Finding leadership: My journey so far

Finding leadership: My journey so far

My week at Insead, as part of the IWF Fellow Program—which I talked about here—has further enriched me as a person and as a professional. I went into this experience with a mix of feelings, mainly curiosity, vivid interest, openness, and generosity toward the other 30 women fellows that I was going to know in person for the first time after one year of hard, online work.

My desire was to create a peak learning experience useful to help our organizations and the communities we live in thrive, and I am happy to report that my positive spirit and our high energies were well rewarded. Among many things, I learned about being a self-aware leader, and I will be always grateful for this “consulting and coaching for change” executive program. As I strongly believe in knowledge sharing, here are my main outcomes.

The executive education week touched 5 areas: leadership decision making, leading effective teams, feedback and coaching, leading across cultures and the networked executive.


We learned how we think and how we make decisions, both as individuals and in groups and in situations where there is a lot of uncertainty and limited time. We learned how to deal with different forces from a psychological standpoint to avoid pitfalls, how much risk to allow and how to improve how we frame our decisions. We reflected on how others perceive how we make decisions, and we discovered that there are no actual gender differences in the decision-making process. I was really intrigued by the last point, as it helped me understand that oftentimes decisions are made according to perceptions instead of reality.

We learned that decisiveness and compassion are among the top leadership traits that matter most. Decisiveness is often linked to men and their strategic, decision-making process, while compassion is often linked to women and their “taken for granted” supporting, decision-making process. Our perception of women in leadership positions is that of being too participative, searching for compromises with an ability to nurture and support others and often too emotional, while men are seen as more assertive, forceful, good negotiators and willing to take risks. Men and women can both be intuitive and analytical, strong yet humble, have similar cognitive bias and look at successes and failures in the same way. What matters most is how we see ourselves and how we self-promote! Let’s challenge the gender confidence gap.

I strongly believe each manager should dig deeper into his/her personality, behaviours, perceptions as well as into the judgement we use when we face challenging situations, either alone or in groups.


I have three main take-aways from this session:

  1. Always put your decision into the big picture
  2. Be ready to challenge your beliefs
  3. Have at least one devil’s advocate

Overconfidence is a big risk when we lead teams and are in a decision-making position. The importance of seeking feedback as a remedy and challenging strong convictions—thanks to contrarian and divergent positions—are of great help to make effective choices/decisions. The same is true when it comes to challenging assumptions given for granted and never questioned. But the secret weapon is the ability to ask questions—even tricky ones—and listen to the opinion of others, collect conflicting views and different judgements that can inform our final decision. Diversity of team members matters just as much as individual ability.

So, what should a leader do? Use the collective intelligence and framework as collaborative learning, create the potential for disagreement, acknowledge our own fallibility, be curious and ask lots of questions. High-quality decisions will be the great output of such behaviour.

A good tool that can help us deal effectively with our people is DiSC. It provides the support needed to communicate more effectively, work together more productively, and become a positive leader.


What does it take to become an authentic leader? How can I get people to trust and follow me? These are the two questions more often asked by executives, and with good reason.

In addition to qualities like being a visionary, being energetic, providing strategic direction and being authoritative, a leader must be able to have empathy: to show a human touch, to reveal fear and frailty, to understand and track people’s soft power and to show empathetic charisma. What makes us special is the ability to mix these qualities and adapt our style to the moment and the interlocutor.

The leadership style, however, does not reflect our personality. In fact, it is the opposite that is true. The most successful leaders do not use just one style of leadership, and nor do they have just one personality trait. They are skilled in several leadership styles, and they know how to move from one to the other, depending on the circumstance. The journey of leadership development requires a fair amount of self-scrutiny and a lot of practice. Similarly, personal development requires change and shifts at multiple levels.

I remember taking a training course years ago to improve my coaching people and feedback style, especially when providing constructive feedback. It’s the Situational Leadership of Ken Blanchard, and I completed the course during six different moments/years of my career. Choosing the right leadership style for the right people and moment is a major key to success.


Success depends on the ability to navigate through the different cultural realities of how people think and get things done. Unless we know how to decode other cultures and bridge cultural gaps, we remain vulnerable to inefficiency, teams unable to work together and deals that fall apart. To be able to influence counterparts from around the world, we need to measure and understand national beliefs and individual behaviour.

Culture is to groups/teams what personality is to individuals. Understanding different leadership styles helps us adapt the communications and approaches to be most effective with the specific cultures we are interacting with daily. As I wanted to deepen the topic, I read in one breath “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer, which helped me learn to better influence colleagues and clients, develop strategies for improving multi-cultural teamwork, communicate more efficiently with internationally-based colleagues and increase my ability to build trust and negotiate. Understanding the context (low or high), the evaluation system (direct or indirect feedback), the ways of building trust (task-oriented versus relationship-oriented) and the comfort with silence are critical to shaping strategy for leading global teams.


An effective networking activity takes time and constancy. Some tips to keep our motivation and be intentional with this strategic task? Network smarter not harder, establish your reputation via more closed networks early in any new role, find a well-connected and respected mentor/sponsor. Who really made the difference in my learning path were my teachers, whom I once more would like to thank for the incredible journey: Natalia Karelaia, Veronique Doux, Elena Foggiato, Erin Meyer, Noah Askin.

Fiorella Passoni is CEO, General Manager at Edelman Italy and International Women’s Forum 2020-2022 Fellow

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