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Sharpen Skills with Action and Attitude

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Leadership is practiced in actions and attitude more than in words. Appreciate hard work, humility and empathy. At their core, relationships drive leaders and followers.

Hailing from different yet related arenas, Winnie Sun, Sonya Smith-Valentine and Deirdre Breakenridge discussed their perspectives on leadership and how to succeed.

A “wealth whisperer,” Sun is a regular contributor to CNBC, Forbes, Good Day LA and founded Sun Group Wealth Partners.

Smith-Valentine is a personal and business financial expert and motivational speaker. She founded Financially Fierce, which helps employees improve productivity by reducing financial stress.

Entrepreneurs turn to Breakenridge for the latest word. A communications strategist and public relations and marketing storyteller for more than 25 years, she helps executives “find their voices, power up their stories and create relationships with the people who matter.”

With varied industries and needs, leadership is not one style fits all.

“I lead with communication,” Sun said. “When you work hard, fast and with a team, things can be misunderstood quickly. Put things in writing, talk things out and engage with opinion and discussion. A leader is zero without a strong team.”

Breakenridge’s approach is more academic.

“As a professor, in the college classroom — not my day job — for the last 15 years, my leadership style is inclusive and reflects an immersive learning environment,” she said. “My company’s culture reflects that we’re all ‘forever students’ learning together.

“Listening, engaging and co-creating is a part of my DNA,” Breakenridge said. “It shows in interactions with clients, whether it’s one-on-one or working in group training sessions.”

Smith-Valentine stretches as far as possible.

“My leadership style is inclusive,” she said. “I seek input from team members and give them chances to lead.”

Great leaders learn their trade. Kings and princes are born leaders, and that often didn’t turn out well in the days when monarchs had real power.

“I’m sure some people are born leaders, but I can say for a fact I was not,” Sun said. “I learned so much from my previous managers and from reading tons of books on leadership through the years.”

Smith-Valentine allows for possibilities of born and created leaders.

“I think both happen,” she said. “A few spectacular leaders are born. Most are cultivated. We all know someone who wasn’t a leader earlier in life but who grew into a leader through studying, reading and learning.”

The surrounding culture greatly influences how leaders are made.

“People can be born with innate leadership qualities,” Breakenridge said. “At the same time, leadership can be cultivated through your years of experience.

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“Leadership develops with each new experience and through different perspectives,” she said. “Making mistakes, failure and tackling tough obstacles all help a leader to learn, develop and grow.”

Sun believes present-day education does a good job of cultivating leadership.

“My kids are taught to speak publicly from kindergarten and to treat each other with kindness, which builds on empathy,” she said. “But taking risks, standing out and leading are things we need to teach at home.”

Such interactions take on added importance as high-school grads tackle the world.

“Professors and peers can be good leadership role models,” Breakenridge said. “Leadership can be developed in the classroom. Leadership is also learned in the work environment from supervisors, mentors and through leadership training programs.

“With all of the mentors on social media,” she said. “Community members teach leadership, too.”

Although schools offer leadership potential, reality is another story.

“It depends on where you live,” Smith-Valentine said. “Some school systems do a great job of this, and others fall short.

“Some teachers encourage leadership in their students and help them to soar,” she said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen at all schools.”

Successful leaders spend a good percentage of time studying or learning from others.

“I’m a work in progress,” Sun said. “With less time, I spend more of it reading, scanning eBooks and watching videos. I learn from others now more than spending time with other leaders. I interview a lot of them on my show. That’s a priceless education.”

Smith-Valentine spends more time studying, reading and learning than she does on leading, which is her self-admitted detriment.

“The more you study leadership, the less you have to spend on actual leadership,” she said. “People will follow your lead automatically.”

Breakenridge finds lines blurring, but takes consolidation with varied forms of mentoring.

“Every day brings something different for a leader,” she said. “It’s hard to break down into specific parts or buckets when you’re leading and when you’re learning.

“Most of the time, when you are leading, reverse mentoring is going on,” Breakenridge said. “When you’re leading your team, you’re also listening and learning from them. Reverse mentoring is a great way to learn from younger pros who can give you a different perspective.”

One of Sun’s goals is to make her team feel more empowered and appreciated.

“Most leaders — myself included — have control issues,” she said. “We like things done a certain way. I think we need to cultivate talented individuals and give them the opportunity to lead projects, tasks and eventually us, too.”

Breakenridge emphasized that when teams receive credit, they feel empowered.

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“When you include your team more in conversations and act on their suggestions, they feel appreciated,” she said. “The best way to show your team that you care about what they share is to use their feedback.”

Leaders improve their communication skills to be more effective. This involves techniques to inspire more challenging discussions or less-responsive team members.

“Leadership communication is a trained activity,” Sun said. “A team functions best when they know what to expect from leaders.”

This is especially important as team members search for their voice.

“Listening is an important skill — not just listening to formulate your response but active listening that requires your full attention,” Breakenridge said. “Leaders have to be more present in their interactions. You can’t have conversations with your team when your thoughts are somewhere else.”

Likewise, Smith-Valentine urged everyone “to listen more than we talk. We need to try and use less emotionally charged words.

“I have learned to treat employees — regardless of their position — as human beings,” she said. “Speak to everyone. Say hello. Engage.”

Sun and Breakenridge echoed with their own leadership lessons learned through their careers that have had the most profound effect on their style.

“Much of what I learned about leadership, I learned in school,” Sun said. “However, to really lead successfully, I learned from countless entrepreneurial experiences. One of the best lessons was from my previous manager at Smith Barney. He was a remarkable communicator.”

Breakenridge favors the hands-on approach.

“Doing is the way I learn the most — especially by making mistakes,” she said. “Big mistakes are learning moments that propel you forward.

“I also love reading,” Breakenridge said. “I have a long list of business and motivational books, mostly written by the authors who come on my podcast.”

A strong leader is good, but do multiple leaders become too much of a good thing?

“This is such an interesting question,” Sun said. “I would think it doesn’t matter how many leaders there are as long as the message is consistent, regardless of who you speak with. Teams need consistency to flourish and trust leaders.”

Cooperation is the key.

“More than two leaders can cause problems,” Smith-Valentine said. “If two of them can work well together, it can really help a team move forward.

“Most times, though, one leader is best,” she said. “If that person is a great leader, the direction of the team will be clear.”

That circles back to effective communication.

“When it comes to your performance and feedback, it’s helpful to have different professionals weigh in as a part of the leadership team,” Breakenridge said. “Then you are being evaluated and learning from the best.

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“When taking directives and acting on initiatives, having too many leaders — or cooks in the kitchen — who are not on the same page can be challenging,” she said.

Sun takes her cue leaders who are active online.

“I follow my corporate heads on social media,” she said. “I like entrepreneurs and leaders who value their team, are kind toward their clients and community, and who value people across the board.”

The leader’s journey never ends.

“Leadership development should be ongoing,” Breakenridge said. “You don’t stop learning when you become a leader. If you stop learning, you become obsolete.

“Leaders need to sharpen their skills by balancing their strength, courage and vision with emotion, empathy and inclusion,” she said. “Influencer blog posts, business books, Learning LinkedIn, videos and TEDx talks are all great ways to learn through others to enhance your leadership.”

While there might be pressure to become leaders, not all people fit that role.

“Some people are better suited to be followers instead of leaders, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Sun said. “However, I believe everyone has some leadership qualities if given the opportunity to shine.”

Actions are more important than the parts team members play.

“Whether you’re a leader or a follower, you’re learning and growing together,” Breakenridge said. “There is a place for everyone to excel as people hone their individual skills.”

In Sun’s view, leadership entails fortitude, generosity, empathy plus a lot of hard work. At the same time, Smith-Valentine urges leaders to groom new leaders.

“Leaders have to listen and be open to different perspectives,” Breakenridge said. “They have to take time for self-care. If you don’t care for yourself, you won’t be able to lead anyone.

“This is one of the hardest lessons to learn,” she said. “I used to deplete myself completely as a younger leader. Now, I understand why sleep and good health is so important. As a leader, show gratitude every day. Don’t take anything for granted.”

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Jim Katzaman
Jim Katzaman is a manager at Largo Financial Services. A writer by trade, he graduated from Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and served for 25 years in public affairs – better known in the civilian world as public relations. He also earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Public Affairs. Since retiring, he has been a consultant and in the federal General Service as a public affairs specialist. He also acquired life and health insurance licenses, which resulted in his present affiliation with Largo Financial Services. In addition to expertise in financial affairs, he gathers the majority of his story content from Twitter chats. This has led him to publish about a wide range of topics such as social media, marketing, sexual harassment, workplace trends, productivity and financial management. Medium has named him a top writer in social media.

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