3 Tips to Lead on Your Own Terms

Photo credit:  Nuwandalice  on  Visual Hunt  /  CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Nuwandalice on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

This has always been my Achilles heel: an unconscious habit of comparing myself to others. Unfavorably, of course. 


  • My leadership style

  • My body of work

  • My actual body

  • My finances

  • My relationships

  • My podcasting voice

  • My hair

  • And on and on…

And one of the great things about becoming a coach is that it has forced me to get a grip when it comes to all the constant (and impossible) comparisons. 

Because as it turns out? I’m not the only one who does this. My clients do it too! And how can I support them in this, if I am not catching on to how I do it too? 

Ultimately, this is about the unrealistic standards we set for ourselves, and it looks different for everyone. For me, it’s usually about comparing myself to others -- but I’ve had clients who do something else entirely. 

  • For instance, you might be measuring yourself against an imaginary and idealized version of yourself. That future “you” that’s finally gotten all your stuff together, who is impatiently tapping her foot, waiting for you to catch up already.

  • Or it might be a version of you that is based on what other people expect. Like the self-sacrificing community leader who will always put the cause first; the woman with the high impact social justice career, who does it all and still manages to be neither “too feminine” nor “too manly” in her approach to leadership; the generous soul who gives everything and takes nothing. 

  • Or, in a fun twist, your standard is based on rebelling against what was modeled to you by your culture, family, or community. 

In every one of these, we are defining ourselves, our life’s work, our purpose, on terms that are ultimately not our own. (Yes, even if we’re rebelling, we’re still shaped by the things we react to. It’s like we are oil, repelled by water -- we choose our shape based on what the water’s doing.) 

I spoke in great depth about this dynamic with the warm, funny, and revelatory Melanie Dewberry, in last week’s episode of the Dialogue Lab podcast. 

I spoke in great depth about this dynamic with the warm, funny, and revelatory Melanie Dewberry, in last week’s episode of the Dialogue Lab podcast. 

And in my experience -- in my life, as well as with my clients -- these standards have almost always proven to be counterproductive to what we really want from life. 

Because the standard isn't based on reality. When I compare myself to others, I’m going on very limited information about others -- like what I saw on social media, for instance. When my clients compare themselves to an idealized version of themselves, that is just as imaginary.

And none of this is based on what really counts: who we are, what we want for ourselves and others, and the actual circumstances of our lives.

Here's what's really toxic though: these standards can never be satisfied. Not because we aren’t good enough, but because these standards are not rational. They are fueled by an insatiable sense of inner deficiency that only grows stronger as we gaze at the image of what we should be. 

And that is potent fuel for burnout. 

As we push ourselves to meet these standards, we fail to take the time to rest and renew. We drive ourselves until we’re frustrated, have lost perspective, and are physically, emotionally, and spiritually tapped out. And then there is no way we can give ourselves fully to the things we care about. 

Oh, the irony! As we strive to be “the best,” we end up at our worst. 

And the only way to stop this toxic cycle is to rummage around inside our hearts and heads until we understand the unconscious and counterproductive standards that drive us, and toss them out. 

Then we can start embracing who we are, as we are, and begin our life’s work of defining ourselves, our impact, and our leadership on our own terms. 

-- So that brings me to your every-other-Tuesday Antidote to Burnout. -- 

1) Take stock of your “shoulds.” Take out a piece of paper, and list all the things you tell yourself you should be doing more of, less of, or better. 

For instance, one of my big “should’s” is that I should be getting more done. As in, no matter what I did get done -- no matter how many tasks I've crossed off, or what I've accomplished on any given day -- I’ve got this uneasy feeling telling me it wasn’t enough. I'll use this "should" of mine as an example to unpack through this exercise.

2) Choose one “should” from your list -- whatever feels like it’s most active today -- and unpack it further:

+ How old were you when you started to internalize this standard?

(hint: most of this stuff starts when we are kids. I can trace mine back to the anxiety I used to feel about my homework in elementary school.) 

+ Is there an image associated with this standard? Like a version of you or someone else? If so, draw or describe it.

(For instance, for me, I've got this image of myself in the future, finally and proudly enjoying the hard-won fruits of my productivity.)

+ How do you know when you’ve met this standard? Have you ever been able to meet it? Is there someone you know that you imagine has met it?(So for me, I can definitely think of people who I see as having "arrived.")

+ What assumptions and beliefs reinforce this standard, and are there ways you can test them out?

(So like I said, I see others as having "arrived," ie, having accomplished their ambitions. But now I have gained the benefit of having tested that image, because I've gotten to know many of them. I've taken up the practice of talking to those people to see if it holds true. And it doesn't. Time and again, whenever I get to know someone I see that way, that image falls away pretty quickly to the honest reality that everyone is in the middle of their own journey.)

+ How does this standard shape your life and work? How do you rebel against it? How do you conform to it?

(Hint: there are often sneaky ways we both conform to and rebel against these standards. I often find that the harder I push myself around something I think I should be doing, the harder I also procrastinate around it. I told you this wasn't rational).  

+ How does this standard make you feel? Stick to emotions (happy, sad,) and feelings (contracted, small) here.

(My inner productivity gremlin brings up feelings ofanxiety,and unease.) 

+ What would happen in your work and life if this standard just disappeared? How would you feel? 

(I've become a lot more mindfulaboutthis "should," so while this question is technically a "what-if," I can answer it more definitively. And while this "should" has definitely not disappeared, it's got a lot less power over me and I experience much less inner conflict than I used to around managing my time. I also have less trouble stopping to attend to my self-care. And ironically, all that has made me far more productive than I've ever been. Oh, the irony!)

3) Once a day for a week, reflect on the past 24 hours to see when this standard popped up for you. Get to know the signs: the way you feel when it pops up, the behaviors that show up, and over time you will start to catch it when it shows up in the moment. 

Once you start to catch it, you can ask yourself: “what would happen right now, if that thought just disappeared? How would I feel? What would I do?”

-- So those are my 3 tips to lead on your own terms. -- 

I’d love to hear from you: Do you ever have a hard time raising your voice? When was a time you did speak up, and what supported you in doing that?  

P. S. One of my former podcast guests, the amazing Nikki Akparewa, who is bringing a social justice lens to nursing, has launched her own podcast! And she interviewed me on it here.

Walking Against the Wind: Activists, Leadership, and Resilience

Walking Against the Wind: Activists, Leadership, and Resilience
How do I stay awake to our troubled world, without emotionally shutting down?  
How do I take action from a grounded place, when the wind threatens to knock me off my feet? 

And how can be both open and resilient, so I can show up fierce? 

These questions have been on my mind for a while. Then, last week I happened to be on a video conference with a bunch of therapists and coaches. One therapist told us about a client struggling with anxiety and depression.