A Recent View On Leadership

Image Credit: Empathy Project Cornell University

I’ve recently had an opportunity to observe two leaders, both women, demonstrate qualities that reflect core elements of what is needed in leadership today—elements that we feature in the Transformation Collaborative’s™ Leadership Discovery Program. It’s truly a pleasure to watch.

I mention their gender because my sense is that women, when allowed to play to their strengths, are more naturally attuned to how leaders bring value in today’s environment, which has become far more about empowering success in others, than it is about traditional male attributes of dominance, unilateral decision making, confidence over competence, devaluation of emotion, and other traits that, over time, tend to alienate people more than support engagement and personal growth.

In traditional organizations, women have historically had to act more like men, which is not only problematic in terms of the behaviors women have had to emulate, but also because those behaviors often engender deep dissonance for the women themselves. Traditional models of leadership were and are arguably misplaced even in previous operating environments, but today, particularly with Gen Zers and millennials, who have chosen not to buy into much of the nonsensical expectations and compromises of earlier work environments, traditional models of autocratic leadership are not just ineffective, but often detrimental, both to organizational outcomes and the people in them. Beyond generational issues, we are all living in a socio-economic system that, by design, creates chronic stress and conspires against wellness. Employees bring that distress and resulting mental health challenges into the workplace, which has a direct impact on the kinds of leadership choices that generate engagement and productivity vs. those that exacerbate disconnection and limit employee contribution.

At the Transformation Collaborative™, we believe that leaders in today’s environment generate the greatest, most valuable outcomes by maximizing human capital, including mining leadership capacity in others, by supporting their personal growth, self-discovery, emotional intelligence, health, wellness, & resilience, compelling people leadership, and commitment to supporting success in others in the context of clearly defined moral imperatives—i.e., doing what’s right actually matters. While both men and women can lead in the way described above, it is probably clear to most readers that, women, if allowed to follow their intuition and natural proclivities, are much more closely aligned with the leadership values and traits identified by the TC than are men. One can question how much of that is innate vs. socialized, but the end result is that women are typically more attuned to things such as emotional intelligence and supporting growth and self-discovery in others. They are more naturally empathetic and nurturing (and socialized to be so) than are men, and as unusual as those concepts sound in the context of traditional leadership, they have become critical to effective leadership now and in the future. Relatedly, my sense is that, typical organizational dynamics aside, women are more comfortable achieving success through others and feel less need to take credit for what those around them achieve than are men.

As both an executive and a psychotherapist, I have experienced the irrational and detrimental attitudes toward simply being human in organizations fostered by traditional leadership models and I’ve seen the devastation in individuals who’ve lived, in some cases, entire lives, in denial of their most basic humanity. In men, traits such as empathy and vulnerability have traditionally been seen as weakness and it’s probably impossible to calculate the damage that has caused for men and the people around them. Although people of any gender can be deeply wounded when they are forced to sacrifice authenticity for acceptance, in my counseling practice I regularly see the devastating effects on men, often who have been seen (and seen themselves) as bullet-proof and hyper-masculine, who eventually can no longer sustain the dissonance and pain of denying their reality and their humanity. I mention this not just because I observe it, but because it’s germane to any discussion of leadership today.

It’s one thing for leaders to develop traits and choose behaviors that are simply ineffective. It’s another thing entirely to follow a path that is actually damaging, both for the leader and the organization they lead.

Back to the two female leaders I’ve had the pleasure of recently observing, their primary focus on people, rather than process or “numbers,” has resulted in deep engagement and commitment to their respective organizations on the part of people who work for them. In some cases, this goes beyond employee retention and includes a human connection that engenders deep gratitude and loyalty. In a time of dramatic turnover, “quiet quitting,” and what Gallup has noted is a crisis of disengagement among employees (less than a third of American employees are engaged at work), it is absolutely essential that leaders support human needs in others if their organizations are going to succeed. No leader, no matter how technically talented, driven, committed, etc. can come close to achieving what the people they are leading can collectively accomplish given the right support. And if those people are not engaged, then the organization will only achieve a small fraction of what would otherwise be possible.

In short, the Transformation Collaborative™ is passionate about its leadership model because it is based on building leader capacity to drive transformative change & innovation, value creation, deep employee engagement, sustainability with a focus on human factors, and organizational health & wellness. We don’t see “employees” or “labor” or an expense line on a P&L. We see people, who, at their best, not only succeed professionally, but thrive as valued, valuable human beings! Leaders who can contribute to that achieve something far beyond traditional measures of success. They also create meaning and purpose for themselves, which doesn’t depend on external validation and is far more sustainable than traditional markers of success.

Note: Because all organizations operate within a societal context that still values money, growth, power, and competition, and typically defines “success” within the same framework, leading based on the humanistic model described above requires no small amount of courage. It requires leaders to take the long view, which most boards, investors, etc., do not, regardless of what they say, and it requires leaders to achieve operational metrics indirectly, by empowering people, who then achieve metrics as a result of their commitment, engagement, sense of purpose, etc. In brief, in the myopic, short-term, numbers driven, zero sum context in which many organizations operate, leaders can be punished for doing the right thing, even if they ultimately also achieve performance goals. It can be a lonely journey, but being a force for good is a much better way to live.

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