I was once told that I carry a large sword with me wherever I go. I asked what was meant by this remark. My boss at the time said, “Well, whenever you turn even the slightest, that sword hits quite a swath of people along the way”. What I was being told was that I needed to be very deliberate and aware as to when, where and how often I “turn” as it has quite a large effect on scores of individuals in my “sword’s” path. I always remembered that metaphor, especially when I found myself in leadership positions where any expression, utterance or rendered decision would impact hundreds, if not thousands, of people – be they employees, consumers and/or shareholders.
It is hard for people to justify and understand that humility and empathy are the cornerstone behaviors for effective and authentic leadership. Leaders are under tremendous pressure to drive results, please everyone, always be right and never feel stressed. Heck, leaders are never supposed to even sweat or go to the bathroom for goodness sakes! The Type A personality has long been revered and written about ad nauseum where the strong, driving (historically usually male), lead-from-the-front type would ride in on a horse and save the day; single handedly, barking orders, never satisfied at any of the results presented to him by his team. Those role models still exist in people’s minds and experiences and they obviously have had their share of success.
Today (or so we thought) people have turned the page on that type of approach to leading organizations. Servant leadership and its many forms, have become the new way, especially with the post-baby boomer era of individuals who seem to be much more worldly, wise and confident in their abilities right out of college. People want more than salaries and bonuses and being constantly berated for the pleasure of having a job. Employees want meaning and understanding. They want development and fulfillment. They still want to get paid what they are worth (and they should, especially women) and advancement, but they want it on the right terms, with leaders who listen to what they have to say, really care about what they have to contribute and truly understand what is important to their constituents. You cannot lead this way without healthy doses of humility and empathy.
One person cannot know everything and will never always be right. All humans are flawed and have limits to their intelligence, their memory banks and the skill sets and amount of knowledge they have acquired (with a maximum of 24 hours each day). It is time everyone absorbed these facts and opened themselves up to a world of perspectives, cultures and points of view that will help them resolve all the issues they face. A leader’s main task is not to single-handedly come up with every solution, but to facilitate an environment where the right solutions present themselves and to recognize when and how to apply those solutions.
This is where the election of Donald Trump fails us today. In this era of servant leadership and effective leadership through humility and diversity, his example is one of an opposite and archaic variety. He feels that he alone can fix all of America’s, and indeed the world’s, problems. He is brash and bold and supremely confident in all his pronouncements and executive orders. He and his team have little experience in governing or leading effectively. This is not a political statement. This is a leadership statement. I have witnessed this type of leadership before and even 20-30 years ago it only carried you so far before great people left or the message became worn and thin and organizations and brands withered.
Today, I do not believe Mr. Trump’s approach will work well or sit well. An embrace of humility is not a sign of weakness but a signal of supreme strength and confidence. Admitting you are either wrong or do not know the answer is a sign of maturity and understanding far beyond what our predecessor-leaders showed. People want to feel connected to their leaders more than ever. Allowing yourself to be human and fallible in certain moments helps foster that connection as more followers will be able to relate to you.
In this increasingly complex, connected, global village we live in, diversity of thought, experience, skill sets and points of view is the only way to resolve some of the most vexing situations organizations face. Leaders who embrace this approach will succeed over time. The only leaders who can effectively appreciate, embrace and leverage this approach are the ones who possess healthy doses of humility and empathy.
I would advise Mr. Trump to try it. He may like it (and himself) better.