October 17, 2019

I was their coach, but they taught me these unexpected lessons about leadership

Sometimes the best way to see the big picture is to put yourself back on the front line.

Sarah Sheehan
CCO & Co-Founder, Bravely

As a co-founder of Bravely, I was also our original Pro. I used my HR and team leadership experience to design and fine-tune our methodology, providing coaching to the employees of our earliest clients. 

I loved coaching; connecting with people and supporting them in improving their lives at work was extremely rewarding for me. But once we launched, I quickly needed to turn my attention to building the company to support our fast-growing list of clients. Sadly, the coaching aspect of my job slipped away almost immediately. 

It was by chance, just over two years later, that I started coaching again. When one of our Pros fell ill minutes before a session, I immediately jumped at the chance to step in for them. Everyone in the office laughed and said I was crazy—they hadn’t been around when I was the only Pro we had.

I will admit I was a little nervous that my skills wouldn’t be as sharp to support or help the employee shift their perspective. What I didn’t anticipate was how much this employee was going to shift mine. 

The first words out of the employee’s mouth were, “I am not really sure why I called. I honestly don’t think I need this.” We were off to a great start. I took a deep breath and dove in, asking questions to get at what may have prompted the call. Details quickly started flowing, and two main themes emerged:

1. This employee was overwhelmed with a new role and its responsibilities.

2. They were being asked to emulate the leadership qualities of someone they didn’t look up to.

All of this was leading to tremendous stress and burnout.

As our conversation went deeper, I found myself relating to some of the things that were being described. The toll of working long hours, feeling like there was no time left to enjoy activities outside of work, being responsible for things that didn’t feel like an area of expertise, an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the people that report to you. I was nodding along as I listened.

Just as I was about to jump in to support this person in developing a game plan, I heard the words, “I’ve been told I’m not a great leader. I think I need to take a step back.” Cue my heart breaking. It became unbelievably clear to me that this person had all the intangible leadership qualities most difficult and often impossible to teach: empathy, integrity, and self-awareness. Unfortunately, they were being asked to bend to another’s style and forfeit all of these incredible gifts.

By the end of our session, they had, in fact, decided to take a step back from their new responsibilities—not because they weren’t a leader (they absolutely are), but for their own well-being. It was a bold and difficult choice, potentially even a risky one for their career, but also incredibly courageous. This person was deciding to put their own personal needs in front of their desire to get to the next level professionally. Their next steps included a commitment to spend more time in nature, unplugging with digital free days, and the two of us deciding to read a book about leadership by an author we both admired.

“I’ve been told I’m not a great leader. I think I need to take a step back.”

Anonymous courageous leader

I went into the conversation believing I was going to help guide someone towards a new path, and what I ended up getting was a new direction and perspective for how I work and lead. I was reminded that empathy and self-awareness are the most important and uncompromisable qualities in a leader, and that self-care is not just a nice-to-have. 

This employee may never know the lasting impact of our conversation. As I type these last sentences, I am off for five days to see the fall leaves in the Catskills with my book and the intention to turn off my phone. In deciding to take care of myself, I know I’m modeling the right behavior, fostering even more empathy and kindness on my team—and we already have a lot. Ultimately, my hope is that all of this will spill into our work at Bravely and continue to drive our passion for helping companies build their best cultures. 

So, thank you to this unnamed employee. You are definitely a leader, and a brave one at that.

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