The most important skill to learn for your leadership career – how to move from reacting to responding

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Learning to move skilfully from react to respond is our life’s biggest learning journey. And it is at the heart of great leadership. It is all about moving from reacting to people and events, where we are swung around by the tail of things we can’t control, to responding to people and events in a way that serves us and those around us well. We can’t always change people or change the world but we CAN change how we respond to what we get delivered. And ironically that will change the world. So, how do we do that?

Understand what skilful leadership really is

We need to remind ourselves that we are in control of our emotional responses.

This is your life, your career, you get to choose how to do it, so do it with skill. Click To Tweet

In my coaching of male and female executives, I find many women in particular believe becoming skilful, so as to become successful as a leader, requires:

  • Becoming more like a man
  • Being a fake
  • Selling out their values and principles
  • Clawing their way over other women

That is not what is required. You know why? Because none of those things actually work. Sure, in a world where female leaders are still relatively rare and largely seen through a masculine ‘agency’ lens it is different for women, but by no means impossible, to be skilful, high impact and operate authentically. Real human agency is our capacity to make choices – remember, your life, your career, your response to people and events.

Moving from react to respond requires becoming aware and skilful. Being skilful requires you to become a thoughtful, informed observer of yourself and those around you, as well as learning to listen and look without threatened ears and eyes.

Why is this important for women leaders?

Because it’s not a fair playing field. Decades of social science research evidences that our paradigm of leadership still defaults to a model that is masculine in nature, so it feels more ‘natural’ to experience men as leaders. And when women exercise their leadership this can often be experienced (by men and women) through that lens, which means women in leadership roles are, for example:

  • Expected to look after everyone as well as the business
  • Scrutinised on looks to a greater extent
  • Held to a higher level of performance
  • Interrupted and talked over more
  • Finding their own gender socialisation signalling non-leadership attributes (e.g. sitting small, softening language etc.)
  • Having the same behaviourg. confidence and anger judged more negatively than if they were men

My point is, what do we do with this information as our awareness of such unfairness builds? To both the men and women who are reading this, what to do with those rising hackles? Those automatic reactions that come from a place of threat and fear? Let’s practise responding. This is simply data, information. We get to choose what we do with these facts – it can either fuel resistance, denial, anger, remorse, helplessness and outrage, or it can simply inform both our understanding of the evolving world and inform our skilfulness. Your choice.

What is your leadership awareness and skill now?
To be able to move from react to respond we need to work on our awareness and on our skills. Click To Tweet

Have a look at the table below and plot where you might be. Have you observed others on these axes of awareness and skill?

By Awareness I mean awareness of yourself and your reactions, the self-awareness that informs your self-management. It also covers your awareness of the social and organisational terrain within which you operate.

By Skill I mean being able to intentionally deploy behaviours that navigate the personal and organisational terrain you understand well, while skilfully managing yourself.


where you want to be a leader of people but there is no visible path, or the means to get there is opaque. For example, Deborah came to me convinced she was hopeless. Naïve about the organisation and with little self-awareness, she was disappointed in herself and her career telling herself she just didn’t have what it takes to be the leader she aspired to be. She had spent several years getting more qualifications and wondered why this wasn’t helping.


where you can be working very hard but not necessarily at the things that will make a difference to your leadership or your progression. Take my client Jane. She volunteered for everything that needed organising, was great technically at her job, yet her busyness didn’t enable her reputation as a manager. People liked her and rated her expertise, but didn’t take her seriously as a leader.


where you know what is going on around you but don’t have the skills to navigate the organisation or manage your own reactions so can stay stuck in victim mode. This is like my client Melinda, who came to me having just finished her Masters and her dissertation on gender diversity. She had spent years becoming acutely aware of the subtle, unconscious biases presenting challenges for women in leadership. Stuck in ‘it’s not fair’, she was tired, resentful and angry, using her knowledge to explain her lack of progression rather than inform her skill as a leader.


where people are comfortable in their own skin, able to manage themselves and keenly aware of the environment they inhabit. AND you like and trust them. They are skilful at managing themselves and reading and navigating people and the organisation. They make it look so easy! Yet it is the result of much hard work. I worked with Anna for several years as she became more comfortable and skilful with her powerful leadership self.

How to move to being your more confident and powerful leadership self

Of course, no one fits neatly into these boxes, we all straddle and move along these axes as we develop and progress in our careers. But I have found that those who understand the framework and do this deliberately and with intention, get to the top right quadrant sooner. All of the women described above were able to move towards being a more confident and powerful leader by dialling up their self and organisational awareness and practicing the skills necessary to make the leadership impact they aspired to. All of them learned to move from react to respond. Here are some headlines about how you might go about it.

5 things to help you to become more aware

  1. Really get to know your strengths, learn how to deploy and amplify them
  2. Get to know, understand and manage your reaction ‘triggers’
  3. Learn from the decades of leadership research about how you are ‘received’
  4. Learn to manage your reactions so you can respond appropriately
  5. Pay it forward by being the role model you always wished you had had

 5 things to help you become more skilful

  1. Get to know the terrain, organisationally and socially
  2. Figure out your ‘why’ for being in this leadership role. It fuels your courage to learn
  3. Learn to manage your emotional responses
  4. Practise and get feedback
  5. Pay it forward by being the role model you always wished you had had

Don’t expect it to feel natural, as Professor Herminia Ibarra says,“The moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us about leading effectively”.

Pay attention to your attention

It is very easy to get stuck along our way to the sweet spot of high awareness and high skill. Sadly, a lot of the obstacles thrown at our feet are put there by us – by what we choose to believe and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are good at and what others think of us and most importantly by what we pay attention to.

Building awareness and skill has at its heart noticing what you are paying attention to. So, what are you paying attention to? Click To Tweet

Seriously. What?

  • Your negative preoccupations?
  • Your social media feed?
  • What others are doing or achieving?
  • Whatever turns up in front of you?
  • What you don’t have, or did poorly?
  • …?

Your most precious resource today is your ATTENTION and it is being barged in on from all sides. Everyone and everything is fighting for your attention (it is built into many business models). But it is a limited resource and one we need to be fully aware of so we can be deliberate about how we deploy it – where attention goes, energy flows. This is your attention, your life, your career so you get to choose how and where it is allocated. For the next few days just notice and write down what you are paying attention to in an average hour, then check in about whether this is where you want to be spending your attention on an average day.

What you pay attention to will define your life because it will feed your priorities, it will determine how people experience you and it will fuel your resilience. So choose what you pay attention to wisely.

Changing the leadership model for a better future

What will change the world (to one where we won’t need women leaders to be such tight-rope walkers) is when women being in leadership roles becomes more normal. So we owe it to our granddaughters, nieces and goddaughters and their daughters to flourish in our leadership roles so that in a few generations’ time we might just shed those gendered leadership stereotypes that have been millennia in the making. Not to mention for all the boys and men who want liberating from masculine leadership stereotypes so they too can be the fabulous leaders the world needs, and their daughters and nieces and goddaughters and their children…This requires our becoming skilful today so we can be the confident and powerful role models that will encourage the women coming behind us to embrace their leadership aspirations.

I believe the golden thread running through ALL leadership development is how skilfully we can step from react to respond. So learn to manage yourself and your impact because we can change the world by changing how we respond to it. Why? Because by moving from react to respond we change how we operate in the world, we shift the quality of our thinking, the quality of our discourse, the quality of our relationships and in so doing, we leave a fingerprint on the world. Time to make your mark – with awareness and skill.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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