Put others’ needs before your own

Leaders that take the time to understand the unique requirements of their employers are more likely to succeed, says Kerrie Fleming

 Remember Silicon Valley as it was in the beginning? It was conceived as a flash of creativity and entrepreneurship, with lots of cutting-edge thinking and where all creeds were welcomed to contribute to this exciting era of technical prowess.

However, recent scandals from Uber’s Kalanick to Price of Amazon Studios, suggest that the wild success of such entrepreneurship was siphoned o by a white fraternity club, some of who have now been exposed as sexist, misogynistic executives.

This is, therefore, not such a blueprint for leadership, but a good lesson on how sameness or homogeneity can lead to arrogance, greed and hubris. If diversity had pervaded this industry, particularly within its leadership, the fallout may not have been so great.

Understanding and embracing divergence is good, but it can be a scary prospect for most – especially leaders. The pressure on leaders is already immense: operations, the competitive landscape, the financial performance and that’s just for starters.

On top of that, employees also need time and attention, and they like their leaders to pay attention to exactly what they want. The primary reason is that humans are inherently wired to ensure that their own needs are met before they pay attention to those of others, hence “attend to your own oxygen mask before you attend to others” during airline safety instructions.

Some people work for money, some for power and status, while others may just wish to fulfil their self-worth and ambition. With this in mind, if employees are to embrace the company agenda, the role of leader is to ensure that they have an understanding of what is motivating their people to show up at work, and subsequently ensure that these basic needs or hygiene factors are met.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair recently found to his peril that his core asset: his pilots, were no longer willing
to be treated with the indifference and bullishness which they had been subjected to. It became clear through a rostering malfunction, how essential these pilots and their unique needs were.

Have you got the full set?

The importance of leaders understanding and managing difference is particularly evident in Western leadership cultures, which often require a myriad of different leadership styles to handle each encounter.

The psychologist, Daniel Goleman, suggests that leadership is akin to playing golf. In order to play the game, you need a set of functioning clubs, all with different qualities for every shot that you take on the course; a putter is not much use when you need a driver. Of course, the key skill is not just in having the metaphorical set of golf clubs, but the gift of wisdom to know when to use which one. That is the real skill of leadership. Once a leader has mastered the understanding that one size does not t all, they might even start to look at people with curiosity to see their uniqueness and what it can add to the situation.

The most successful leaders which we meet during our leadership development work at Ashridge Executive Education are those who have experienced a life-altering event, or “the kiss of crisis” which has left them with a large amount of humility to stop being self-obsessed and put the needs of others before their own. Incidentally this makes them so much more attractive to followers who sense that they are now at the forefront of the leader’s agenda. We have all experienced the leader who has put us first, the impact of and magic of which can be remembered for a lifetime.

Realise everyone’s potential

Once leaders get their heads around the messiness of diversity and difference, a whole new world of possibility will be revealed. Instead of leaders struggling to push their point forward at every situation, people whom they have listened to and encouraged will deliver results beyond their wildest dreams. Usually because they know that, along with the needs of the business, their wellbeing and development is at the forefront of their leader’s mind.

Additionally, leaders can bring this diversity together and help manage all those juicy conflicts, which when managed well, can lead to wondrous innovation and creativity. Managed badly and there could be a raft of HR complaints when people sense that their “difference” is being objectified or ignored. There is of course a fine line between the two, and the latter can result in a stagnant environment and the dreaded “yes” culture.

However, the former creates an agile and dynamic workplace.

Finally, having a genuine intention to create a diverse culture in your organisation (not just to satisfy quotas) is a really difficult task. As a leader, it is so tempting to hire in your likeness to ease communication with your teams. Sharing a rugby team alumnus, skin colour, gender or fondness for golf may make getting to know someone easier, but in the long term you will probably end up with a club for white middle-aged men who regularly congratulate but rarely challenge each other.

Remember that when you spot your market share diminishing, truthfully ask yourself whether your leaders have homogenised their teams to make life easier or have they shown real leadership and embraced diversity with aplomb and given their time and energy into building genuinely solid teams that they really care for. The latter will bring great success.

Pay attention Silicon Valley, the way out of all this chaos may just be right under your noses.

Kerrie Fleming is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD.