As I’ve Realised In Work And Life, We Need Empathetic Leaders Not Just Strong Men

A few months ago, I was selected for a course in leadership by a global consulting firm that my company organized for senior women leaders. Doing this changed the way I work.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden resigned yesterday. An extraordinary world leader, she exhibited what is arguably her greatest display of leadership in knowing when to stop leading. Speaking of leading…

A few months ago, I was selected for a course in leadership by a global consulting firm that my company organized for senior women leaders. When I mentioned it to a childhood friend, she laughed, ‘Why do you need a course in leadership? You were born a leader.’

Being a leader can mean being courageous and leading by example….

I’ll admit that I was born with some ability to lead, and those are the stories that are brought out for a good airing, every time the old gang hangs out. I formed the first ‘morning walk’ club where we’d climb trees, birdwatch, and sit by the rail track and flatten coins. I organized a concert every few months, and a circus, where we performed shockingly dangerous acts like a pole walk, with no safety net. I never asked of anyone what I hadn’t first tried.

So, when I jumped out of a tree, a much younger friend followed, landing awkwardly, and injuring his wrist, I took responsibility as a leader should, and walked all the way back home, holding his arm in place. Later the orthopaedic said it was a good thing that whoever walked him home, held it in place, or the bone would have shifted out of place.

But not everyone who leads is necessarily a good leader. For instance, I should have remembered that our group of about 20 kids also included many younger ones who would follow their leader blindly. I shouldn’t have jumped from that tree in their presence. I was a brave leader, who led my gang where no girl had before, but I was only 12! I’ve had to learn empathy, collaboration, and democracy along the way.

…but it also means being able to listen to others and leading with consensus

I’m currently fulfilling my dream of building a house in the hills, and if there has ever been a test of my strength and patience, it is this. The building plans have changed four times because each new obstacle has forced me to pivot. Torrential rains, landslides, uncertain terrain, goods coming up from the plains, labour shortage, and a builder who has never built anything like this before.

It is my house, I have designed it, and am now driving the construction, so in every aspect, I am the leader here. It would be easy for me to push through even the foolhardiest ideas because I can. But the leadership course has had me introspecting and reshaping how I lead, and I can see it coming through in my interactions with the builder, engineer, and architect – I’m negotiating more, listening more, and accepting more of their input, instead of pushing my plan through as one expects from ‘strong leaders.’ They are the experts I’ve surrounded myself with and I take their opinions with an open mind.

The world needs empathetic leaders not just strong men

In the last decade, we’ve heard a lot of talk about strong leaders and how we need them, ending up with a host of right-wing leaders around the world. We do indeed need strong leaders, but it seems that few people are able to distinguish between a strong person and a bully. A bully pushes through plans without consensus or concern. A strong leader affirms, coaches, builds team spirit, drives results, and manages crises. May we vote for them, may we be them.

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Since I began with her, I’d like to end with Jacinda Ardern too, who famously said, ‘One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

Published first on LinkedIn

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About the Author

Smriti Lamech

I am a natural wordsmith, journalist, and editor, with more than two decades of experience across print, broadcast, and web. After spending the initial years of my career working in the mainstream, I joined the read more...

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