Earlier this month, I gave my last talk for this year – one which examined the role charisma plays in effective leadership. After sharing research findings from the fields of neuroscience and psychology, as well as examining the common characteristics charismatic leaders share, attendees were able to appreciate that being charismatic is not about charm and how others perceive us.
Rather, it’s about how we make those around us feel – about themselves, about their capabilities and the value of what they can contribute to our shared purpose.
Recently, we all got to reflect and appreciate this reality as we looked back on the life of Nelson Mandela and how he chose to lead his life in a way that transformed his country from one that divided people based on the colour of their skin, to a nation that celebrated together his life and the vision he put forth for them to make as their own.
Although we might remember him through his various quotes and speeches, the real leadership lesson to be gleaned from his life is how he empowered those around him to not only envision a better future for all South Africans, but how he encouraged their willingness to embrace the great expectations he placed on each of them to not only do better, but to be better versions of themselves.
And Mandela was able to encourage the best in those around him because he exemplified in his actions and words his confidence that – while a daunting and at times difficult goal – it was one that his followers could nonetheless achieve if they rallied together around a shared purpose; of embracing their commonality and sense of belonging, and using that as the lens through which they understood and appreciated their collective efforts.
I wanted to highlight his message and my talk here in one of my last pieces for this year because I want to circle back to the first piece I wrote at the start of this year and the message that I imparted in that piece – that the kind of leadership organizations and even countries need today is not one where the focus is on you and on what you know.
Rather, as I pointed out in my talk on leadership and charisma, the focus for today’s leadership should be on how can we connect and communicate with those we lead at a deep emotional level so we can foster and sustain the kind of relationships that are critical to our long-term success and prosperity.
Through such relationships, we can better understand and relate to the realities our employees face – as well as what it’s like to work for us – as opposed to relying solely on our own perceptions and understandings to decipher what’s going on in our organization.
Indeed, if we are to address the challenges and hardships we face or will inevitably face over the upcoming months, we need to show our employees that we’re able to understand what kind of support and guidance they’ll need from us, instead of simply reacting to what we see going wrong and what we believe needs to be corrected to keep us on course.
We need to show our employees that we have their backs as much as we expect them to have ours because we believe their native talents, creativity, insights, and experiences; that they can help us to not only address and overcome the obstacles before us, but that they can enable us to collectively succeed and thrive over the long run. Of course, we can’t simply rely on year-end speeches or a list of organizational values framed on a wall to impart that message to those under our care. Rather, it needs to be imbued in those daily interactions where we seek to connect and relate to those we serve.
That’s why we revere those leaders who we view as being charismatic leaders – leaders like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela – not because of their eloquence with words or even the achievements they engendered in their communities and countries.
Rather, it was because they sought to bring out the best in us; they challenged us to see ourselves the way they saw us – of the inspiring potential that exists in all of us to make things better than they are today.
In so doing, they were able to compel us to not only believe that we could experience a better future or outcome, but to be willing to roll up our sleeves and commit our discretionary efforts so that we might take part in making that vision a reality.
Looking ahead to next year, this means that as leaders we have to move beyond simply thinking in terms of incremental improvements because that’s not what will excite and enable our employees to achieve more than they did this year.
Rather, as those charismatic leaders have taught us, we need to dream bigger; we need to commit to higher expectations – not just for our employees, but for ourselves as their leader – of what we can collectively accomplish. We need to move beyond those shiny button measures to rallying our employees’ efforts towards creating genuine change that allows us to be better than we were this year.
We need to create great expectations for our organization – framed with our confidence in the abilities of our employees to attain them – because we understand how the ability to accomplish a goal that few would be willing to take on is key to helping to foster a sense of community and shared purpose, if not also fuelling that drive that exists in all of us to reach for something bigger than ourselves.
This is, after all, what the best leaders amongst us do – they don’t simply balance budgets or increase profit margins or improve delivery times/product offerings. Instead, they help us to aspire to achieve something bigger, something more significant, by encouraging a sense of purpose and meaning in what we do.
They make sure we understand that the value we create is not limited to our shareholders or customers, but extends out to our community as well as inward towards ourselves; something they achieve by ensuring a better alignment between our organizational values and beliefs and the reasons why we do what we do.
The arrival of a new year is often felt and seen as an opportunity for a fresh start, for new beginnings and a chance to do things better than we did before. With that in mind, I’d like to encourage you to reflect on the lessons learned from the various experiences of the past year and how they can help you to guide your employees to not only be successful in their collective efforts, but to thrive under your leadership.
And as leaders like Nelson Mandela have shown us through their legacy, it’s by recognizing that the answers we require to move forward can be found through fostering deep connections with those we lead, allowing us to inspire and enable them to envision doing and being better.