Playing with the google searching engine few days ago, I typed ‘thoughtful leadership’ and obtained an amazing number of over 63 million entries! I stopped to wonder about what exactly my readers understand every time I use that expression. I have no clue… That is why I decided to offer here my perspective on it. Keep in mind I am neither a scholar nor a researcher, just a seasoned practitioner and an eternal learner.
Leadership is in the giving. The more mature you are as a thoughtful and enabling leader, the more valuable your contribution is to the individuals that follow you, to those that are inspired by your vision and deeds, and to the whole organization.
Let me start by first demystifying the concept of leader vs manager, or the leading manager, for that effect. Let us bring author and professor Emeritus John P. Kotter into the dialogue. Kotter advocates that “leadership is different from management, but not for the reasons most people think. Leadership is not mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having “charisma” or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few. Nor is leadership necessarily better than management or a replacement for it.” He argues that “…. leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment. Management is coping with complexity, while leadership is about coping with change.”
What is thoughtful leadership? To contextualize, we are living the Exponential Era, an era of constant adaptation. What seems self-evident is that organizations are rapidly becoming more organic: highly adaptable, flexible, innovative, caring and more suitable for the VUCA environment to achieve sustainable competitive advantage. This has a profound effect on leadership. Let’s skip the ocean of definitions and key traits that literature offers. Instead, allow me to offer my two-view definition, a Static view, and a Dynamic view.
Static definition – A thoughtful leader is a person—he or she—known and respected for his/her quality of being authentic, ethical, courageous, inclusive, and capable of thinking carefully about other people’s needs and about how to do things effectively. Is not a superhero, but a normal person that is able and prepared to inspire others—through effective communication—in a way that engages them enough to act towards a shared vision. Thoughtful leaders lead by walking their talk.
“Daring Leadership talks straight and takes action. These leaders lead from the heart. They attend to the fears, feelings, and history of their team.” ~ Brené Brown
Dynamic definition – Becoming a thoughtful leader is a long and expanding journey. Becoming is the keyword. It does not necessarily start with a formal supervisory or managerial position; it starts when followers trust you. Judging from my empirical and humble experience, it is an endless, harsh, painful, stressful, and distressing path, sprinkled with many joyful growing experiences. Endurance and adaptability to handle change with flexibility is a must. These are the building blocks of your road.
Once you embrace the challenges of taking that path, your growth—personal and professional—is guaranteed. It is not about status, it is not about money, it is about self-actualization, it is expanding yourself. What is the prize for taking that path? Your best self! But remember, it is a life-long journey, not a destination; not a fixed point in the curve. Your need to take responsibility for your own performance and growth.
“The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning.” ~ HBR
The most difficult stretch of the road is talking to yourself—it is your self-awareness. It is about your capacity to analyze your history—where are you coming from, your motives, your actions, tendencies, habits, values… In a nutshell, the way you perceive and deal with life. It means having a deep understanding of your emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives— your inner narrative, and their effects.
Self-awareness nurtures your self-confidence, the sureness about your self-worth and capabilities. As a thoughtful leader of the 21st-century, in addition to foundational literacies and technical competency, during the journey you must develop the mature emotional intelligence skills (EQ) required to better understand, empathize, influence, and negotiate with other people.
Your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) allows you to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work collaboratively with them. A leader with strong self-awareness is neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, she is honest—with herself and with others. On this journey you also need to learn to self-regulate yourself. Working on your character, trustworthiness, authenticity, empathy, and integrity will take you extremely far.