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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with AMA Culture hive

Reflecting inwardly on our values, motivations and mistakes is hard - but make the effort and you'll be rewarded with greater self-belief and genuine agency, writes Auriel Majumdar.

A photo of a person doing press ups

Anyone who has ever attempted to improve their physical fitness knows that exercises to develop core strength are an essential part of any workout. A strong core helps us run faster, make dynamic, controlled movements and supports our balance and stability. Not to labour the metaphor but developing a strong a sense of our individual agency – the sense of being in control of our own destiny – might be the psychological equivalent.

As our internal agency grows, so too does our confidence in ourselves, our creativity, decision-making and our ability to influence the world. And in today’s volatile and uncertain contexts, these are the qualities that we as leaders need to face the challenges ahead. But where does this strong psychological core come from and how can we develop it in ourselves and others?

Hand over power

The term ‘locus of control’ is used to describe the degree to which people believe they have control over the events in their lives. People with an external locus of control see outcomes as outside of their influence – determined by fate and independent of their hard work or decisions. Conversely people with an internal locus of control believe they can have an impact on the world around them through their efforts.

First and foremost is making time to think and reflect

If you ever catch yourself wishing that members of your team could be more proactive it might be worth reflecting on their probable locus of control. It’s possible that what looks like lack of initiative might be masking a lack of agency. Perhaps they feel disempowered and unable to influence what’s going on around them? So then as a leader, the challenge is to grow our team members by helping them take control and see that what they do makes a difference.

Maybe start small but incrementally hand over power for ideas generation, for action and reasonable decision-making. If your teams experience first-hand what it feels like to be in a position of influence this can shift their locus of control. Imagine giving all your team the option to ask for £150 to pursue any micro-project they want, as one arts organisation did recently. This approach brings with it some risks and takes some nerve to implement, but the potential rewards in terms of staff development are great.

Clarity of purpose

The future world of work is likely to be very different as we become increasingly digitally enabled and the climate emergency starts to bite. More and more we will need to move away from a command and control model of leadership. Modern leadership is about creating clarity of purpose. It’s about forging connections and about encouragement so that our people can be innovative and independent thinkers, capable of negotiating through complex situations. Clearly this requires us to have our own strong core, a certainty that we may not always feel as things around us change rapidly. So how do we develop our own strong sense of self and maintain it in challenging times?

First and foremost is making time to think and reflect, treating this as a necessary priority like you might think of going to the dentist. Developing the discipline to reflect on our practice means that we will have space to think about what drives us, what suits us and supports us to work best. Being clearer about our own values and motivations means that we will finely tune our moral compass. Reflecting on mistakes means that we will continue to learn from our experiences rather than racing onto the next ‘thing’ - and there’s always a next ‘thing’ around the corner. A clear-sighted self-awareness is the key here. The trick though is not to tip into harsh self-criticism as this can paralyse and de-motivate. Celebrate and build on what you do well, work on what you do less well (or delegate it.).

A way forward

In practical terms you might consider these questions:

  • When in the week can you set aside a regular time to do some uninterrupted reflection?
  • Think about the things you have done and how they went. How much were you in control? If external forces drove you, what impact did this have on you?
  • On reflection, what would you carry on doing and what do you want to do differently next time?
  • What are you going to do next?

Simple reflective questions like these can help restore your confidence and feeling of personal authority. Asked regularly they can support you to be more thoughtful about the things you do and how you do them.

The Ancient Greeks had a saying ‘First know thyself’ and centuries later, self-knowledge is still the route to inner confidence that you can make choices and have control over your actions. To some extent, the understanding that we can choose our behaviour and responses comes with age, but imagine how powerful it would be if we could realise this earlier in our careers. The psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his beautiful book Man’s Search For Meaning “everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. To have a strong core, to develop a strong and functional sense of internal agency is to set ourselves free to do our best, most purposeful work.

Auriel Majumdar is a creative coach, coach supervisor and consultant specialising in leadership and personal development in the creative sector.

Find out more on internal agency in a new series of blogs and vlogs by Auriel Majumdar and the award-winning journalist Nell Block at AMAculturehive. The first in the series, New Year, New You, sets the scene and the conversation continues in February and March with a practical and insightful look at Letting Go of Perfection, Imposter Syndrome and Getting Your Voice Heard.

This article, sponsored and contributed by AMAculturehive, is part of a series sharing resources and learning from the online library for the sector.

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