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  • Liz Cruz

Self-Expression in Leadership: What Is It + 3 Activities You Can Do to Improve Yours

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

This isn’t the leadership model you grew up with

Think of a typical leadership model. What does that look like to you?

Is it hierarchical?

Is it one where emotions get left at the door?

Is it one where you have to choose between being ‘work-you’ and ‘real-you’ often?

Makes sense– that’s what most of us have seen in our professional environments. So thank goodness things are changing (more on that in a bit).

In this post, we’re diving into the second composite dimension of emotional intelligence: self-expression. We’ll talk about each of the three skills of self-expression, and I’ll share an activity you can work through to improve each of those skills.

Then I’ll also invite you to continue the conversation on this with me– because this work is so critical to your leadership confidence. And as a coach for queer leaders, I’m here to support you wherever you are in your leadership journey.

I can't *express* enough how excited I am to share this stuff with you– here we go!

What are the three skills of self-expression in leadership?

The graphic of the Self-Expression composite area of the EQ-i 2.0 along with the three related skills. It says Self-Expression Composite, Emotional Expression, Assertiveness, and Independence.
The graphic of the Self-Expression composite area of the EQ-i 2.0 along with the three related skills: Emotional Expression, Assertiveness, and Independence.

1. Emotional Expression

Do you remember that:

🥳Presentation you gave when your boss finally listened to you and implemented your ideas?

😄Meeting you had with your team that you were able to relate to everyone and build trust?

🙂Conversation you were nervous going into that ended up bringing you closer to your colleague?

I bet you do– and go you. 👏🏾 Because to relate to others and share your thoughts you would have needed to use your emotional expression skills.

Emotional expression is our willingness to share our emotions with the people around us. The EQ-i 2.0 defines it as “openly expressing one’s feelings verbally and non-verbally.” [1]

Earlier I asked you to think about the leadership model you’re used to seeing. Emotional expression in leadership is becoming much more expected now though– and here’s why.

Gen Z in particular is expecting emotions to be a part of the conversation at work in ways that might be different from the leadership model you know. This article by Jeff Haden features an interview with Dr. Steven Stein of Multi-Health Systems (MHS) Inc, where Dr. Stein emphasizes how valuable using your emotions as a leader is when working with Gen Z. [2]

Want to work on your emotional expression but not sure where to start? I’ve got you– take a look at this activity I recommend (BTW, I do each of these self-expression activities often with queer leaders like you).

  • Activity #1: Think of other leaders you admire

  1. Find a video (or two) of a leader you admire (One of mine is Alok Menon)

  2. While watching the videos, take notes on how they show what they’re feeling

    1. What words are they using?

    2. What does their body language look like?

    3. What facial expressions are they making?

  3. After watching, reflect on what you could try to put in place to help you come across as a more emotionally expressive leader. [3]

Maybe you’re thinking “This sounds good and all Liz, but I’m anxious about doing this in my work environment.” I get you– and that’s why we’re talking about assertiveness next.

2. Assertiveness

Are you someone who finds your worth in life within your career achievement? Do you value safety in your environment so that you avoid conflict at work?

I’ve been there too– believe me.

Here’s the thing– when you do find the courage to assert yourself, you will find yourself in conflict. Hopefully, that conflict is healthy and productive. But for so many of us, even just the idea of conflict is scary enough that it keeps us from being assertive– which is another essential self-expression skill.

Assertiveness is defined in the EQ-i 2.0 as “communicating feelings, beliefs, and thoughts openly, and defending personal rights and values in a socially acceptable, non-offensive, and non-destructive manner.” [1]

But I think many of the words in that definition of assertiveness are kinda loaded, don’t you?

The definition there doesn’t reflect how I talk about assertiveness with my coaching clients. I talk about it as being willing to share your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs even when it might be a little risky to do that. It’s also about being able to do that in a way that helps folks engage in a conversation with you. I like that this article from the Mayo Clinic Staff highlights that being assertive in the workplace shows that you’re willing to work on resolving conflicts and making things better. [4]

Assertiveness is a challenge that shows up in my practice all the time. I recently spent a good amount of time with a client working through these exact struggles (so you’re not alone).

I see folks who struggle with their assertiveness. They have a harder time sharing what they think, feel, and believe. This has a lot to do with the messages we get from society that tell us our voices and opinions don’t matter. So how do we push back on that?

The challenge of assertiveness comes from asking yourself “How do I work through all the things that tell me it’s not safe to share my opinion and find ways to do it anyway?

If you’ve been asking yourself that question, that might be a signal to you that having a conversation with me about this would benefit you. If it’s hard for you to speak up or share your opinions at work, this is definitely a self-expression skill we can work on together.

Here’s the activity I recommend to get you started.

  • Activity #2: Keep a mini-journal

Make a list that looks like this:

​Times I Took a Passive Approach

Times I Took an Aggressive Approach

Times I Took and Assertive Approach

Use the list to track what the situation was, how you were feeling, and any other thoughts that come up. Try to look for patterns and any behaviors that will help you practice being more assertive in the workplace.

3. Independence

Okay, this last self-expression skill is crucial for queer leaders in particular. Why? I’ll show you.

Independence is about recognizing your own emotions without the effect of the emotions that are happening around you. The EQ-i 2.0 says that it’s “the ability to be self-directed and free from emotional dependency on others.” It’s also about being confident enough in yourself to make decisions without needing a lot of involvement from other people. [1]

That doesn't mean you don’t need to feel appreciated. It doesn’t take away from your need to have reassurance sometimes. The key here is that you have the skills you need to take care of yourself, assure yourself, and self-soothe when you’re feeling anxious.

Queer leaders– pay extra attention to what I’m about to say next.

I want you to make sure you don’t get stuck when navigating independence and interdependence. And that’s so you can avoid shouldering everything yourself without asking for help. It’s okay to ask for help out there. Check out this article by Dr. Lynda Reid that shows how to find the just-right balance between independence and interdependence. [5]

Now let’s look at the self-expression activity I recommend for working on independence.

  • Activity #3: Reflect on these questions

I know how tempting it can be to ask for extra input before you make a decision. But the next time you’re faced with a decision, I want you to try to take the time to ask yourself these questions:

  1. How will having more information help me make a decision?

  2. What will I decide if no one is available to help?

  3. Why else might I be looking for help besides additional input?

These questions can help guide you if you’re feeling like you could use some support in bolstering your emotional independence. This is also another skill I work with leaders like you on often– so you’re in good company again.

A group of people of varying genders work in an office, with a focus on a non-binary person writing on a notebook.
A non-binary person thinking through a task independently while working closely with several colleagues.

Want to connect with those leaders on self-expression? I’ll talk about that next.


Building radical confidence isn’t easy work. Improving your self-expression in the workplace can be anxiety-provoking for a lot of reasons. But you don’t have to do it alone. My core belief is that you are inherently brilliant. And you can learn to be more self-expressive as a leader.

Want to be part of a community of other inherently brilliant leaders like you?

Come on over to LinkedIn and connect with me. I share lots of leadership tips and engage with leaders at all levels there.

Self-expression in leadership is a skill that’s here to stay– and it’s my joy to help you in that journey.

Links to References


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