It’s that time of year when the world seems to become, at least for a while, a little bit kinder, a little more grateful, a little more hopeful. We take time to step outside ourselves and consider ways big and small we might express our love and appreciation for those who are an important part of our lives. We do so in ways big and small, in holiday celebrations, in cards and letters, and most of all in gifts thoughtfully chosen based on the passions and interests of those receiving the gift. We find joy in the connection, in giving and receiving, in celebrating relationships which enrich our lives and make us whole.
I have been thinking about the spirit of the holidays and the contrast of that spirit with how so many leaders approach relationships in the context of their professional lives. For many, “strong leadership” is defined by the ability to take charge and direct others through raw power and leverage in order to assure that I “win” and advance my interests with little regard for how others are affected. Accountability is defined as applying pressure to those not living up to our expectations with the threat of negative consequences if continue to fall short. They associate “bold leadership” with those who use their positional power and coercive authority to bend others to their will.
Those who approach organizational relationships collaboratively are described pejoratively as having “soft skills” which may help people feel better but are assumed to be less effective in getting things done. In addition, their collaborative approach is often perceived as unreasonably slow as it searches in futility for solutions which will make everyone happy. The word “soft” is often translated as “weak,” on the assumption that concern for the people impacted by a decision impedes one’s ability to make the “hard” decisions.
I think it is time to reject these outdated notions and reframe our thinking around what makes for bold, and effective, leaders. It is time to get rid of the notion that being effective at understanding the needs of those upon whom success depends and building solutions which respect those needs is a fuzzy, “soft” skill. It is time to get rid of the false narrative that collaborative leaders turn the prison over to the inmates while the directive leader makes things happen through sheer force of personality and brute strength.
The flaw in that conventional narrative is that it ignores the reality of what is required to create and sustain exceptional performance. Most business endeavors, by their very nature, can only be accomplished through the integrated effort of multiple functions centered on a shared goal. It follows, then, that to create sustained success, the legitimate requirements of all those essential to that success must be addressed.
Forced compliance through the exercise of coercive power or positional authority while neglecting the legitimate needs of core functions only lasts as long as those functions don’t have other options to either equalize power or leave the organization. In the meantime, they are likely to produce the minimum required for compliance and take the kind of destructive actions which are often the last resort of victims of coercion. We have all seen the difference in performance between those who are committed and those who are merely compliant.
Exceptional leaders recognize the reality of interdependence and master the skills needed to find dovetailing solutions which advance the organization’s shared goal in a manner which respects the needs of those upon whom success depends. It is not a matter of being nice. It is not a matter of accommodating what people want. It is a matter of building understanding and passion around a shared goal and purpose which resonates with those essential to its achievement.
It requires cultivating among the essential functions a shared respect and appreciation for their interdependence. It involves digging beneath each stakeholder’s “preferences” to understand the underlying needs and issues those preferences are intended to serve. To do that requires empathy and inquiry, borne of kindness and a genuine concern for and appreciation of those who are part of the team. It demands a high level of creative thought to move beyond a debate of preferences to the design of solutions which advance the shared goal in a way which respects the needs of all.
These skills are not “soft” by any means. They are behavioral skills but sophisticated ones which cultivate trust and inspire people to move beyond self-interested advocacy to shared creativity. They depend upon integrity of thought and character to help align others around the shared goal and to recognize the importance of their interdependence. Leadership of this caliber requires exceptional drive, relentless optimism and persistent curiosity to see possibilities which lie beyond conventional thinking. It demands courage and a willingness to risk failure in the pursuit of the exceptional.
The Daughters of Charity, a group of religious women who have built and run hospitals, schools and social service agencies all over the world, follow the principle of “Strong Gentleness, Gentle Strength.” The strength is in their uncompromising resolve to adhere to their values and drive relentlessly toward their vision of service. The gentleness comes in the manner in which they engage those with whom they share their work, approaching them in kindness, believing in their goodness, and seeking ways to understand and address their needs in order to come together in service of that vision.
So as you celebrate this holiday season and experience the joy of connecting deeply with family and friends and sharing gifts which show our loving concern for one another, consider how you might bring that spirit back to work with you in January. Now more than ever we need to come together to find innovative ways to address the challenges of our time. We have little hope to do so if our business relationships are based on positional power and formal authority. If instead they are based on loving concern and mutual respect, leveraging the power of kindness, we can unleash the remarkable capacity of the human spirit.