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Emma Mills-Sheffield

Mindsetup Ltd

Strategic Business Consultant & Coach

Read more from Emma Mills-Sheffield

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Leadership: Why the world needs emotionally intelligent leaders now more than ever

Good leadership needs empathy, humility and vulnerability.

Being a leader is a privilege and not all managers automatically make good leaders. It’s easy for managers and employees to fall victim to poorly implemented organisational career tracks and find themselves unsupported with a manager who isn’t a good leader. What, then, does good leadership look like and why it is so jarring when we experience bad leadership?

Many businesses strive to support their employees to be innovative, creative and empowered, but without the right culture in these businesses from senior leadership down to the team level it’s difficult to create this.

There will be people we can all remember who brought out the best in us, but also those we dreaded having a conversation with. So what makes them different?

In this article I’ll explore the argument that empathy, humility and vulnerability is at the heart of good leadership.

Working on the leader first

Building resilience, managing inner criticism and addressing ‘imposter syndrome’ are all-important areas for leaders to understand. It’s very difficult to build an honest and trusting relationship with others if the metaphorical walls are up around you.

Leaders who understand their skills, strengths and areas to work on honestly will be more attuned to the needs of others. There’s a saying about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others, which is important from a wellbeing perspective but also from a place of awareness. If you can see your blind spots, you’ll be aware of areas you can work on to be more wholehearted and open in your leadership.

How humility and vulnerability builds trust

Building trust is a two-way relationship, and leaders need to lead by doing and not telling. Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly says that “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage”. She talks in-depth about the practice of wholehearted leadership and building human connections.

To sit alongside someone who is struggling and listen to them without judgement, recognise emotion and feel with them is open, honest and empathetic. The person who projects their own feelings is judgemental and feels for someone is sympathetic and actively driving disconnection. Connecting with someone and listening is one of the most powerful and honest acts of building trust. For someone to open up to you, as a leader you are privileged as an employee is putting their trust in you.

Communicating with empathy

Active listening and understanding more than what is just being said to you during an appraisal or one-to-one is really important for someone to feel valued and listened to. It’s a skill that doesn’t always come easily – there has to be a human connection. You have to deeply care.

To develop this, I would recommend exploring the approaches developed by educator, author and businessman Stephen Covey. He talks of the need to “seek first to understand, then to be understood” in his fifth habit of the popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The listening continuum, which he later discusses, develops listening skills that progress at their best to empathetic listening. It takes practice to develop this skill and use it naturally, but it’s a vital skill for a good leader and one worth working on.

Creating a culture of support and growth in your team

Many businesses strive to support their employees to be innovative, creative and empowered, but without the right culture in these businesses from senior leadership down to the team level it’s difficult to create this. If employees are unable to try something new for fear of failure or being blamed, or to suggest innovative ideas for fear of being judged, then growth will stagnate as people do what they always did, and often quietly without speaking up.

Building a culture of trust and accountability will open up the way for ideas, creativity and innovation to flow. By communicating openly and empathetically you’ll create a space for healthy challenge, support and growth.

Can it be learnt or is it an innate skill?

There are many coaching and mentoring models available but can you just pick one? A destructive trait is that of a manager who ‘does coaching’ as if it’s a tick-box exercise. Not only can it be damaging to the employee, but if these poor habits are left unaddressed, this approach can be cascaded through many interactions and people. Company culture can be detrimentally altered if good coaching and leadership skills aren’t at the forefront.

By adopting a practical mentoring and coaching approach, that can be learnt alongside listening actively, and having a desire to coach others, managers can be helped to become leaders. Moving from just telling someone to do something to coaching needs a change in phraseology and approach. The inexperienced manager may be keen to show their skills and experience and simply tell someone what to do. In contrast, one experienced in coaching will encourage the employee to think about the solution they might put into place to succeed and gently guide them as necessary.

Leading through and after this pandemic

As we emerge from working through a pandemic, leadership styles may flex. This is perfectly normal, as a more directive style is often needed and appreciated during times of crisis. Once we settle on the other side of the crisis curve, however, leading with calmness, using open communication and working on a human-to-human level will stand leaders in good stead. Directive leadership doesn’t need to be dictatorial, but it needs to be strong, decisive and consistent.

For instance, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is often cited during the coronavirus pandemic as leading with kindness, empathy and strength. She acknowledges her nation’s struggles with empathy and is consistent in the way she leads. This consistency builds trust and clarity that during a challenging time is critical.

One thing is for certain – our collective experience during this pandemic is changing the way we view leadership. It is becoming more widely recognised that empathy, humility and vulnerability all have a key role to play.

Interested in this topic? Read Ego, eco and intuitive leadership: a new model for disruptive times.

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Author Profile Picture
Emma Mills-Sheffield

Strategic Business Consultant & Coach

Read more from Emma Mills-Sheffield

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