On lessons of leadership
It's been exactly one month since my last blog post. Despite making it clear to myself that posts should be a weekly output, I have had to prioritise other tasks in the agency's backlog. Does constant reprioritisation leave me feeling like I should have done better as a leader? Yes. But does it help when I have had time to think about what to write about as a young agency blogger? Absolutely, yes!
This (month's) post - yes, I might as well recognise this pattern officially - is about what I have learned about leadership.
Where Leaders Learn
Rhodes University was a home to me for nearly 18 years. Its motto, Where Leaders Learn, was a poetic, almost spiritual, phrase for me growing up on the campus as my parents worked in their respective offices and laboratories, high up in the Pharmacy building. As a child, I didn't pay much attention to the students my mother taught and mentored, but she would subtly alert my ever-wandering attention to the University motto while she planned her teaching material and projects. While the professional and domestic duties cascaded around her, and therefore, me, I noticed how she would always be able to cater to my needs as her child but also give near-equal attention to her students' needs. She was juggling about a hundred things at once, but I never once caught her dropping anything - however human she claimed to be. As she says, "The right time to work on something is when you start working on it fuelled by your own motivation."
At that young age, I certainly didn't understand how difficult delegating and prioritising tasks were, and that that was what my mother was doing as she taught, assessed, mentored, researched, asserted, guided, and learned how to keep getting better at handling work and being a present mother.
Active listening means stepping back and trusting the other person to tell me how they want it to work, instead of me stepping in to micromanage their vision. Active listening is a kind of task delegation because it means that I don't always have to have all the answers.
While she would guide her students and me, and keep a watchful eye on our progress, she also knew when to step away as we learned to navigate our respective lives. My mother, a leader in my young eyes, taught me that leadership is about constant and mindful refinement to improve not just oneself, but, like a ripple, extend the effects of such self-refinement to help and learn from others. She refined herself in a place where leaders learn.
Now, as a young founder who works with a growing number of people, I see myself as someone who must be able to do the same in my own way. But, to be entirely truthful, I'm still figuring things out. My struggle is with gauging when to step in to assist and when to trust the other person's process.
Delegating means trusting
Working as an operations partner means that I have to be, as my fellow founder, Tamryn Iyer, says, sufficiently irritating. Working as a communications designer and creator often means getting clients to think about their daydreams and professional vision in a way that aligns with their three or five-year goals. I have to be patient and chip away at their vague responses, feelings, and inspirations to find the proverbial golden nugget that helps me understand why they want a logo designed a certain way, or why they want their name on all pages of their website. Sometimes their communication needs make perfect sense after a quick guided conversation about their vision, but there are times when even two or three client meetings leave me empty of both their and my inspiration to keep going. While times like these are frustrating, they are also learning opportunities.
The past month has been a boot camp of client meetings where I have trusted myself to step back and actively listen. For example, vague answers often come from clients who are not confident enough to post professionally on social media. Or when clients become rigid about operations, design, or wordings, it's because they don't yet trust us to see things from their perspective. I've now learned to listen to what they are not saying about their brand. This form of active listening helps because so much can be learned about the clients' hopes, fears, knowledge, ideas they have about themselves, and the level of commitment to communicating their work online. Active listening means stepping back and trusting the other person to tell me how they want it to work, instead of me stepping in to micromanage their vision. Active listening is a kind of task delegation because it means that I don't always have to have all the answers.
This reduces the burden to be "The Leader" all the time. Leaders must also be open to learning (to step back).
Freelance leadership means direct accountability
As a freelancer, yes, the hours are flexible, and I am my own boss. And that's exactly why I am worth my own time. In my experience so far, most of the freelance work I've done has been prioritised over my rest from the screen, over my mealtimes, over my relationships with people, and over leisure activities, which I could do without feeling guilty.
For me, leadership always meant having my ducks in a row. As a firm believer in punctuality and a set schedule, I thrive on knowing when the work begins and ends. It makes things efficient and holds everyone accountable for their roles in the project - be it the person providing the copy for the website or the client responsible for providing the content. This kind of accountability also means that as a leader, I should actively listen to myself and the things that I'm not saying. This is a worthwhile exercise because, as a lone freelance leader, I alone have the capacity to stop myself from overworking, overstepping, and allowing work to overlap into my personal life.
"The right time to work on something is when you start working on it fuelled by your own motivation."
At this point in my career, I have to work and gain as much experience as I possibly can. There's no doubt about it. However, now is also a good time to practice creating boundaries and learn when to step back into a healthy routine.
To all my readers, thank you for staying with me and reading my posts when they pop up on your social media feeds. Your kind words and thoughtful feedback make my day, and my writing, so much better.