The Dark Side of Spa Leadership

If you’ve been working hard at your business goals & outcomes this year but still don’t see any measurable success, it’s likely the problem lies in a more profound issue you may not be aware of.

Or maybe you are aware of it...and have been choosing to ignore the message.

If you choose to read any farther, you will become aware of the real work you need to do and therefore, have no excuse to ignore it any longer.

If you just can’t seem to get yourself to the next level, I assure you...you’ve been struggling to activate the power and principles of your leadership, which at its very core is fuelled by self-confidence.

It’s not surprising though. In the most ironic twist of fate, although the spa business model is designed for us to be the stewards of our client's self-worth and to nurture their confidence, it’s never been any good at nurturing our spa talent to grow into great leaders.

How is it we spend our careers uplifting our clients yet the culture among us rarely seems to support turning inwards for self-awareness, self-governance, and resilience...the foundation of healthy leadership?

There are considerable gaps within the trifecta of being in-service, business outcomes and inspired leadership when it comes to being a spa entrepreneur.

In my 20+ years as an esthetician, spa owner and now business coach, it's clear to me why owners are frustrated continuously with their business growth.

It doesn't have anything to do with marketing, new treatment techniques or product lines. The issue goes way more in-depth than the latest business pivot you’re thinking of making.

Maybe it’s because we’ve rarely, if at all, have had positive leadership role models in the spa industry. If you’ve been in the biz for any length of time, you’ve gotta admit as far as leadership goes, it’s been the blind leading the blind for well...forever.

As an employee, I’ve personally experienced pettiness, gossip, back-handed comments, dirty looks and manipulation from an employer. And it was never a surprise when a few staff started mimicking this behavior. I remember my dad, who worked in upper-level management in a Canadian crown corporation, told me when it comes to leadership, “shit rolls downhill”. I laughed at the time, but wow...was he ever right.

Maybe it’s because we’ve watched teams cannibalize their company culture with negativity while the owner passively stands back, afraid and not knowing how to handle the chaos. Of course, the poor behaviour continues until other team members get fed up and leave, clients don’t come back and the staff that stays lose motivation.

Not only have I've “been there” as an employee, I admit I was there as an employer too.

When I first started with staff, I made a whole bunch of mistakes. One of the big ones was being afraid of how to approach difficult conversations with two of them causing drama, whipping the spa culture into a dark and toxic mess that started polarizing teammates and guests alike. I felt paralyzed, powerless and frustrated - wondering how this had happened and if I had the confidence to fix it.

But there were other issues in my business too. Sure I was the boss, but my inconsistent leadership was taking a toll on my revenues in more ways than I thought; we were struggling with consistent bookings, retail sales were at an abysmal 7%, and I was totally cash-strapped.

Looking back, I realize I was deep into the dark side of leadership.

You see, even though I was doing boss-like stuff (creating staff schedules, managing the day-to-day, paying the bills, writing the paychecks, and stocking inventory) I wasn’t leading my team well at all.

The truth is when conflict arose, I instantly felt insecure about my boundaries and leadership skills. And if I’m to be completely open with you, once I realized I was compromising my leadership with my team, I saw all the other places I was letting things slide. Without a doubt, the dark side of my leadership was affecting my business growth.

What are the characteristics of the dark side of leadership? Even though it's difficult to acknowledge our shadow self, I invite you to look at this list and be honest with which ones are showing up for you...

  • Insecurity
  • Perfectionism
  • Loneliness
  • People Pleasing
  • Victimization
  • Disempowerment
  • Manipulation
  • Driven to Prove
  • Inauthenticity
  • Lack of Trust
  • Arrogance

So how did I shift from boss to leader and rectify the negativity that was destroying my business?

I had a moment of reckoning.

I was tired of complaining about my staff problems to my family and friends. I was embarrassed by the behavior of my “problem staff” and myself for allowing it. I was tired of feeling powerless. I was tired of working hard but getting one step forward and two steps back. I was tired of crying about it...tired of my mind spinning at 3 am...tired of feeling like a failure.

I got to the point where the stress, sadness, anxiety and mental exhaustion of my business just had to STOP. I couldn’t do it anymore.

I had to make a choice. Right then.

My inner dialogue went something like this…

“What do you want Kirsten: How bad do you want your business to succeed? How bad do you want to make a difference in the lives of your clients? Tell me, Kirsten...What. Do. You. Want? And how much does that choice mean to you? What are you willing to do for it? Oh ya? Ok. Then step forward...both feet... and do the right thing: lead with conviction of your purpose, no matter what."

In that moment I knew with absolute clarity how committed I was to my purpose and I instantly felt the lit-up, on-fire, on-a-mission COMMITTED energy.

Which meant I had some work to do. Lots of work, actually. Which I was ok with because this clarity had just re-engaged my soul’s purpose to help women uncover their confidence and self-worth and it didn’t feel like work at all.

Ok, some days it still felt like a lot of work, but it was a labor of love rather than one of resentment.

But make no mistake, even though the decision to change my leadership style had been made, at the time I had no clear path. I didn't know exactly what to do next.

All I had was a deep knowing that my confidence, boundaries, and responsibilities are in alignment with my purpose and values, which immediately ignited my problem-solving skills.

I realized I needed help, sought it out, paid for it, dove in with relief and got to work.

I created a staff handbook, complete with a desperately needed disciplinary system, to set clear expectations with my staff, designed a training program, so the guest experience was consistent no matter which esthetician they had and developed ongoing leadership action steps for myself to sustain coaching and supporting my team.

Why do we do buy into the dark side of leadership?

There are many reasons why you choose (consciously or subconsciously) to ignore the call to step into your Leadership.

The most significant barrier, in my opinion, is that our emotional mind (our faithful Ego loves to worry you at this point - that you’ll have to *gasp* change) takes over when we’re faced with the opportunity to up-level anything.

This is my favorite clip of Brene Brown describing how we often cope when our Ego is triggering guilt, shame and vulnerablity.

The Ego isn't keen for us to change without putting up a fight.

Our Ego is a defense mechanism of the mind to protect us from *something* terrible happening and will throw every horrifying thought we’ve had about ourselves right in our face...

“You’ll fail...again. Do you want to go through that embarrassment?”

“People will judge you. Better not shine too brightly.”

“You’re no good at leadership. Your clients and staff will look at you with pity/annoyance/anger for trying.”

But here’s the thing. When you consciously agree to become a better leader, the leader you’re meant to be, it means you are choosing to work at your highest level, despite the risk of failure.

That choice requires self-awareness, courage, bravery, vulnerability, trust, resilience and precise values. And you’ll most likely need to tell your Ego, kindly but firmly, “It's ok. I've got this” to allow your inner wisdom to emerge.

What does it take to embody healthy leadership?

Leadership requires a considerable capacity for self-awareness. This means looking at your thoughts, beliefs, and actions and being objectively honest about how they’re contributing to your business. Without self-awareness, you’re doomed to keep repeating your mistakes.

Leadership needs self-governance; choosing how you’ll show up, even when you’re most triggered and want to lash out or run away and hide.

Leaders understand there’s no “arrival” to perfection, that the learning never-ends and making mistakes is part of learning.

Leaders understand how to apply their influence to inspire their team and community by aligning their values and actions with compassion and a willingness to collaborate on growth rather than dictating, manipulating or avoidance.

Now that you know...what's next?

It’s incredibly painful to reflect on your leadership only to realize that the problems of your business are almost 100% of your own creation.

But it’s also at this point when we need to allow an arm full of grace into our situation. It’s not like you meant to be a crummy leader, you just didn’t know any better.

If your leadership isn’t achieving your business goals, it’s not serving you, your team or your guests one bit.

It’s time to make a decision. What's it gonna be?