Blog (filtered)

Being a leader takes practice. We’re excited to share our latest experiments and lessons learned.

Lindsey Reese
Friday, May 19, 2017

May is always an exciting month –spring weather is here, people are making their summer travel plans, and students are gearing up for graduation. This spring is especially exciting and significant for me because I’ll be one of those students who will don a cap and gown and receive a diploma today.

I’ve been fortunate to spend the past two years pursuing a M.S. in Organization Development and Knowledge Management at George Mason University. It’s been an exciting and challenging journey – one in which I learned as much about myself as I did about my field of study. This outcome was a bit surprising for me, yet extremely fulfilling and energizing.

My program’s curricula was strongly rooted in the idea that a successful OD practitioner needs to have a great deal of self-awareness.  In order to effectively partner with others to help them overcome challenges in their organization, you have to be fully aware of your strengths, weaknesses, biases, and values. All of these factors combine to create the lens in which you view the challenge, diagnose the underlying issues, and help the client discover steps to solve the problem. 

The idea of using the self as an instrument is relevant to all leaders, not just those in OD. Yet, so often the important leadership competency of self-awareness is overlooked. This may be due to our competitive societal culture – someone may be viewed as weak or incompetent if they acknowledge their weaknesses or admit to not knowing something. But when leaders are honest with themselves and have a consistent focus on building stronger self-awareness, the benefits are powerful.

Having a solid awareness of your strengths and weaknesses gives you a starting point for planning your professional development. Your strengths and developmental challenges may shift over time, but a leader who consistently sets aside time to reflect on their performance and assess their behaviors is typically more adaptable and effective in their role. Showing openness and vulnerability can also help to build trust, thus improving the quality of your connections with others. When leaders acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, they also send a message to their team that it’s ok to make mistakes, ask questions, and request help from others. These behaviors help to promote a culture of learning within the organization.

So how do you develop a stronger self-awareness? In the article, The Self as an Instrument – A Cornerstone for the Future of OD, Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge recommends various ways to improve self-knowledge and awareness:

Develop lifelong learning habits

  • Continually develop and enhance competencies that are important in your role
  • Develop relationships with peers to talk through challenges and discuss different perspectives
  •  Actively seek feedback from others
  • Take responsible risks that stretch your professional comfort zone and proficiency

Work through issues of power

  • Acknowledge personal issues around power and control and recognize their emotional triggers
  • Clarify your personal values and ensure your actions are aligned with those values

Build emotional and intuitive self-awareness

  • Use your personal and family history as a source of strength
  • Identify your fears, blind spots, and comfort zones. Use your emotional comfort (or discomfort) as data in making decisions

Commit to self-care

  • Organize your calendar to include time for reflection and recharging of your intellectual and emotional energy
  • Schedule regular time-off and truly disconnect from work
  • Use meditation or other practices to develop and maintain inner awareness
  • Engage in hobbies and activities that you enjoy
  • Ensure you set aside time to socialize and spend time with those you care about

By incorporating some of these activities and behaviors into your routine, you should find that you’re more comfortable, confident, and effective in your role. Modeling these behaviors may also encourage those around you to do the same.

As I walk across the stage today to receive my diploma, my formal educational journey may be coming to a close, but my journey on the path to greater self-awareness will surely continue. I hope yours does, as well.

Rachel Parsley
Friday, April 28, 2017

I am a new member of the CLE’s Exceptional Assistants’ Network (EAN) Seminar Series group learning program. During the first session of the four-day series, we discussed how to develop a leadership presence and mindset.

For me, the biggest takeaway is that it is important to remember that the opportunity to be a leader is all around us, every day, and in many ways. You don’t have to be in a management or supervisory position to spearhead a project, suggest ideas, or contribute as a leader to your team environment.

When asked to define our role in the workplace, many of us would answer in a way that just describes the tasks we do, and in a way that doesn’t consider all things we do that are “outside of our job description.” These are the ways that we, consciously or not, set ourselves apart from our colleagues, and are the things that, in turn, make us leaders.

Simply greeting folks with a smile, encouraging them to do their best, collaborating with them, thanking them for their efforts, or offering your help and suggestions are small things we can all do to become  leaders. Actions like these can set the tone for someone’s entire day, or for their experience with your department. Whether your interaction with someone is their first, last or is ongoing, it’s your responsibility, as a leader, to make it positive and productive.

Leaders ask questions of themselves and of others; communicate assertively, yet effectively, and are active listeners. Questions could challenge, indicate empathy, ask an opinion, or ultimately, offer help.

Leaders express feelings and emotions properly. They let others know they are valued and important. They extend their appreciation, demonstrate a willingness to work with others, and offer trust. This helps build constructive relationships. Leaders also establish credibility: they do what they say they are going to do!

A leader acknowledges their own strengths and challenges. Most of all, leaders aim to be their authentic self, and reflect their values in decisions and actions.

To be a leader, you must be ready and willing to take on challenges. No matter what the situation, all it takes is the motivation to go above and beyond what is expected of you.

Check out the chart below: “What Great Leaders say to Highly Engaged Teams” for some simple phrases you can use to support and motivate others, contribute to your team, and take ownership of your work. You’ll be well on your way to living life as a leader!

Diane Ober
Friday, October 28, 2016

What does growing trees have to do with growing leaders?

I really like this photo of myself taken earlier this year when I was planting 600 saplings at my brother’s house. When I first saw this picture I thought, “This is also what I do at UVA!” Some might find that connection puzzling since I’m not on the landscaping crews who keep our Grounds beautiful. At the same time, it works because the mission of the Center for Leadership Excellence is to “grow” each and every one of us to be the leaders that we have the potential to be.

Seeing myself as a nurserywoman planting seeds or saplings is compatible with a style or theory of leadership that is known as “servant leadership” as defined by Robert K. Greenleaf. From my perspective, this style provides a quintessential guide for how to grow leaders. Here is a very brief description of servant leadership:

  1. The servant leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.
  2. A servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.
  3. The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.


Here’s a more granular analogy of implementing this style!

Planting Trees

Growing leaders

I want to have trees on my land

UVA employee is conscious that he/she wants to develop professionally or personally and is willing to engage

Healthy saplings and the space where they can grow

A team (the CLE) plans for professional growth and a promising staff ready to grow

People are needed to plant the saplings and must have good soil, water, sun, and care

People needed (the CLE) to offer great classes, workshops and services that appeal to many needs/circumstances of employees and teams

Trees grow and provide shade, fruit, oxygen, beauty, and so much more

Employees take classes, workshop, use services, and are able to share power, develop their (and others’) talents and skills, and so much more

Everyone benefits (with maintenance needed)

Everyone benefits (with maintenance needed)

I love that my role as a servant leader at the CLE allows me to facilitate the process of growing other leaders.

Do you want to grow? How will that happen? Can we help?


Recently some of our CLE team participated in the UHR Wellness and Benefits fair at Newcomb Hall where we encouraged attendees to enter a raffle by taking a selfie portraying themselves as a leader! The prize was a free online assessment that we use in many of our classes to help understand personality and working styles.

The winner of the DiSC assessment is RUTH DILLON (pictured below on left). She IS a leader!


Click Here to see more from our Leadership Photo Booth!

Jess Hench
Friday, October 21, 2016

If you missed last week's post, check out Part I.

Team Challenge or Pressure Test?

On MasterChef, the contestants often have to participate in a Team Challenge in which they are divided into two teams, Red and Blue, to compete against each other. A Captain is chosen for each team, and the Captains then choose their teammates. The teams need to prepare a meal in a challenging setting, often for high-status guests. The Captains cook alongside their teammates, and there is often a lot of yelling and swearing and even crying as they all work hard to meet the challenge. Ultimately, one team is selected as the winner of the challenge.

But after the challenge is when an interesting twist occurs. The Red and Blue teams worked hard to overcome obstacles and perform together as a team. Yet once the winning team is chosen, the members of the losing team then have to turn against each other and compete in a Pressure Test.  This is a short and difficult challenge in which they have to make a dish that requires technical skill, like a soufflé or a perfect éclair. As a result of the Pressure Test, one contestant is asked to remove his or her apron and leave the kitchen, eliminated from the competition. 

Once again, these challenges make me think about human dynamics we see in workplaces.  Think about your department or office. Is your workplace more of a Team Challenge or a Pressure Test? A well-functioning team should have a clearly designated Captain, in your case probably a manager or director. The Captain helps determine the strengths of each team member, focusing each person’s workload on what they do best, and helping teammates to overcome challenges as they arise. The Captain also works alongside the team, helping to accomplish the work and accepting responsibility for the outcomes. If you are a manager, do you lead like a Team Captain, supporting your team and taking the heat of the kitchen along with them? Or are you more like Chef Ramsay, yelling from the sidelines and keeping yourself at a distance, using praise sparingly?

The pressure test is a strange phenomenon that only really happens on a competition show. In our workplaces, we are not (hopefully!) in situations in which one person will be marked as the loser and eliminated from the team. But sometimes, workplaces can feel like a pressure test. It can feel like everyone is focused on their own goals and working on separate projects, each trying to be the best and outshine their colleagues. Hopefully in a university setting, our offices won’t feel like pressure tests, but there may be certain high-pressure times when they do feel that way.

As the leader, how can you re-focus your team so that the workplace feels less like a pressure test and more like a team challenge?

Jess Hench
Friday, October 14, 2016

My fiancé, Patrick, enjoys watching cooking competition shows like Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, and MasterChef. I never used to have much interest in competition shows, but I’ve found that I really enjoy MasterChef. I like getting to “know” the contestants, hearing the witty remarks of Chef Ramsay, and seeing all the dishes the chefs create. But while Patrick is focused on which contestant created the best dish from the mystery box ingredients, I find myself looking past the dishes and cooking techniques to the human dynamics at work in the kitchen. 

Chef Ramsay as a Leader:

Gordon Ramsay is known for being a brilliant chef, but also a very tough cookie. He takes cooking very seriously, and he doesn’t hold back his opinions at all. He yells at the home-cook contestants, swears often, and expresses his disappointment openly. But when he’s happy with a contestant’s performance, he expresses that freely as well. He praises the chefs, laughs with them, and willingly admits when he is impressed by a chef’s dish. So what kind of leader is Chef Ramsay? 

Most leadership theories describe the use of task and relationship behaviors, with different leadership styles reflecting more of one or the other. Chef Ramsay is definitely your task-oriented leader, focusing first and foremost on getting the job done, and seeing that it is done well. A chef is no good if a diner has an empty plate or a dish they can’t eat; so the task must be accomplished. But while it may seem that Chef Ramsay is task-oriented to the extreme, we can also see that he does focus on relationships too. He encourages contestants when they are discouraged, pushes them when they are ready to give up, brings them down a peg when their egos get inflated, and pushes them to build on their strengths and improve with each step of the competition. I didn’t bother to watch the show before because I thought Chef Ramsay just yelled at everyone all the time, but now I understand that he really does care about people and want to help them reach their potential. In fact, he is actually a great example of a transformational leader. 

But…would you want Chef Ramsay as your manager? Does his leadership style have a place in a university setting rather than a fancy restaurant’s high-pressure kitchen? Do you like to be pushed to perform at your best, knowing that the manager is pushing you because he believes you have the potential? Or do you prefer a softer approach, someone who is more upbeat and cheerful and encourages in a gentler way? What is more effective?

Check out next week’s post: Part II!

Leslie Andrus
Friday, September 30

You know it when you see it, but can you define it? Can you become it? Think of someone you know that has great leadership presence. It can be a manager, a colleague, an acquaintance, or a public figure. Pause now and jot down some of those characteristics. What did you come up with?

My guess is you listed some of the key characteristics of being a mindful leader. A mindful leader is one who is in the moment. They look you in the eye. They listen. They carry themselves with a peaceful confidence.  They are centered. Janice L. Marturano, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership said, “Presence is a dynamic and fluid sense of being fully present in body, mind, and heart and knowing it.”

Are you still here with me now? Or is your mind wandering off to the next thing you need to do? Or to that noise you may be hearing from the other room? Stop. Take a deep breath, and come back here. Breathing is one of the keys to being mindful. 

In this complex world with multiple stimulations and competing priorities, we have to more intentionally work to stay present. Awareness of your breathing, body, thoughts, sensations, and feelings help you to achieve this state of being. Mindfulness helps you to de-stress, to focus, and to be a better you. People notice; you begin to exude leadership presence.

Are you thinking that all this is just a new age fad? Think again. Extensive behavioral and brain research is proving how mindfulness practice can help you succeed in many aspects of your life, with leadership being one of them. When you are mindful, you are less reactive and more creative, strategic, engaging, healthy, and vital. You can engage with others and help motivate them toward their goals.

If you are not already practicing mindfulness, take one small step and try it out. Perhaps try integrating the practice of pausing and taking deep breaths when you find your mind is unfocused. Over time, I’m confident that you will realize that mindfulness is essential to successfully existing in today’s world and to being an effective formal or informal leader.

Great leaders, therefore, are fully ‘here’ – they are present. Are you still here?

Diane Washington, Executive Assistant to the Dean, Dean’s Office, School of Nursing

Theran Fisher
Friday, September 9, 2016

One of my favorite aspects of my work with the Center for Leadership Excellence is helping others explore their personalities. Our personalities are our outward facing selves, the way in which our values, fears, and ego drivers manifest themselves in our day-to-day actions and preferences. Since leadership is rooted in self-awareness, learning about our personality is often a fun and easy way to begin developing our own leadership style.

Perhaps the most widely known – and misunderstood – aspect of our personalities is introversion and extroversion. The common misconception is that those with a preference for introversion are shy and don’t like to socialize, while those who prefer extroversion are outgoing and talkative. In reality, introversion and extroversion describe two things: how we prefer to engage with the world and how we recharge our psychological batteries. Those with a preference for introversion prefer to engage with the world through thoughts and ideas and recharge by processing information quietly in their own heads. Folks who prefer extroversion tend to engage with the world through action and recharge by engaging with others through either an activity or socializing. An over simplification would be to say that introverts think to speak, and extroverts speak to think.

I happen to have a very strong preference for introversion, yet my job requires me to spend a great deal of time speaking in front of others (i.e. extroverting), whether it be facilitating a class, leading a meeting, or guiding a conversation. I enjoy extroverting, and think I am pretty good at it, but as an introvert, it is mentally tiring. After a long day of facilitating, I need time to be alone and recharge.

Gaining a better understanding of what introversion and extroversion really mean and how different people express their preference can be hugely beneficial to your team. You can gain a better understanding of why people behave the way they do, what you can do to support them, and how to appropriately challenge them to either introvert or extrovert when needed.

Theran Fisher
Friday, August 26, 2016

The Center for Leadership Excellence focuses on development. It’s baked into everything we do: leadership development, skill development, and organizational development. Development is the most often used word in our office. Yet like everyone else, we get so wrapped up in the deadlines and details of our work that we let our own development slide to the bottom of the ever-growing To Do list.

But we are trying to be more intentional about our own development. We recently spent two days training with our friends and colleagues from the Health System’s Learning and Organizational Development team. We learned new skills, refined existing ones, and had fun collaborating.  We also gained valuable insight into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of professional development. Insights that we need to keep in mind as we continue our work of helping others develop, such as . . . .

  • Development can be scary. Practicing new skills and changing existing behaviors can be awkward and uncomfortable; especially when you are doing it in front of others.  Since our training focused on facilitation skills, we were constantly getting up in front of one another (and the camera!) to speak. Even for those of us who facilitate all the time, it can be nerve-wracking.
  • Development takes time. If you want to improve and learn new skills, you can’t simply read a book or receive feedback. You have to put in the time to learn, practice, and ingrain new behaviors. Stepping away from our offices for two full days was tough, but worth it.
  • Development requires focus. During our two days, my mind often wandered back to my inbox and the work that was inevitably piling up. In the afternoons I’d start to get tired and regress to old and familiar behaviors. I had to focus intently to remain present and learn.
  • Development is fun. Being around other folks committed to their own learning and gaining new tips and tricks is just fun.

We’re taking what we’ve learned and incorporating it into our work. We hope it makes a difference. We also hope you’ll take the time to focus on your own development and take part in one of our programs. We’d love to hear how we’re doing.