Newcomers in leadership positions often feel uncomfortable, as if they’re wearing clothes that don’t quite fit. The ability to mitigate this discomfort and to project calmness and clarity even if you don’t feel it is one of the keys to effective leadership. It’s something I term ‘leading with grace’.
To lead with grace requires knowing who you are, which allows you to inspire people to help you move the organization toward its goals. And at first glance, it would be easy to conclude that women are better naturally equipped than men with the skills to lead with grace. After all, years of social science research has shown that girls’ early socialization focuses on ‘taking care of others’ and ‘learning one’s identity through relationship with others’.
This early education is then reflected in women’s communication styles later in life, which is characterized by some undeniable communication patterns. For example, women make inquiries instead of stating opinions; they say ‘thank you’ frequently; they ask personal questions and they apologize for errors.
It’s a style of communication that is synonymous with respect and caring. If used appropriately, it can increase the levels of teamwork and create a cohesive culture by building trust and cooperation. A leader who creates this sort of working environment through their communication alone can certainly be called a graceful leader.
However, one of the main attributes people who lead with grace also seem to have is authenticity. This is something that female leaders can struggle with due to the caring nature of their communication patterns. Women in business can often feel that this ‘caring’ reputation can make them seem weak in roles of leadership and so try to compensate accordingly - a trait that can easily backfire. As a male entrepreneur I interviewed put it, “I have seen a lack of authenticity in men but more often in women - the desire to fit some preconceived notion of what a leader is and then coming off as ‘less than.’”
Authentic leaders are not afraid to show their vulnerability in front of employees. They are self-aware, which requires knowing and understanding themselves. They know that their vulnerability helps them to connect because people sense that they’re genuine. Authentic leadership, at its most basic, means not being “someone other” at work than you are at home. If you pretend to be one way at work and act another way at home, your behaviour won’t be natural and you’ll come across as awkward and unsure, which will create distrust.
Take as an example one of the most authentic leaders we have on the world stage today: Pope Francis. A globally recognised position that can put the holder under a massive amount of scrutiny and that has a reputation for the ‘right kind of guy’ for the role. Many church leaders seem genuinely shocked however that Pope Francis tends to say whatever he believes.
“We were not watching someone trying to act like a pope. We were watching a person unafraid to be who he was,” notes Chris Lowney, a former managing director of J.P. Morgan Chase and a former Jesuit seminarian. “Be comfortable in your own skin. Know who you are, the good and the bad. And find the courage not just to be yourself, but the best version of yourself. These are the foundations of self-leadership, and all leadership starts with self-leadership because you can’t lead the rest of us if you can’t lead yourself.”
Take a few moments to think about the way you present yourself at work. Do you act like your genuine self? Are you confident in your ability to lead? If not, you may find that you are actually hiding your true (more playful? more engaging? more humble?) self from your subordinates. Before you start work, consider doing some deep breathing to calm yourself so that you start in a relaxed frame of mind, which helps you project your true self.
Authentic leaders also have strong enough self-esteem to admit mistakes.
Because they are mission driven and focused on results, these leaders don’t have a problem admitting that something is wrong when the results are less than expected. They put the organization ahead of their own self-interest. And, because authentic leaders focus on long-term shareholder value, they see the wisdom of training people to assume higher levels of responsibility in the company. This step doesn’t threaten their egos because they know that bringing promising people along makes the company stronger in the long run.
A second attribute that qualifies leading with grace is compassion. Compassion starts with a belief that ‘we are all created equally’ and that no ones’ work is above anyone else’s, including yourself as the leader.
A leader who is compassionate is aware of and respectfully acknowledges employees’ efforts and feelings, which results in win-win situations more frequently. Instead of a transactional approach (“do what I say because I give you money and benefits”) or an authoritarian approach (“do it my way or get fired!”), a compassionate leader thinks about the collective: “Let’s achieve these great goals together.”
A compassionate leader generously recognizes work well done, but also gently, firmly and without apology, corrects employee’s efforts as often as is needed. Helping an employee improve their performance through communication and feedback is compassionate. Letting an employee ‘wallow’ in bad work habits is not good for the company or the individual employee. They also tend to put employees first and attempt to be as flexible as possible if their employees have had difficulties, like a death in the family or divorce.
Being a compassionate leader whilst still holding employees accountable to job performance standards is a tough balance to strike. But by actively helping them find solutions that will not affect the productivity of the company, you become a facilitator and not a hindrance to your employees’ and by consequence, your company’s success. Learning to balance authentic and compassionate actions with accountability is the key to leading with grace.