An expanded definition of leadership

As the world has come to terms with this strange year, each of us, as an individual and as a leader, has been forced to look within and focus on the essentials. Earlier this year, as the world outside slowed down, it offered the opportunity to observe the world within, to define what we truly hold as important, and learn to operate from there.

While we strip away what is non-essential, these times have demanded that in parallel, we expand who we are as leaders. The leader archetype of the past – a charismatic visionary who knows all the answers – is no longer valid in the new world of today. While some aspects of who we need to be as leaders continue to remain relevant, they are no longer sufficient in themselves, and need to include a greater sense of our humanity.

I offer here some thoughts on how we can expand the traditional definitions and behaviours of leadership, to include that sense of humanity. And in so doing, create the space for everyone else to live their humanity as well.

Vision, with purpose

For very long, vision, mission and values have been lofty statements put up on office walls, sometimes with very little bearing on the lived experience of each individual in the organisation on a day-to-day basis. However, when times are so hard, it is critical for leaders to be able to connect their work with their purpose in life. Why am I here, and why am I doing the work I am? Plugging into something larger than oneself can create the energy and resilience to deal with the challenges of difficult times.

When Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever, their CEO Jostein Solheim had the option of a big promotion into Unilever’s broader organisation. However, his personal purpose connected with staying at Ben & Jerry’s, and doing that perhaps enabled the organisation to maintain its own mission-focus, despite being part of an international behemoth.

And it also enabled the same sense of purpose to be felt organisation-wide. Each individual was able to feel personally connected to the organisation’s purpose, and to know how what they do each day is contributing to its realisation.

Presence, with authenticity

While traditionally, leadership has been associated with traits such as charisma and inspiration, today more and more the need is for leaders to be more real, more human, more fallible. What people need is not a leader whom they can admire from afar, but someone they can identify with, who isn’t perfect, but is striving with them.

Jacinda Ardern is a wonderful example of leading with authenticity. In times of crisis, she responds from a deeply human place. Authentic leadership isn’t just about being who you are. But it involves ‘acting in concordance with… deeply held values, even under pressure’ (Claudia Peus et al). She demonstrates how authenticity has the power to create trust and confidence, and to unite people in pursuit of a shared cause.

In addition, when leaders model authenticity, it allows for authenticity to flow through the rest of the organisation as well. A lot has been written about the power of diversity, and its impact on multiple critical metrics such as innovation and financial results. The true benefits of diversity can accrue only when each person has the permission to fully be themselves, and voice what they truly believe. 

Courage, with vulnerability

Leadership has often been associated with the ability to take risk under pressure and to have the courage of conviction. However, in times of crisis, it becomes clear that no-one has all the answers. And so, it becomes critical to blend courage with vulnerability.

In fact, Brené Brown, who has spent decades studying courage and vulnerability at work, believes they are two sides of the same coin. She goes on to say ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity’.

Former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, has spoken often about vulnerability being one of the most undervalued characteristics of leadership. Coming back to take over the reins when Starbucks was struggling in 2008, Schultz had to admit the failures and mistakes that the leadership had made to the rest of the organisation. But while it was tremendously hard, he says in some ways it unleashes you.       

And if we can bring it to work, we can unlock deeper relationships and engagement, more open communication, greater innovation, and a culture where it is okay to admit mistakes and therefore, problems get identified earlier.

External awareness, with self-awareness

And finally, in addition to understanding the environment, and key trends that shape their organisation’s strategy, leaders need to develop an internal awareness of their own selves. Understanding personal patterns, fears and blocks is the first step to growth.

Self-belief is important, yet what is far more critical, is that it is grounded in awareness. Self-awareness involves understanding our own identity, emotions and responses, as well as the impact we have on others. This is what enables us to respond from a place that capitalises on our strengths and helps us manage or compensate for our weaknesses.

The common thread that runs across each of these is to create space in our leadership for our fundamental human quest – of knowing who we are and what drives us, and allowing it to show up at work. Living our humanity allows us to unlock our unique potential. And as we give ourselves the space to become fully who we are, we allow everyone around us to do the same and live their full brilliance. And this, I believe, is the true key to a better world.

About Shweta Anand Arora

Shweta Anand Arora is the founder of The Core Questin. She is a Leadership and Life Coach, who works with leaders across the corporate, social enterprise and non-profit space. Shweta holds an M.Ed. from Harvard University, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and is a graduate of Coach for Life, USA.

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