringing to work every day. On occasion, I forget my ‘self’ and assume my colleagues and the team think like me, see the world like me, and implicitly understand me. Thankfully, sometimes they do! But more often than not, they don’t. And therein lies the joy of doing what I do.

I learn from the people I surround myself with every day, but only if I understand that what I am getting out of an interaction is a direct reflection of the person I bring to it. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, mismanaged expectations… these happen all over the shop, in every workplace, in every city.

Leading authentically, taking time to invest in self-knowledge is key. My boss (the Dean) often cites the Peter Parker principle, “with great power there must also come great responsibility”. Is that great responsibility not therefore, in the first instance, to oneself?

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