Leading with an Open mindset and Empathy

The age-old question remains: Are leaders born or made? The phrase “natural born leader” is often thrown around when someone shows initiative or steps up when no one else will. The Trait Theory of leadership suggests leaders are born not made. Contrastingly, Vince Lombardi asserts that leaders are not born, they are made; and they are made just like anything else, through hard work. I have pondered on this question, and as I write this piece, I reflect on my life to see how leadership has played out in my various roles in the workplace.

It makes sense to start this piece by delineating what leadership is and who can lead. I admit that when I was young, I thought leaders were born. People have always viewed me as a leader because I was an A-student—top of my class, a member of the student government, and captain of my sports team. So, this view of being a natural-born leader has been reinforced within me by those around me. I also viewed leadership as a superpower, an intuition, or a sixth sense that one can tap into and use to one’s advantage. Such a superpower comes in handy, especially when one makes a connection with colleagues or teams you supervise.

However, I have come to realize that the innate ability to lead is not enough. There is more to leadership than meets the eye. John Maxwell’s 360-degree philosophy on leadership characterizes the ideal leader. Maxwell is convinced that adaptability, discernment, perspective, communication, security, resourcefulness, maturity, and the ability to always be counted on are the measures for steadfast leadership. He states that our modern-day society requires people who can lead in every direction: up, across, and down. organization: Maxwell argues that by becoming a 360-degree leader, you can learn to develop your influence from wherever you are in the organization; and that 360-degree leadership is within the reach of anyone who possesses average leadership skills and is willing to put in the work.

Maxwell’s view too, then, is that leaders can be made, and you can be a leader where you are—clerk, supervisor, middle management, or executive suite. I have come to adopt this view through experience. My natural ability to step up when needed helped me to excel as an accountant. However, as I moved up the ranks, I realized that I had to cultivate my innate ability to lead through learning. To grow as a leader, one must develop the skills Maxwell outlined. So, I have made it my goal to hone these skills so that I can grow as a leader. This is an ongoing process and I learn more every day.

Considering the aboveanyone can be a leader if they are willing to work hard and develop the necessary skills. These skills allow you to lead in various ways. My preferred method is leading with an open mindset and empathy. This preference stems from the values I hold. My parents were big on human relationships. Its importance has been instilled in me since birth. It is enshrined in the Southern African value of Ubuntu—humanity towards others—on which I was raised. So, my natural inclination to recognize the humanity in others has helped me immensely in the workplace. It has made it easy for me to connect with my team, get to know them, and show genuine interest in them. In so doing, I have been able to build relationships with them and they in turn have allowed me to lead them.

Mind valley describes empathy as the foundation of all relationships. And to create meaningful, long-lasting relationships, cultivating empathy is a must because the absence of it prevents people from connecting. The relationships I have built with my team have granted me a window into their lives. So, I see them as more than an employee. These individuals are parents, spouses, aunties and uncles, children, and more. They have dreams, ambitions, and goals, and they have fears, insecurities, and worries. So, looking beyond their position at work, and seeing them in these various subject positions they occupy, I can show them compassion easily. This ability is a powerful tool. When you can tune into other people’s feelings and experiences, it expands your perspective on life and opens your heart to serve others. 

This ability is an essential part of emotional intelligence, paramount for establishing and cultivating interpersonal relationships. It is the most powerful form of connection we can have with another human being. According to Sadhguru, spiritual teacher and trainer of Mindvalley’s A Yogi’s Guide to Joy, it is the cornerstone of the collective sense of unity. This is why the lack of it can cause all kinds of conflicts, both interpersonal and international.

The importance of human connection and empathy was further cemented by the story of my becoming. Years ago, the then human resource manager at Puma Energy, Namibia interviewed me whilst I was pregnant. This HR manager, against all odds and knowing that I would have to go on maternity leave in a few months, hired me. I was in awe of her ability to connect with me in a matter of minutes and show me so much empathy. What impressed me above all else was her resolve that I was the right person for the job. Her ability to tap into the human connection and practice empathy made me feel seen and heard.

I took note of and adopted this in my career. She was strong and bold and probably encountered much opposition to her choice of candidate for the position. However, she was open-minded and empathic and saw talent and potential that others may not have seen if they focused on my pregnancy and the need for maternity leave shortly after being hired. Leaders often make unpopular decisions but that is because they can see the forest, not the trees. In looking beyond the obvious, leaders can lead with fearless boldness that others trust and support. Navigating through an organization as a successful leader, in the words of Maxwell, demands one to persist in the face of setbacks, to see effort as the path to mastery, to learn from criticism, and to draw lessons and inspiration from the success of others. But more importantly, embracing the challenges and the unknown.  Maxwell further stresses that no one stands taller in the climb to success than when he bends over to help someone else.

My recent move to Mumbai was fueled by Maxwell’s constant reminder that courage isn’t an absence of fear. Courage is doing what you most want while being afraid. It is having the power to let go of the familiar and forge ahead into new territory. The decision to move across a continent to an unknown land was daunting.  But now that I am here, I am reminded, like the HR manager, that I was bold, and although afraid, made a move that helped me see beyond the immediate and make a move that has enriched me, my family, and importantly, my career.  Additionally, through this journey, I have learned that you can never be a leader of note if you do not fully grasp what empathy requires of you. It obliges any person in a position of leadership to first make some sort of connection; it demands that one must without a doubt listen attentively to others, imagine yourself in their shoes, and see their point of view.

A while ago, I had a conversation with a counterpart in my organization. He asked me how I was able to persuade my employees to stay late and come in on their days off. I laughed it off and told him I had superpowers. It was a teaching moment, but he was not ready for the lesson. What he did not know is that what I called my superpower was the relationships that I had built with my subordinates. Those relationships have allowed me to be able to influence them, ask them to go above and beyond, and trust me to have their best interests at heart. This is what leading with an open mindset and empathy can buy you as a leader. A leadership position does not make you a leader. As Maxwell notes, there is much to be learned to become a leader.

Further, building relationships with my team created a space for mutual influence. I can share my vision and goals with them and they, in turn, share their perspectives on how we can achieve those visions and goals. This back-and-forth allows us to expand our worldviews and perspectives and provides an opportunity for learning new ways of knowing, doing, and being. Scholars call this open-mindedness. I recently read an article by Christina Lattimer that outlined the five characteristics of an open-minded leader. She states that open-mindedness, from a neuroscience perspective, can be likened to mental or cognitive flexibility and argues that if fostered in the workplace, can lead to an environment where innovation thrives, and diverse perspectives are valued. Lattimer concludes that a simple formula can aid in the process of practicing open-mindedness. The formula, known as the golden triangle, effectively compels a leader to observe, practice self-perspective, and adopt the other-perspective.

My sister introduced me to the work of Ellen J. Langer. Langer writes extensively about mindfulness. Mindfulness, she says, is the opposite of mindlessness—relying on existing categories of knowledge. The hallmarks of mindfulness are the creation of new categories, openness to new information, and awareness of more than one perspective. As I study Langer’s work, a story she narrates to illustrate mindfulness stuck with me. She writes about the Russian general Kutukov’s practice of mindfulness which ultimately contributed to Russia’s victory over the French revolutionary leader, Napolean. How profound! Wars were won on the brave notion of being open to new and different points of view and accepting that change is constant. Langer’s hallmarks of mindfulness align with Maxwell’s characteristics of an ideal leader and Lattimer’s golden triangle.

Bringing these three perspectives together, one can see that a leader moves beyond the self and practices perspective-taking. This essentially means empathy. Perspective-taking is a lot easier when you have a relationship with the other. That is why I put a premium on building relationships with my co-workers and team members. We are social beings who need human connection to survive. That is why solitary confinement is such a harsh punishment. In search of connection, we form relationships. I provide this context to share that I believe leadership is a relational process and is thus co-constructed. Leadership is born out of relationships. And when you have a relationship with someone it is easy to show empathy, be open-minded, and most importantly, lead.

To return to the opening question; considering the foregoing, which statement resonates with you? Are leaders born or made? If you ask me, both are true! Leaders are born, and leaders are made. I would enlist the concept of a growth mindset to bolster my position. The growth mindset states that natural-born talent alone can only get you so far. Honing that talent through hard work can sharpen it to the extent that you can achieve unparalleled success. The growth mindset also holds that skills can be learned and developed. So, if you are not a natural-born leader, you can learn and grow into one through hard work, dedication, commitment, mindfulness and connection. The latter ultimately paves the path to mastery and results in supreme influence!            

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