Why leaders don’t always have to be heroes

Sensitive leaders are those that are able to adapt their style to the situation feel some HR leaders

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Leaders are expected to be unflappable figures, fearless and always in control. They are seen as heroes, possessing exceptional intelligence and brains erupting with brilliant ideas. From their position of superiority, they issue instructions, which their subordinates are expected to carry out.

However, ever since the business world changed, after surviving the pandemic, people have realised that they do not need heroes but ‘human leaders’ or ‘people’s leaders’.

Servant leadership

Leaders are support systems. They are there to build the required capacity in their teams and achieve their objectives while working together to accomplish organisational goals. “The concept of servant leadership is focused on serving and supporting the team, enabling their growth and success, rather than always being in a supportive role,” says Uma Rao, CHRO, Granules India. This approach is considered powerful in uniting teams around a strong purpose and allowing them to function autonomously, with the leader staying behind to provide support as needed.

The whole idea of having an empathetic leader or ‘peoples’ leader’ is to work together towards a common goal, with each person interacting with the others to build capacity. It not only fosters increased interaction among team members — without relying solely on the boss — but essentially, helps the team gain the ability to drive its own goals, rather than being reliant on a single leader.

“Competent leaders have the awareness to recognise situations and adapt their style accordingly.”

Nihar Ghosh, senior HR leader

Adaptability

Nihar Ghosh, senior HR leader also points out, “Leaders tend to have a preferred leadership style based on their personality type, but competent leaders also have the awareness to recognise the situation and adapt their style accordingly.”

In other words, while capable leaders may have a default style, they are also able to adapt their approach based on the demands of the situation. In other words, leaders will not always behave the same way regardless of the situation.

Agreeing to the same, Prasadh M S, workforce research and communication specialist, Xpheno, opines, “Leadership, though the oldest facet of an enterprise, is an ever evolving one. Enterprises’ leadership models and expectations vary based on age, industry, size, stage, geography and so on, of the enterprise. While job descriptions / ads of leadership roles invariably seek approachable and people-oriented individuals, there’s no common yardstick for the agreeable level of these aspects.”

Ability to connect

Being able to connect with people is the first thing that stands out. This quality shows that instead of trying to be in the limelight always, the leader’s focus/ attention is on the team. “True leaders focus on their teams, as they are the ones driving the process,” opines Rao. However, this does not diminish the leader’s role and responsibility. Rather, ideal leaders empower their teams to make decisions collectively. The leaders themselves simply help facilitate the process, not direct it. “A leader in this model (servant-master leadership), must become a normal team member who can facilitate when needed, while still retaining authority,” says Rao. While responsibility is shared among the team members, the leaders themselves cannot shy away from their role as servant leaders by claiming to have no leadership responsibility.

Facilitating & empowering

The teams perform much better when the leaders act as comrades rather than dictating orders. This is because they are working towards a symbiotic relationship and their goal is to empower and improve the well-being of the people. The business-development team probably knows the customers better than the leaders who are away from the action. Therefore, it’s important to facilitate decisions rather than create obstacles. This shift from controlling to empowering helps to develop more leaders and increase accountability.

However, at a time when people’s leaders are much sought after, why is the concept more an expectation rather than the norm?

“People-oriented leaders are expected to selectively set themselves apart, by exuding brilliance and superior cognitive capability. They execute a fine balancing act that not many leaders are naturally good at or trained in. It is, therefore, common to see first-time managers and leaders struggling with their conscious competence of exhibiting analytical and strategic skills at work,” says Prasadh. The need to consistently exhibit superior skills and the highest levels of competence is a load and pressure that new leaders can easily buckle under.

“True leaders focus on their teams, as they are the ones driving the process.”

Uma Rao, CHRO, Granules India.

Etymologically, to be a leader means to be the first or the most prominent presence to guide or conduct a group. Our leadership models and definitions have traditionally embodied this definition of perfection and excellence.

However, analytical leaders, who are used to relying on their rational side, may find the idea of introspection daunting or even risky. They may fear what they might uncover about themselves and worry that it could disrupt the status quo. “The high ‘say’: ‘do’ ratio expected of leaders is to set them apart and create a reference to look up to. With all these superlative metrics in play, leaders who are vulnerable are often considered misfits and rated low on resilience. Further, leaders who blend in too deep and wide are criticised as low on efficacy,” says Prasadh.

Empathy/emotion vs logic/analysis

People often believe that there should be no place for emotions at the workplace. Leading with empathy and emotion requires a different skill set that some leaders may not possess, especially those who rely heavily on logic and analysis. These leaders may fear failure and doubt their ability to succeed in this new leadership style.

Vulnerability

People are socially conditioned to consider ‘vulnerability’ a weakness. Hence, it is taboo in an enterprise setup. The vulnerability quotient, if there’s one, is expected to dip as one rises up the organisational ladder. Leadership often entails being alone at the top, where many moments of vulnerability may arise. However, acknowledging or exhibiting vulnerability is looked upon as a threat to one’s authority in a role. “Expression of vulnerability is akin to letting one’s guard down, and therefore, a high-risk act that leaders try to avoid at any cost,” states Prasadh. After all, leaders are a fragment of their enterprise, and hence, tell themselves to express and behave just as their enterprise would if it were a person. “The alignment to the visual and emotional model of one’s enterprise, comes with the threat of estrangement if seen as vulnerable,” points out Prasadh.

However, Ghosh believes, “Organisations today recognise the importance of having leaders who are sensitive to their team’s needs and the changing environmental situations.” Such leaders not only exhibit flexibility, but also calibrate their actions and behaviour accordingly. Therefore, good organisations often look for leaders who exhibit sensitivity and flexibility, rather than being authoritarian and driving their teams too hard.

Citing the example of the recent layoffs, Prasadh also points out, “Big tech enterprises that were considered strong and perfect personalities, came across as vulnerable and unattached during the recent layoffs. The message, tone and body language these enterprises presented through the voices of their superhero CXOs showed the world that leaders can be vulnerable too. In fact, they established that being vulnerable does not dethrone them from their position of supremacy. Leaders can take a leaf from these recent examples and learn the new VUCA of being Vulnerable, Unattached, Communicative and Agile.”

Sensitivity & responsibility

“Leaders can take a leaf from these recent examples and learn the new VUCA of being Vulnerable, Unattached, Communicative and Agile.”

Prasadh M S, workforce research and communication specialist, Xpheno

Ghosh also points out, “It’s important for the organisation to understand the demand of sensitivity and act up on it. If people need sensitive leaders, the organisation should not shy away from giving them such leaders.”

However, being comrades doesn’t absolve leaders of their responsibilities. It is important to assess the situation and determine when servant leadership is most appropriate.” Servant leadership means empowering others, but not passing on one’s own duties. It’s important to empower people while also being aware of one’s own role as a leader,” asserts Rao. For instance, in a new team or during an emergency, the leader needs to step forward and take charge. However, in a steady state or in situations where collaborative effort is required, being a servant leader and stepping back can be effective.

“People’s leaders possess a leadership style built on the foundations of technical excellence clubbed with compassion and simplicity, with a pinch of reasonable vulnerability in situations that demand them to be. Leaders should remember that intelligence quotient (IQ) and relationship quotient (RQ) can comfortably and productively coexist, and make them the kind of leaders that people look forward to being led by,” states Prasadh.

“To say that all hero leaders are authoritative is not accurate. Hero leaders are usually people who aspire to live life to the fullest. However, there are different types of leaders with varying styles. The most successful are those who can adapt their style to the situation, even if they have a default style. This is the essence of being a sensitive leader,” concludes Ghosh.

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