A new vision for leadership
It feels as if a fresh breeze is fluttering through the sails of leadership thinking. Over the last few years, there has been a steady stream of books and articles which highlight qualities which, until recently, would not have been seen as part of the core skillset of a leader. The trend is all the more powerful because it is underpinned by extensive research, as well as showcased in TED talks and on forums such as Linked In. Thanks to social media, these new thinkers have visibility and a large following, which in turn means that their ideas are spreading fast.
What is this new thinking, and why is it so different?
1. Introverts also make great leaders
Traditionally, leadership has been viewed as an extroverted activity. At first glance, more extroverted personalities seem to have what it takes: charisma, a love of teamwork, little fear of public speaking, natural warmth and expressiveness. Although we know that there are examples of highly successful, introverted leaders, it is easy to assume that these are exceptions to the rule.
Susan Cain, in her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World Which Won’t Stop Talking, demonstrates that these assumptions are incorrect. She cites a whole series of examples which indicate that many of the most successful CEOs have been introverts. In fact, Cain argues, introversion can help leaders to better read their co-workers, to show humility, and to carry out the hard, solo graft which is needed to run an effective organisation.
It’s important to clarify what ‘introversion’ is and what it is not. The term was first used by Jung in his book Psychological Types, published in 1921, and it refers to the way in which we recharge our inner ‘batteries.’ Introverts need some time alone for reflection and recovery, whereas extroverts are able to recharge through social interaction. Susan Cain’s work makes it clear that introverts practise ‘quiet leadership’. This does not mean that the office door remains closed all day long, and introverts can enjoy the company of others as much as any more extroverted person. Most importantly, this style of leadership can be highly effective in terms of organisational performance.
For more about Susan Cain’s work, see the website for her organisation, ‘Quiet Revolution’: http://www.quietrev.com
Also, don’t miss her much-viewed TED talk: http://go.ted.com/CRHP
2. Leaders need to have presence
On the face of it, this quality doesn’t sound so surprising. We expect leaders to have ‘presence’, and to be able to dominate a room full of people. Amy Cuddy’s definition of ‘presence’, however, is a far cry from the image of the leader who is the loudest voice among a group of loud voices. As she describes this in her recently published book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, this quality is more closely related to self-knowledge and authenticity:
Presence stems from believing in and trusting yourself – your real, honest feelings, values and abilities.
Cuddy views presence as composed of two elements: ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’. As leaders, we all hope to convey an impression of competence. No one wants to be thought not up to the job. This is one of the key errors of leaders, according to Cuddy, who outlines research which suggests that warmth is the most important of the two qualities.
To illustrate, Cuddy describes the experience on placement of some students at the Harvard Business School. The students have ten weeks to make a favourable impression on the placement organisation, with the hope that they will be invited back after graduation. Where the student tries too hard to impress in terms of competence, Cuddy explains, the organisation tends to conclude that he or she does not value relationship-building sufficiently and future employment is not offered.
3. Kind leaders are better for organisations
We all know that authority is central to leadership. In practice, and particularly in new leaders, too much focus on appearing authoritative can translate into a distant and impersonal approach. In addition, new leaders may feel under pressure to toughen up, and not to show signs of weakness. To those around the leader in question, this behaviour can be perceived as intimidating, rather than professional and stimulating.
Emma Seppälä, writing in the Harvard Business Review, takes on the ‘dog-eat-dog’ approach which can pervade received wisdom about leadership – https://hbr.org/2014/11/the-hard-data-on-being-a-nice-boss. She argues that leaders who pit one team member against the other, believing that this stimulates healthy competition, generate stress and fear rather than excellent results. The answer, according to Seppälä, is to promote compassionate behaviour in the workplace, as well as ‘interpersonal kindness’.
This also makes sense in terms of our physiology. The ‘fight-or-flight’ response is triggered by situations we perceive as threatening. This has consequences for both body and mind, and it can result in irritable, snappy behaviour, as well as impaired cognitive ability. The outcomes of an uncompromising managerial style can be far from from the original intention. In a further article in January of this year Seppälä quotes multiple research sources which demonstrate that a kind and caring culture is valued more highly by employees than a large salary – https://hbr.org/2016/01/to-motivate-employees-do-3-things-well.
This tells us that organisational culture really does matter, and talented employees will change jobs to find the environment they are seeking, not just a better deal. For leaders, promoting kindness as a key workplace value is a good place to start.
More about Emma Seppälä’s work at this address: http://www.emmaseppala.com/about/
4. Listening is a key leadership skill
Although listening is a skill we all understand and practise in our daily lives, it can be surprisingly difficult to do it effectively. It isn’t easy to avoid jumping in with words of agreement, reassurance or disagreement, often before the other person has finished speaking. And yet, when we manage to really listen to others, without judging, it is an intensely powerful experience for both parties.
‘For leaders, listening is a central competence for success’, writes Ram Charan, describing GE’s decision in 2010 to list good listening ability as a central requirement for leaders –https://hbr.org/2012/06/the-discipline-of-listening. Listening takes time, and this can be challenging for leaders operating in an increasingly pressurized workplace. Charan argues that the art of ‘disciplined listening’ can still be mastered, even when time is at a premium.
Effective listening involves self-restraint, but it is also an active and demanding process, involving a sustained focus on what the speaker is really trying to communicate. Charan terms this ‘panning for nuggets’. This evocative metaphor describes a gently persistent search for the essence of the speaker’s story, even when the views expressed are at variance with the leader’s agenda. The respect that this conveys can liberate problem-solving energy, paving the way for robust decision-making.
This is not the easy way out!
This is not the comfy sofa of leadership. None of the qualities described above is easy to practise on a day-to-day basis. Living these qualities requires determination and scrupulous honesty. The reward is a vision of leadership in the 21st century which is inclusive, as well as exciting and inspiring because:
- It opens up the leadership sphere to the full range of personality types. Don’t be put off from placing that application because someone has told you that you are ‘too introverted’ to be a CEO.
- It encourages talented women who, culturally-speaking, may be more comfortable if they can make use of these qualities, to aim for the highest level in organisations. Women are seriously underrepresented at C-Suite level. A change in culture could make leadership more attractive to women who have the ability to work in senior positions, but who are put off by a combative ethos.
- It gives both male and female leaders permission to be kind, without being thought weak.
- It highlights a powerful and therapeutic leadership tool – active listening.
- It paints a picture of organizational life which is calmer, and less debilitating, whilst not sacrificing effectiveness or performance.