As executives try to make sense of the modern workplace, here’s how leaders can inspire others in a post-pandemic world:
Be your own case study
The maxim “before you can lead others, you must first lead yourself” still holds true today. Over the past 20 years, I have taught more than 6,000 executives in the High Performance Leadership program about how to empower and motivate their workers by first understanding their own vulnerabilities, behaviors, and mindsets.
For much of the 20th century, leaders relied on a hierarchical “command and control” management model where the top brass made all the decisions and employed middle managers to get workers to implement them.
They attended executive education programs hoping to learn the traits of successful leaders, and analyzed case studies for playbooks of how to execute change within their organizations.
Since the turn of the millennium, however, there has been growing recognition that leading with authority and fear no longer works. Great leaders become a secure base for others by creating trust, and by providing energy and support to encourage their employees to take risks and seize new opportunities.
But before they can do this, they must first examine their own secure bases and overcome the fears and grief that may be preventing them from reaching their own potential.
Identify what might be holding you back
The death, loss, and suffering brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic means that companies are grappling more than ever with unresolved grief across their workforce. Employees might not only be mourning lost loved ones, but other losses such as missed weddings, postponed family gatherings, or the cancellation of other valued events.
This unresolved grief costs companies billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and performance, and may derail the leadership capacity of perhaps one-third of senior executives at one time or another.
Leaders who are suppressing trauma related to loss, abandonment, and manipulation may struggle to show empathy and create safe and secure bonds with staff. Others may have empathy in spades but are wary of exerting their authority and fall into the trap of being too nice.
András Incze was one such person. Growing up in communist Hungary, he heard how the Russians seized his family’s property and kicked his grandparents out of their jobs at the end of the Second World War. As an adult, Incze had progressed up the ranks to a global management role at pharmaceutical giant Novartis, but felt he wasn’t reaching his full potential.
Through my work with him, he learned to explore his grief and came to the realization that this inherited trauma was sabotaging his ability to lead. The stories he heard as a child had made him internalize the idea that power was bad, in turn inhibiting his own self-authority. Once he had worked to overcome the fear of his own power, he learned how to keep calm and control his mindset by focusing on the present reality. This gave him the confidence to follow his dreams and start his own consultancy business.
Another person I have worked with whose past trauma was freezing his ability to move forward was Frédéric Meuwly. Abused as a child, he had unconsciously made an association that authority and power were dangerous, and that making yourself visible can be harmful because you can then become prey. While he had worked through the trauma with a therapist, he hadn’t realized the impact this was still having on his leadership. As he was repressing authority, he wasn’t using its positive sides: to protect others, to show the way for a group, and to decide and express needs.
Taking part in the High Performance Leadership program was a major catalyst in Meuwly’s healing process, and through work with coaches he was able to transition his identity from being a victim to a survivor – and, finally, a servant. He is now a published author and runs his own coaching business helping to develop teams.
Allowing yourself to open up emotionally will enable you, as a leader, to bond and have greater empathy with your team. By harnessing the positive sides of authority, Incze and Meuwly both experienced greater clarity of thought and could prioritize vision setting and courage.
Be aware of your ‘person effect’
It is often a misconception among leaders that their employees are serving them. In fact, the leader’s role is to serve employees, customers, and, increasingly, other stakeholders – for example, communities that might be affected by a company’s business operations.
As people work increasingly in cross-functional teams, leaders will need to draw on their so-called person effect – the power of their state of being, words, and physiology, including status, authority, gender, nationality, culture, age, physical presence, words and language, and energy levels – to connect with others across the organization.
A prominent example of a leader aware of their person effect is the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In mid-March, as Russian missiles pounded Kyiv, the former comedian turned politician walked through the streets of the capital to visit a hospital. Once there, he awarded wounded soldiers with medals for courage and thanked staff for their service. The visit, just one of many public appearances showing defiance in the face of Russia’s invasion, was a masterclass in secure base leadership.
Instead of fleeing Kyiv when Russian tanks rolled across the border, Zelensky stayed and vowed to fight. Through his words and physiology, he demonstrated his compassion for and solidarity with fellow Ukrainians. But he also dares to tell them the truth; that the war will get worse. And he dares to challenge Western leaders to improve their own performance by providing more weapons and imposing sanctions, as well as weaning their nations off Russian oil and gas.