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I’m OK with being an assertive leader

This opinion piece is over 9 years old

Jane Bruce on how self-esteem and assertiveness are part of the delicate balance of being a great leader

People in leadership positions have high levels of self-esteem right? After enjoying a course that examined the relationship between self-esteem and influencing I’m not so sure.

A central plank of what I learned related to the continuum between passive and aggressive behaviour and the benefits of operating out of the middle ground – of being assertive.

But, how often as leaders do we really seek to influence from the position of "I’m OK, you’re OK"? In other words, that we are clear about what we want but are also able to balance our agenda with other people’s needs in order to find a way forward.

I’m sure we can all think of aggressive leaders who operate from a different paradigm of "I’m OK but only if you lose". Egocentric leaders who see every interaction as a battle for supremacy and, in their quest to build a personal empire, have lost sight entirely of the common cause they are supposed to be working for.

Equally, there can be an unhealthy martyrdom displayed by leaders along the lines of "I’ll make sure you’re OK even if I suffer in the process" – "I’ll stay the latest in the office, I’ll do the work rather than imposing on you" etc. This I’m not worthy style of passive leadership can get pretty boring after a while. Trust me, I’ve been there and got the t-shirt.

I’m OK with being an assertive leader

Halfway through the course, I had a revelation – I now behave assertively most of the time

Jane Bruce, Clore Social Fellow 2014

But halfway through the course, I had a revelation – I now behave assertively most of the time. My time at Venture Scotland has a lot to do with this as I was immersed in enabling vulnerable young people to balance their own needs with those of others.

The course trainers helped remind me how much our capacity for assertiveness is rooted in self-esteem. One quick test of this is to examine the language you use to talk to yourself. Do you spend all day beating yourself up for what you haven’t done or mistakes you have made? Or is your self-talk characterised by kind and positive language?

Equally, you can physically anchor yourself in the centre ground by attending more closely to your body language and physiology. Do you stand tall, embody your full height or do you do all you can to make yourself small? Do you allow yourself to breathe fully and deeply, to take the breaths you need to be fully present and to be able to listen to others?

This stuff is powerful and runs deep. But assertiveness or the lack of it shapes our life course. On the way home, I had a wee test of my skills when I arrived 4 hours early for my flight. I negotiated a switch to an earlier flight and my original flight ended up being cancelled. My brain definitely said "whoop whoop!" to that result.

Need some inspiration? Check out:

Roffey Park – Personal Effectiveness & Power

Assertiveness – a definition

Amy Cuddy TED talk – Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Jane Bruce is a fellow of theClore Social Leadership Programme. This is one of a series of blogs she has written for TFN on her journey.