Become a grounded leader

05 July, 2021

It is important to stay rooted during these tumultuous times

The ongoing crisis since last year has put leaders to the test. In the midst of unprecedented disruption, we have seen the best (and the worst) of leadership. One of the key qualities I have observed in leaders is the ability to stay grounded – even when the world around them is chaotic and uncertain.

What does it mean to be a grounded leader? Consultant Richard Fischer sums it up very well:

Knowing very exactly who I am, where my values come from, what emotional state I’m in, what biases I have and how I react to some specific situations can give me a decisive edge in my leadership and relationships to others.

Grounded leaders anchor their teams during tumultuous periods. They exude confidence and stability, without becoming cocky or arrogant. They inspire their teams to respond to challenges with optimism.

Grounded-ness doesn’t mean standing still or burying your head in the sand. In fact, it creates a strong foundation that enables you to innovate and thrive in the face of rapid change – without getting overwhelmed or compromising on your convictions.

Recent research commissioned by Healthy Companies International suggests that being grounded and conscious are the new leadership imperatives. In their article on this topic, organisational psychologists Bob Rosen and Emma Kate Swann explain:

“Grounded” is the foundation which helps leaders stay centered yet agile in the face of disruptive change. Being “Conscious” results in leaders being highly awake, aware, and adaptive.

The authors go on to say that true success stems from who leaders are as people, i.e., the purpose that drives them, their values and character, and the relationships they build. They identify the six “roots” of grounded leadership – developing and keeping these healthy is a lifelong task for us all.

  • Physical Health (how you live): Keeping you agile in a fast-paced world.
  • Emotional Health (how you feel): Helping you stay both tough and nimble in uncertain times.
  • Intellectual Health (how you think): Providing the tools for learning and staying relevant in a complex environment.
  • Social Health (how you interact): Ensuring you have the relationship skills needed for living in a connective world.
  • Vocational Health (how you perform): Helping us balance meaningful work and competition in a demanding age.
  • Spiritual Health (how you view the world): Connecting to the larger environment, and building trust, gratitude, and generosity in a world rife with cynicism.

This week, my message focuses on how to become a more grounded leader. What steps can you take to cultivate this all-important quality? Here are nine suggestions: 

1. Get to know yourself.

Building awareness around who we are gives us greater clarity, mental agility, and the tools to manage our emotions. As the article mentioned above says: 

Being conscious helps us think deeper, learn faster, and collaborate better. The more aware we are, the faster we adapt and accelerate, and the higher performing we become.

One way to kickstart this process is by introspecting around the six “roots” of grounded leadership. As we make the transition from shallow to deep thinking, we are able to see our true selves: who we are, and who we want to become. This self-awareness and self-acceptance allows us to lead authentically – which is at the core of becoming a grounded leader.

2. Think reflectively, not reactively.

Being aware of your irrational fears and stress triggers allows you to shift gears from reactive to reflective thinking. Reactive thinking is when you let events set the agenda, getting tossed around by external circumstances. In such a state of mind, you end up making decisions that are quick – but not necessarily right or wise.

In contrast, reflective thinking enables grace under fire and long-term resilience. It means taking control, looking at the big picture, and moving with change. Approaching a crisis from this perspective can turn it into an opportunity for learning and growth.

3. Identify non-negotiables.

Managing change requires leaders to be nimble and adaptable. At the same time, you must be clear where you’re willing to compromise – and where you aren’t. As you chart the path ahead, tackle these questions together with your team. Bring company values from induction manuals and posters into day-to-day discussions. Identifying your non-negotiables will not only help you set key boundaries, but also uncover areas where you can be more flexible and experimental.

4. Balance humility with intentionality.

As a grounded leader, you need to find the delicate balance between respecting other people’s ideas and expertise – without getting unduly swayed or influenced by trends. In her piece for The Startup, leadership coach Amelia Krause puts it this way: 

Grounded leaders are able to withstand forces that aim to push them over while also refusing to push others down. 

Being humble means being open to new suggestions, trusting your team members, and being transparent about the limits of your knowledge. Humble leaders are empathetic, collaborative and lifelong learners. Being intentional means being clear about your vision and making sure your strategy is aligned with it – this will help you withstand external pressure and stay on track. Intentional leaders are strong, reliable and perceived to have a great deal of integrity. A grounded leader brings both these sets of qualities together.

5. Bring purpose centre stage.

Change-era leadership cannot be excessively cautious or self-centred. Self-awareness should ideally help you shine a light on your higher purpose as a leader. With this knowledge, you can infuse your work with meaning. Purpose-driven leaders can become very effective agents of change. 

6. Check in with values on a day-to-day basis.

Building a robust company culture is ongoing work. One-off grand gestures and occasional lip-service simply aren’t good enough. As a leader, your smaller decisions also need to be consistent with the values and behaviours you want to reinforce. Doing a quick values check can be helpful. Take a moment to ask yourself: “Is this decision in line with my personal convictions? Does it line up with the culture we want to create?”

7. Make time for “slow thinking”.

Grounding as a process requires you to occasionally disconnect from the hustle-bustle. One way to do this is schedule a regular slot in your calendar for slow thinking. Consciously step out of firefighting mode and allow your mind to think about things deeply, at a leisurely pace. This is the time to think about “the big questions” – the ones we invariably push away if they strike us in the middle of a busy workday.

8. Build a vibrant personal ecosystem.

Grounded leaders tend to be anchored in a high-functioning personal ecosystem that is perpetually in motion with ideas, relationships and constructive energy. According to Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer at General Motors, such an ecosystem requires a few crucial elements, including a group of trusted friends who can be totally honest with you, and the ability to welcome healthy conflict and lively debate.

9. Let civility guide the way.

In the article mentioned previously, Rosen and Swann emphasise the importance of being pleasant and courteous: 

In a partisan and polarizing world, the essence of civility – being courteous and considerate – is the core of all relationships. Incivility, on the other hand, is contagious and poisons relationships. When people work under a cloud of negativity, they stop taking risks, make more mistakes, and fail to collaborate. Conscious people realize there is a human being on the other end of every connection. 

In pre-pandemic times, VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) was a term restricted to certain markets and temporary time periods. Today, it feels like we are all living in a VUCA world! Under these conditions, being grounded is more important than ever for leaders to succeed. It allows you to be open to new ideas and possibilities, without losing your way or getting disoriented.


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