Thought Leadership

Executive Leadership: Shifting Focus From Outside to Inside


M.J. Clark will lead PRSA’s Executive Leadership Certificate Program, a webinar series that runs Nov. 1–Dec. 6. Visit the PRSA website for more details on the program. 

As senior-level PR and marketing professionals, we’ve spent much of our careers focusing on appearances — helping clients make decisions about what they should say, wear, do, sell, promote and write. Executive leadership begins, though, with looking on the inside. It’s only when we become skilled in areas like self-awareness, authenticity and emotional intelligence that we truly leverage our leadership ability.

So how do we become more authentic leaders? Authenticity begins with self-awareness, truly the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. To become more self-aware, we need to be able to identify our emotions and recognize the thoughts we have about those emotions.

Antonio Damasio, professor of psychology, philosophy and neurology at the University of Southern California, said, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”

Damasio’s research in the field of neuroscience has shown that emotions are crucial in social reasoning and decision-making.

As an executive coach, I find that many of my clients have trouble naming the specific emotion they are feeling in real time. It’s usually hours or days later when they realize the anger they thought they felt in the meeting was actually embarrassment at being called out for missing a deadline. If you struggle to pinpoint your emotions, then Google “list of emotions” and you will find that there are hundreds of specific words from which to pick when you are stuck.

Being able to pinpoint the specific emotion we’re having is important because it helps us:

  • Better understand what we need and want from others
  • Develop more intimate relationships
  • Communicate more succinctly
  • Collaborate more effectively
  • Manage, mediate and resolve conflicts
  • Understand how to manage disruptive feelings
  • Change unhelpful behaviors by controlling our thoughts and feelings

The key is learning to be nonjudgmental about our inner state. All of us have had inappropriate thoughts and feelings because we are human. When we have them, we can choose to be self-loathing and engage in negative self-talk that plagues us for days or we can recognize them and make decisions about how to handle them. We are in control of our thoughts and emotions all day, but many of us actually behave as though others control our thoughts and emotions.

I’ve had clients tell me: “My boss berated me in front of my peers, and he ruined my whole weekend!” “Did he?” I ask. “Or did you ruin your whole weekend because of how you processed what happened, ruminated about it and repeated negative thoughts in your head all weekend long?”

Nobody makes us feel any certain way. The way we think about external events leads to our emotional state. Controlling our thoughts can take us from a negative emotional state to a more positive one, or at least a more practical one. We must be able to recognize what we feel, so we are aware when certain feelings are disruptive and need to be changed.

When we recognize that a thought has led to emotional distress, we can decide to think differently about that situation to change our emotional state. For instance, if a client just yelled at me because I sent a press release out with errors in it, then I could choose to beat myself up about it and think that I’m a terrible employee, which may cause me to feel incompetent, stupid or depressed and could lead to my making more mistakes, procrastinating the next assignment or avoiding the client.

Instead, I could think about how important that press release was to her company, recognize she was mostly disappointed, apologize to her and resolve to put measures in place so that it will never happen again. The second approach is much more productive, of course, and it also takes courage. Authenticity absolutely requires courage because, when we reveal ourselves by sharing our thoughts or feelings, there is always risk (of rejection, misunderstanding, bias, retribution).

Authenticity is when our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all aligned. If we shift our focus to work on these inside pieces of the puzzle instead of outside perceptions, and we can be courageous in sharing how we are thinking and feeling with others, then we will be behaving with authenticity.

When people perceive us as authentic, it greatly impacts the team. It leads to more trust, psychological safety, honesty, assertiveness and difficult, but productive, conversations. In addition, we tend to improve our assertiveness and boundary setting when we are more open with others.

With the foundations of authenticity and emotional intelligence, you will be prepared to lead your team in highly effective planning initiatives, financial conversations and visionary discussions. When you engage in strategic planning, you are more likely to feel comfortable keeping one another accountable.

When you discuss new technology or complicated financial matters, your team is more likely to feel safe saying that they don’t understand something or sharing their worries about the future. Shifting to an internal focus and practicing authenticity will positively impact your team dynamic and ultimately enhance the outside perception of your team and organization.

As vice president of Integrated Leadership Institute and a consultant, executive coach and workplace trainer since 2006, M.J. Clark, M.A., APR, Fellow PRSA, helps companies with ownership and management succession, strategic planning and executive development. 

[Photo credit: southworks]

About the author

M.J. Clark, M.A., APR, Fellow PRSA

1 Comment

  • Thank you for the reminder that leadership starts from within. As leaders, when we prioritize self-awareness and authenticity, we set an example for our teams by inspiring them to do the same. This shift from a focus on external perceptions to an internal one is a journey we all should be on. Sometimes, I find it easy to get wrapped up in external appearances. Yet, in a world where authenticity and emotional intelligence are increasingly valued, this approach can indeed pave the way for more effective and empathetic leadership. -Ali Burleson, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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