February 29, 2016

Getting to Next-Level Leadership: What is Your Foundation Made Of? Know Your Roots

—by Deana Leber-George, MEd, LPCC-S

"When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind."

I loved being a case manager, assessment specialist, and individual and group counselor at the community mental health center in which I worked for over 16 years. When I was first promoted to be a supervisor and team leader, I was hopeful with anticipation of more great experiences. The passion for helping others that lead me into the mental health and addictions profession had now presented me with a new level of opportunity to mentor other professionals toward achieving their full potential. I was filled with optimism and hope-you know, the type of hope you have when you first enter the helping profession and are certain you will be able to relieve people's suffering. Not too long after I started in my role as a leader, along came another familiar feeling from the beginning of my career, the feeling of being in over my head and not feeling certain of anything. All my years of experience did not fully prepare me for these new expectations.

My first few years of supervision were a whirlwind of personal and professional development and growth. I was fortunate to be part of a team of people filled with talent, passion for giving compassionate care, and an eagerness to learn and improve. The enthusiasm of these individuals matched my own, and the pleasures of leadership and supervision were felt almost daily. However, there were also periods of time filled with a well of frustrations and challenges. I was brought face to face with the perils of leadership, those moments that were a pointed reminder that I had no experience or knowledge about how to successfully get through them. I had to learn how to navigate terminating peoples' employment (for the record, this NEVER felt comfortable or got easier); organizational lay-offs and the fear it created; decreased salary and benefits to myself and to those I was responsible for. All of this occurred under the mounting weight of increased productivity expectations and client mortality.

I encountered many moments when I was called to do things that I had never thought through or experienced, and I had to dig really deep and become self-aware of my "roots"-the attributes that I possessed that would hold me up under any rough conditions. I had to explore every inch of what I believed about people, about change, and about what this assignment of being a leader really meant. How in the world was I expected to get my team successfully through all these difficult circumstances when I was also going through them for the first time myself?

As we start this ongoing journey into Next-Level Leadership together, I want us to start right here: What are our "roots" made of? What will hold us up under any and all conditions? What do we need to be on the lookout for in terms of barriers to our effectiveness as leaders. It's the roots of a tree that determine how it will weather any storm. The deeper and wider the roots spread, the more stable the tree. Leadership is no different.


Having a high level of personal and professional awareness is often the key to navigating both the pleasures and perils of leadership. Let's take a fearless and honest look at what the foundation of our leadership rests upon.

We must become acutely aware of our strengths, our vulnerabilities, our influences, and our potential roadblocks. Be as objective and transparent with yourself as possible. It often helps to process your thoughts verbally, so find someone you trust and talk it through. Just as a tree in the forest is made stronger and is protected from the elements by the other trees surrounding it, so we are made stronger by the people around us. Let's dig deep to understand these four areas with the ultimate goal of creating a roadmap for professional leadership growth.

1.) Strengths

You have strengths. If you didn't, you would likely not find yourself in the position of leadership you are in now. Strengths serve as a source of confidence not only for you but also for the people around you who are counting on you for their own evolution. Many of us have great difficulty claiming our assets. Being able to feel settled into your strengths will be essential to you in your leadership journey.

Ask Yourself These Questions:

  • What key personality characteristics or values do you possess that are a benefit to those around you?
  • What experiences and skills might you have that set you apart from others around you?

2.) Vulnerabilities

Acknowledging skills and characteristics that we are not as accomplished in can often come a little too easily for many of us, especially when we're new to a leadership role and haven't quite settled into the expectations and potential impact that we hold. Being aware of and transparent about these areas for growth serve as a platform to uncover opportunities for our own advancement. If we unapologetically embrace the things we have not mastered yet, this can serve as the cornerstone for our professional development plan. I have often advised those new to leadership that humility is the best friend we can keep in our leadership journey. Remaining humble opens every opportunity up toward growth.

Ask Yourself These Questions:

  • What are areas of your leadership expectations that leave you feeling depleted or discouraged?
  • Do you have any personal experiences or biases that can impact your ability to be an objective and effective leader to any person who looks to you for guidance?
  • If there are somethings you could change about the way you exercise your leadership that would increase your effectiveness and/or your enjoyment of it, what would those be?

3.) Influences

When we fill a role of leadership, we inherently impact the world around us. Policy, people, environment and culture, and client outcomes are all prime for our influence. We want to fully utilize these opportunities for our own professional growth as a leader as well as our potential to make an impact within our organization, our local community, and our professional networks.

Questions to Explore:

  • Are there any gaps (issues) that you see in your organization that you envision yourself as able to address and/or fill?
  • What parts of your job (e.g., training, coaching, planning, program development) offer you opportunities to become more of an asset to your team and organization?
  • Do you possess a fresh viewpoint or understanding of a situation that could positively resolve an area of conflict in your sphere of influence?

4.) Potential Road Blocks

As you explore the foundation of your leadership abilities, you are surely going to uncover areas that could inhibit or at least impinge upon your professional performance or development. Some of these may be within your control and some may feel outside (e.g., licensure limitations, fiscal cutbacks, team turnover/attrition, hiring freezes). It is essential that we raise our cognizance of these threats and their potential interference on our ability to be effective in leadership. Once we have identified and demystified the issues that could prohibit our best influence, we can arm ourselves with knowledge and tools to transcend them. Let's not be fearful to look these circumstances in the eye and show them who's "boss."

Questions to Explore:

  • Are there changing professional standards or expectations (e.g., licensure, technology, professional advancements, etc.) and/or personal attributes (e.g., attitudes, skills) that could pose a possible hindrance to your advancement at any point in the future?
  • How do you manage your work stress? How do you keep a positive balance?
  • Is there anything about who you are and how you operate now that might threaten your role as an effective leader?


As we go through this process of self-discovery, we will be expanding our ability to be influential and impactful leaders, and we will be guiding the future of our field in the right direction, regardless of the circumstances we have to face.

  • As you think through this process of digging deep into your "roots," what do you realize about your own journey so far in leadership?
  • Did you discover anything new about your leadership foundation?
  • What's one thing you have discovered in your experience as a leader that you wished someone would have told you?
  • What would your best leadership advice be to both new leaders and to current leaders looking for renewal?


Please share your own thoughts below so we can learn from each other and continue onto Next-Level Leadership. Add a new comment or join an existing discussion. We look forward to hearing from you!

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