Welcome to our series on Reframing Leadership. We’re digging into transformational leadership practices that get us away from leadership “rules” that shame and polarize, and instead help us lead with vulnerability and in partnership with employees.
Our socialization about leaders runs deep. When we think of what a leader “should be,” the qualities all point to certainty: leaders know the answers, leaders don’t ask questions, leaders make swift and final decisions. We can mistakenly believe that holding leaders to these unrealistic expectations is the same as holding them accountable.
Our draw to this commonplace belief of leadership is easy to see. An authoritarian leader seems powerful and unbeatable, someone who will keep us safe. In turn, we’re relieved of responsibility or any blame if something should go wrong. Ultimately, however, authoritarian leadership means people don’t trust themselves to ask for what they need, disagree, or collaborate.
We say we want work cultures where everyone matters, where diversity is valued, where people feel empowered and impactful. But, if we go on expecting leaders to hold all the power and responsibility, what does that reduce employees to?
A Leadership of Vulnerability
One of our core beliefs at Leverage to Lead is that we are all responsible for displaying vulnerability that leads to trust. This holds true for all levels of employees and leaders, and such a belief runs counter to the standard and pervasive image of a leader.
One key step to reframing leadership is deep listening.
Deep listening is a transformative communication tool that builds understanding and connection. We practice it by asking clarifying questions, summarizing and paraphrasing, and listening to understand. The deep listening mindset is one of building connections, being present, and demonstrating curiosity and empathy.
For leaders, deep listening is all about getting to know a person by setting aside our assumptions of what they need or what action to take. Leaders can actually find it a relief to go into a conversation without answers or a strategy to guide the conversation. Deep listening allows a person to share their needs and goals, and often a path forward will reveal itself in the conversation.
Here’s the transformative part: when leaders listen and reflect back what they hear, making an employee feel heard and seen and acknowledging the validity of the feelings and ideas, they help build a relationship in which the employee feels valued. Listening opens a space for the employee to ensure they understand their role and the expectations held for them. The space allows them to share what kind of support they might need to meet their expectations.
Leaders don’t need to know everything but they do need to be in partnership with employees. A leader’s value is not in their authority but in helping others know their value. With deep listening, leaders and employees can see each other’s humanity, including our limitations.
A More Expansive Expertise
Expertise, and the authority it carries, is something else that needs reframing. We often link expertise with a degree or a credential–something you earn once and display for the rest of your life. In reality, we learn and improve with practice, which also grows our confidence. To expect that leaders come with all the answers is to deny that leaders are capable of learning and growing. As if being a leader is a static state.
Transformative leadership means honing your skills in managing, not resolving. We’ll never be free from conflicts, difficult emotions, or biases. We need leaders who can help us grapple with their messiness and unpredictability. While we may think we want leaders to make challenges go away, we really need them to help us move through the discomfort together–which is where real growth and innovation happen.
How do we lead through listening? We ask, check our understanding and our assumptions, begin a dialogue, and then, listen some more.