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What Leaders Need Right Now

Since October, I’ve been engaged in a mini-research project trying to understand the needs of the leaders I serve. I had a hunch that their needs were changing as the environment shifted dramatically around them this past year – the ongoing pandemic, the “Great Resignation”, political divisiveness, etc.

I’m excited to share the results of this mini-research with you! And I apologize in advance to those of you blog readers who don’t geek out over data like I do. What you’re about to see is a little glimpse of Irene, the scientist, playing in her laboratory.


My main motivation for undertaking this research was to get a deeper understanding of what leaders need right now, especially now that I’m no longer a salaried school leader myself. Thus, I reached out to leaders that I respected in education, nonprofits, and public service, and asked them two questions: (1) What challenges and wishes are most alive for you right now? (2) If you could wave a magic wand to create a professional development opportunity for yourself that you haven't yet seen but desperately need (workshop, conference, TED talk, program, etc.), what would it be?

With this data, I can focus my support to what leaders need right now. I have a blog that, by some miracle, over 200 of you are subscribed to. What should I be writing about? I’m designing an online course. What should the content be? I’ve been doing more and more public speaking. What topics would be most resonant to leaders in the audience? With these questions in mind, I launched into scientist mode!


(Note: Skip this methods section unless you are a data geek who loves to know how the data was collected and analyzed.)

All the leaders I spoke with are do gooders who passionately serve others, All are visionaries seeking an authentic, confident voice that can inspire others to their cause. I spent 30 minutes with each leader diving deeply into the two research questions above, and took copious notes on everything they shared. At the end of each interview, I offered them a gift of my service – an hour of one-on-one coaching for them or a stress resilience workshop for their team. Ultimately, I interviewed a total of 30 individuals: 5 men, 25 women, all mid-career professionals in their 30’s to 50’s.

One of my interviewees teaches an Organizational Leadership course at the community college and offered to ask his students the question, “If a workshop, class, or TED talk could be developed just for you, something you haven’t seen or found elsewhere, what would you wish for?” 46 individuals responded to that query.

As I explored the data, I realized that I was curious how well the needs raised by this pool of interviewees reflected the needs of my existing clients, and also, how well those needs matched my own passions. So I added two other sections to the spreadsheet: a listing of the current goals my one-on-one clients in 2021 paid me to support them with (17 clients in all), and a listing of all the blog posts I wrote in 2021.

I analyzed the data with a very rough, definitely unable-to-withstand-peer-review thematic analysis. I entered all my notes into a spreadsheet, generated initial codes based on commonalities between interviewees, and refined those codes until I had a total of 25 codes. For instance one person said: “What is a good way to approach your boss if you are feeling overwhelmed with your workload? I feel if I say something to my boss it will sound like I can't do my job or sound weak. But there are times when I feel like I am drowning.” That person’s response was coded: burnout, productivity, feedback, relationships, balance.

Once all the data was coded, I pulled out themes by looking to see which codes were correlated. For example, how many times does a statement coded “productivity” also get coded burnout? The answer is 70% of the time. Interestingly, how often does someone who struggles with “productivity” also mention “diversity” or “belonging”? That answer is zero! I ended up with a big table with a ton of numbers. I moved the columns around, bunching those codes that were most closely related to each other together. It was fascinating to see the data clump together into three big themes.

(I apologize in advance to my statistics professor who I’m sure is rolling over in his grave. I could have done something more rigorous like calculating correlation coefficients with r values, but that would have made my brain hurt. Plus, a blog post like that would be no fun for anyone to read except my statistics prof. I also self-coded and self-analyzed all the data in a not-even-close-to-double-blind sort of way. There’s certainly bias in the analysis. But the purpose of this mini-research project was for me – and you – to learn what leaders need right now. To that end, this is good enough.)


All that work resulted in some pretty data tables and graphs! Bonus, I had so much fun playing with data that I find fascinating personally and professionally.

Table 1 shows each of the 25 most common challenges or wishes (aka codes) and how frequently they were mentioned.

Three codes were especially common:

  • Belonging - Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that after nearly two years of pandemic-driven disconnection nearly half of all leaders surveyed mentioned a desire for connection and belonging. This code showed up consistently across interviewees, organizational leadership class students, my clients’s goals, and my blog posts:

    • “I want an authentic, deep, spiritual community, where I really feel heard and seen. I want to be with other global minded change makers. I want open ended inquiry and support on my biggest challenges and wishes, in a group full of appreciation and affirmation.”

    • “I’d love a TED talk on managing working from home in a team aspect because you can’t motivate or support each other as well when we aren’t together.”

    • “Even though there’s many things to celebrate, negativity is like a black cloud hanging over everyone. I can't lean on others and feel connected with all the finger pointing, blaming, and defensiveness.”

  • Relationships - Many leaders were struggling in their professional relationships. This was more common amongst interviewees and leadership students than with my clients. Issues like new hires, drama, conflict, hard conversations, and dealing with a challenging boss or employee came up multiple times:

    • “There’s too many staffing shortages, changes, and shifts. Like I just got a new boss. How can we build and sustain partnership with so many transitions?”

    • “How do I work in teams as an introvert?”

    • “I’d love more information on dealing with people who are not self motivated.”

  • Burnout - And finally, over and over, leaders, particularly the interviewees, shared stories about just how stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed they felt. The root cause of that stress varied greatly from person to person:

    • “I’m so busy that I’ve lost my center.”

    • “It’s been a demoralizing start to the new school year. I’m seeking sustainable self care systems but can’t keep the habits up.”

    • “I struggle with stress as it relates to diversity / inclusion -- handling the stress that comes from being a woman in a male environment, or younger person among older workers, or ethnic minority in a mostly white environment.”

Table 2 shows how each of the codes correlate with one another and the themes that emerged from them. The darker the color, the greater the correlation.

The codes clustered into three themes:

  • Work-life (doing) - How does a leader juggle all their responsibilities without burning out? For instance, 74% of leaders who mentioned work-life balance also mentioned burnout. The correlation to burnout was also incredibly high with productivity (70%), creativity (69%), habits (65%), and boundaries (50%) as well as in and amongst these different codes.

  • Relationships (interacting) - How does a leader build relationships and find/create a sense of inclusiveness, safety, trust, and belonging for themselves and their teams? This category pulled together codes like retention, teamwork, belonging, relationships, negativity, divisiveness, judgment and diversity. The tightest correlations were between divisiveness & relationships (85%), diversity & belonging (83%), negativity & relationships (82%), feedback & relationships (77%), divisiveness & belonging (77%), and negativity & belonging (76%) though there were many others in this general theme with correlations over 50%.

  • Identity (being) - How does a leader find their vision and voice and lead with authenticity and joy? This category centered on a leaders’ wants, wishes, vision, confidence, mindset, and positivity. This category wasn’t nearly as tightly clustered. It seems lots of different things contribute to a leaders’ identity as you can see by how spread out the blue is across the table. Some of the strongest correlations were between wants & vision (67%), wishes & vision (60%), positivity & relationships (57%), wants & wishes (54%) and judgement & confidence (53%).

Finally, Figure 1 shows the codes arranged into a Venn Diagram I sometimes share with clients seeking a career transition.

The design of this Venn Diagram was first published in the Toronto Star and I shared a modified version of it in a blog post on Two Ways to Forge your Leadership Compass. Many career coaches (including myself) use this tool to help leaders zero in on their passions (the intersection between what you love and what you’re good at) and their purpose (how passions intersect with what the world needs, and hopefully, that’s also something you get paid for). I sorted the codes into four categories based on how frequently they showed up in different categories:

  • Codes in my blog posts were put into circles for What I Love & What I’m Good At (Passion)

  • Codes in interviews or with organizational leadership course responses were put into circles for What The World Needs

  • Codes that showed up in my client’s goals were put into circles for What I Get Paid For


It was clear after just the first few interviews that belonging, relationships, and burnout were the biggest issues of the day (Table 1). Interestingly, the burnt out, stressed out leaders weren’t usually the ones seeking support with relationships and belonging or vice versa. Overwhelmed leaders tended to be in survival mode – just trying to make it from one day to the next without drowning. In contrast, leaders that were worried about relationships and belonging were wanting to thrive. They dreamed of a day when they could be fully staffed. They dreamed about being together, in person, connected to their team. They wished for less divisiveness and more positivity. The way in which the color codes of Table 2 sorted out naturally into two different clusters makes it clear that Work-Life and Relationships are two distinct themes, with only a little overlap between individuals.

The remaining theme, Identity, swept up all the other correlations, and cut across codes in a really interesting way. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Identity is so personal. For some identity may have more to do with being able to creatively live into one’s vision. For others, it may have more to do with finding positivity and joy in one’s relationships. And for others it may be realizing one’s wants and wishes.

What I did not anticipate was just how well these three themes mapped onto the three forms of synergy that I’ve been talking about for months: work-life synergy, relationship synergy, and identity synergy. I promise that I didn’t try to force the data into these buckets. I literally stared at my data table for 10 minutes, barely moving, when I realized that the three themes that naturally emerged from the data mapped onto the three forms of synergy.

Then, the next day, I had another moment of staring for 10 minutes. I was reading Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, How to Begin. In Chapter One he describes how our big, worthy goals tend to fall into one of three classes: Project goals that have a focus on “doing”, People goals with a focus on “interacting”, and Pattern goals (meaning your patterns of behavior and how you show up in the world) with a focus on “being”. That’s the three forms of synergy described in such a clear concise way! Sometimes the universe puts in front of you exactly the message you needed to hear at a specific moment. Thank you!

The take away is that leaders right now need support in their doing (Work-Life), interacting (Relationships), and being (Identity). And while there is much overlap between these themes, it’s useful to consider these three categories separately if you are actively supporting do gooder, change maker, visionary types like I do. Which theme do the people you support struggle with most: doing, interacting, or being?

I took a long hard look at the ways I support my people in Figure 1. I discovered that my one-on-one leadership coaching clients tend to have goals primarily in the Identity (being) realm while the leaders I interviewed tended to have challenges or wishes in the Work-Life (doing) or in the Relationships (interacting) realm. Moreover, Figure 1 shows a long list of topics in the yellow zone that I don’t write about frequently in my blog, and aren’t a natural passion, but would really help support rising leaders right now. Looks like I have some work to do!

Read More

For some guidance on finding your purpose at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for, check out this blog post I wrote last year on Two Ways to Forge your Leadership Compass.

And even though I’m only four chapters in, I can definitely recommend Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, How to Begin, if you want to set some goals to improve your doing, being, and/or interacting.

Going Further

If you want support with your doing (Work-Life), then join my new online course, Leadership Boot Camp! There’s one more month of FREE access to survival skills like destressing, staying on task, and managing your to do list and email. After that, just $200 will deliver four more months of content that digs deep into Work-Life doing and begins growing your Identity and being.

If, you want support with interacting (Relationships) you have two options. The Synergy Leadership Mastermind offers what one leader I interviewed wished for: “a place to rumble in a safe place on the really hard topics in a like minded community.” Alternatively, if you are seeking adventure and connection with female leaders in real life, I’m hosting an in-person women’s leadership retreat, The Heroine’s Journey, in gorgeous Mendocino, California over Memorial Day weekend.

Finally, if you or someone you know wants to grow your being (Identity), then reach out to me to explore whether one-on-one coaching might be right for you. Contact me and we can set up a time to connect.

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