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Guest opinion: In leadership, the ‘fluff’ is the ‘stuff’


By Jann Freed | Leadership development/change management consultant, The Genysys Group

In 2013, I published a leadership book titled “Leading With Wisdom: Sage Advice From 100 Experts.” I interviewed more than 100 thought leaders, and my driving question was: How can I help prepare people to be leaders in these uncertain times? Since then, the times have only become more uncertain.

Themes that emerged include the topics of compassion, empathy, forgiveness, dying and grief. When I talk about my book, people will ask me if I interviewed primarily women and if the book is written for women. I interviewed more men than women because I focused on the top leadership authors, executive coaches and senior leaders, and most of them are still men. When I was teaching business management in the ’80s and ’90s, we talked about “feminine leadership traits.” Now these traits are being advocated for all leaders regardless of gender.

One theme that emerged was that effective leaders understand there is wisdom in not knowing. When leaders admit to not knowing or to making a mistake, they are demonstrating more intellectual and emotional confidence instead of pretending to know everything or acting as if they never make mistakes. My title for that chapter was “Vulnerability Is a Strength,” but my editor did not like that title. He said if I wanted men to read the book, I needed to change the title since most men do not like to be considered vulnerable. So the chapter title is “Leaders Admit Mistakes Fearlessly.”

One of the most popular courses at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics, but referred to as the “touchy-feely” course. “The course’s mission is to instill in future business leaders the self-awareness to build more effective relationships and communicate more openly with colleagues.” While it has been taught for years, Stanford is taking a condensed version of the course to companies for the first time. They recognize the opportunity to help people at all levels and in all organizations improve as leaders by increasing their emotional intelligence and learning to build stronger relationships.

Leadership is not a position or title. Leadership is about building strong and trusting relationships. Brene Brown’s books such as “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Dare to Lead” emphasize the power of being vulnerable. Harvard Business Review published a recent article titled “Why Likeable Leaders Seem More Effective.” The authors concluded, “The bottom line from our analysis is that leaders who are not liked will pay a high price as it is almost certain that their teams will evaluate them negatively on other facets of performance.”

From my research, I concluded that leadership development is really about personal development. “It is hard to be a good leader if you are not a good person,” and the key is to develop good interpersonal skills often referred to as the “soft skills.” As one of my Sages said, “The hard stuff is the soft stuff.” And another Sage put it this way, “The fluff is the stuff.”

What were once considered “feminine leadership traits” turn out to be skills needed to lead effectively for both men and women. Women were ahead of the game! This is one way the world is changing — in a good way.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development and change management consultant with a focus on helping employees find meaning and purpose no matter what they do and where they are in life. She also blogs about leading and sage-ing at www.JannFreed.com. She is certified as a Sage-ing Leader through Sage-ing International and has a monthly podcast, “Becoming a Sage,” where she interviews some of the top thought leaders in the field of conscious aging. In addition, Jann is on the Bank Iowa board of directors and serves on the Plan and Zoning Commission for the city of Des Moines.

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