Welcome to The Work Place, where we’re hot on the trail of what makes great workplace cultures tick, and what we can all do to make the ones we work in better. I’m Andrew Scarcella. This mini-ep, we’re looking at leadership.
How leaders lead their teams, even what they do day-to-day, has changed a lot in the last decade, and even more in the last few months. Not to get all silver-linings on you, but a crisis like the one we’re currently experiencing is the perfect opportunity to reevaluate and experiment with how we lead. Instead of falling back on old habits and traditional mindsets, we need to look forward and intentionally craft a new style of leadership that acknowledges the way the world is today, rather than how the past imagined it would be. A lot of assumptions and deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be a leader are finally starting to fade away—and it’s up to us to make sure their ghosts don’t come back to haunt us.
What’s growing around the roots of traditional leadership is a more modern style that focuses on helping employees succeed, not just their companies. This new kind of leader is more sensei than drill sergeant. They still hire, fire, and make big decisions, but they also help people find meaning in their work and give them opportunities to learn, grow, and lead themselves.
The old archetypes of leadership are well known and well-worn:
There’s the mysterious mentor. Your Yodas, your Gandalfs, your Mister Miyagis.
And the iron-sided drill-instructor. Think Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump, Starship Troopers, and Toy Story.
Side note: since “Sarge” in Toy Story was voiced by the same person that played the infamous Gunnery Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, does that make the Toy Story series part of the Full Metal Jacket-verse? Really explains how dark Toy Story 3 got, though, right?
Next is the exacting visionary. Your Thomas Edisons, Elon Musks, Anna Wintours, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffets, Martha Stewarts, and Dr. Dres.
And last but not least, the charismatic politician. Napoleon, JFK, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Evita, and a whole lot of extremely problematic and prolifically evil leaders we’ll refrain from giving a shout-out on this podcast.
The archetypes of modern leadership are a lot harder to find, to be honest. The old, familiar characters have embedded themselves so deeply within our cultural psyche that new ones are having a hard time finding a way in. It’s no wonder leaders in the workplace have so often mimicked these traditional leadership archetypes. Most times, it’s all they know.
But there are signs that the old ways of leading are unraveling as wave after wave of new hires are thriving more on independence, flexibility, and meaning than structure and authority. Where traditional leaders often alienates employees, modern leaders connect and empower their teams.
How, you ask? We’re still figuring that out. But there are few things modern leaders focus on that help them succeed where their traditional brethren fail.
Modern leaders are mentors.
They don’t want their teams to do as they’re told, they want them to be critical thinkers, innovators. They want them to create their own paths to success without having someone looking over their shoulder. But that doesn’t mean they’re totally hands off. Good mentors are involved and available, keeping their minds and ears open, and offering specific, constructive feedback when needed.
Now, with autonomy also comes the risk of failure. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jay Samit, the author of Disrupt You, makes a compelling—and rather blunt—argument in favor of risk. “I have always told my employees that if they do not fail within the first year of employment, they will be fired. If people are not failing, then they aren’t truly trying to improve something.”
Watching someone fail and not rushing in to save them might seem impossible at first, but it’s all part of being a modern leader. As a mentor, you have to show restraint, resolve, and a keen sense of timing—to let people succeed, and fail, on their own terms.
Modern leaders inspire their teams.
Whether it’s a screaming Scotsman leading bekilted countrymen into battle, or a high school football coach giving an emotional locker room speech to fire up their underdog team, inspiration has always been a big part of leadership. But where old school leaders inspire by appealing to fear, aggression, or a sense of glory, modern leaders inspire through vulnerability and connection.
For a real-life example of modern, inspirational leadership, look no further than Reshma Saujani. If you haven’t heard of her, she’s the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. She was named one of Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders and Forbes’s Most Powerful Women Changing the World, but she’s no stranger to failure. Perhaps the most defining moment of her life is the time she ran for Congress and lost. And not by a little bit.
Reshma sat down with Work Place contributor, Katie Clifford, last year, and while her full interview won’t air for a couple of weeks, I’d like to give you a sneak peek of her talking about that moment. Go ahead, try not to be inspired.
Katie: So when I first heard you speak, you started telling a story about running for Congress. And as you were talking about being this young woman of color, taking on the establishment, where I thought the story was going was an amazing underdog story, and that we were headed for this fabulous upset.
Reshma: Right. Definitely not how it went. Um, you know, my parents came here as refugees. I, from the time I was a little girl I wanted to serve. I found myself $300,000 in student loan debt, uh and instead of serving I found myself working in finance in a job I hated, in a life I didn't want. And I was 33 years old, and I thought ‘God, is this it? Like is this it?’ And my best friend called me and – remember, you know, your best friend always calls when your life is falling apart. And I walked into this windowless conference room at work and just she—through my tears I heard her just say, “Just quit.” And it was such a like—she didn't say anything profound, but I heard it at that moment. And I did. And I decided to pursue my dream. And I, and I, you know, I decided to run for Congress in a Democratic primary against an 8-year incumbent. Like it’s common now, but it definitely wasn’t common then; it was crazy. And I thought I could knock on every door, meet every voter, shake every hand. And I kinda convince the world that I was gonna be this underdog upset. Like John Legend did not one but two concerts for me.
And on election day I got killed. Like less than 19% of the vote. You know, out 1.4 million dollars on like 1100 votes. I mean don't do the math; it was horrible.
But when I woke up the next morning, the first thing I thought was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm not broken.’ See, I had thought for so long in my life that if I tried something, especially if I tried my biggest dream, and I failed, that it would physically break me and I wouldn't be able to recover. And the fact that it didn't just opened my eyes up to living my life very differently, and what I call now living my life brave, not perfect. And it was in many ways the beginning of my life.
Reshma’s emphasis on bravery over perfection and ability to be vulnerable and strong is what makes her the perfect role model for modern leadership. It gives her team permission to take risks, but even more crucially, it inspires them to get back up and try again when they fail.
Modern leaders are connectors.
They connect their teams to their purpose. To success. And to each other. This might mean celebrating individual accomplishments in front of their team, or calling out team wins in front of the entire company. Or it might mean recognizing unfulfilled potential in someone and connecting them to a new position or special project. But what it definitely means is keeping it real when times get tough. Modern leaders don’t hide challenges from their teams, they take them head on.
When jet black storm clouds loom on the horizon and choppy seas threaten to dash your ship against the jagged rocks, an open, honest captain keeps the crew connected, focused, and ready to face the giant, ten-tentacled squid monster that’s rising from the deep to drag them all down to davy jones’ locker.
Modern squid monsters—sorry, leaders—strive to connect the work their teams are doing to a shared purpose. The easiest way is to look to the company mission statement for inspiration. But don’t shy away from creating a team-level mission statement that gets specific about how the team’s work impacts their industry, their community, even humanity itself. Research shows that teams with a clearly defined purpose see a 200% increase in great work. Side effects may include reduced burnout and increased pride in their work, their team, and their organization.
To some, modern leadership might seem like a luxury, or a concession to the increasing demands of the modern employee. But traditional leadership isn’t dying because people don’t like it, it’s dying because it’s simply not as effective as its modern counterpart. Leaders that connect, inspire, and mentor their teams see better productivity, less burnout, and more engaged employees. The fact that their teams also report a more positive perception of their leaders and a better overall employee experience is just the cream cheese icing on the cinnamon bun.
As the future barrels towards us like a self-driving dump truck, the only certainty is that what once worked, doesn’t anymore. Leadership will still play a huge role in influencing workplace culture, but only if it adapts and adopts the mantle of the modern leader. Sorry, Sergeant YodAbraham MusKenneDre, your time is up.
That’s it for this mini-ep of The Work Place. This episode was written by yours truly with original music, sound design, and additional writing by Daniel Foster Smith.
Have a story of how your company is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? Tell us about it at email@example.com and we’ll feature it on an upcoming episode.
The Work Place is sponsored by O.C. Tanner, the global leader in engaging workplace cultures. O.C. Tanner’s Culture Cloud™️ provides a single, modular suite of apps for influencing and improving employee experiences through recognition, career anniversaries, wellbeing, leadership, and more.
If you want your organization to become a place where people can’t wait to come to work in the morning, go to octanner.com.
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