Connected, Real Leadership: Reining in the Superhero

Connected, Real Leadership: Reining in the Superhero

Business problems are now routinely beyond intricate. Leaders increasingly need to make judgements using intuition, tapping into reserves of emotional fortitude, and juggling soft skills with technical expertise. Yesterday’s management theories are not well-matched to today’s challenges. A smarter, more agile leadership approach is needed for a volatile and complex world.

The global economy is entering its worst downturn since the Great Depression of 1929. “The Great Lockdown”, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calls the pandemic’s curtailment of everything we took for granted, triggered a rapid collapse in economic activity “unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes.”

Therein lies a fundamental leadership necessity for our times: we must face up to reality.

So, should leaders today aim to be superheroes?

That depends on the qualities we appreciate in our preferred heroes. Taking on monumental tasks, simultaneously, on all fronts? Realistically, no. The lone saviour, acting without consultation? Probably not. Thinking about the broader good, willing to make sacrifices? Definitely. Able to tap into their intuition to grasp context and solve problems? Certainly.

Realistically, however, superhero leaders are passé. Business is too fast-paced, fast-changing and boundaryless. Today, leaders have to start from the premise that they cannot be superheroes.

Be realistic about empathy

Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom makes a dramatic statement: “I’m against empathy.” His point is that empathy is not central to morality. We empathise with people who are similar in some way to us; empathy is innumerate in that we feel empathy for one, or two others, but not for a dozen, or a hundred, or a million; it’s localised in the sense that we empathise close to home but cannot summon it up for bigger, broader issues such as climate change or distant wars.

These cognitive biases veer us away from appropriate decisions and actions which would make a genuine difference in resolving some of the world’s major problems.

When the pandemic broke in early 2020, David Taylor, CEO of consumer goods giant, Procter & Gamble (P&G), acted very differently to most other leaders. “Being kind to those around you [as CEO]” is not particularly helpful in a global crisis, he insisted. He continued to prioritise short-term performance, noting that “excellence over harmony, but in a principled, taking-care-of-your-people way,” is of greater importance to protect more peoples’ jobs, maintain scaled supply chain activity – and to help by adding value to wider society.

Where a superhero would dive in, leaders now have to make these kinds of nuanced judgements and difficult trade-offs. Their emotions, and a natural empathy, may not necessarily illuminate the right path.

A lack of transparency reduces connectedness

Superheroes operate in a twilight zone. They assume they have clear and obvious authority, and sometimes, too, permission to act unilaterally.

The power paradox is the phenomenon whereby leaders are chosen for their gentler qualities – empathy, kindness, modesty – but on arriving at the pinnacle they deflect in the opposite direction. The phrase was coined by Dacher Keltner, director of the Greater Good Science Centre at University of California (Berkeley). Complex psychology is at play. Humans connect through a mental process of ‘mirroring’: if someone smiles at us, we smile back; if we yawn, others often yawn too. But studies show that powerful people mirror less. Subconsciously, power erodes their feelings of connectedness.

Leaders who lose sight of this power dynamic risk losing connectedness to their teams.

Trust is a fundamental

Leaders demonstrating openness, integrity, and humility set a trusting cultural tone for the organisation. Employees, understanding that they have this trust, respect the boundaries of their autonomy and gain self-belief, which improves productivity. A watch-out, however: interpersonal dynamics may override this, and hinder a team’s effectiveness. Responsibility to deliver goals, and mutual respect, should be specified as non-negotiable.

The Dutch historian and philosopher Rutger Bregman offers general guidance on issues of trust: “When in doubt, assume the best.” We are all prone to negativity bias, but if we overcome this, in the vast majority of situations good faith will be repaid. Further, as a leader or manager, we should have the confidence and courage to realise that exercising judgement doesn’t require us to always be right. As Bregman points out, if we never trust someone, we’ll never know if we were wrong (or right)!

The ‘right’ culture may be tricky to define, varying between companies and having unique components in each organisation. But the paramount principle is that if trust isn’t a distinct thread, it needs to be inculcated as matter of urgency.

Authenticity is liberating

CEOs can be as courageous as a superhero, but without the baggage. Whereas superheroes shield their identities behind masks and cloaks, real leaders are authentic, offer their trust, are generous with their time and insights.

By openly expressing concerns, by setting aside ego, and interacting transparently, leaders can galvanise their organisation’s workforce to follow them. On an even deeper level, the concept of ‘servant leadership’ – when an inspirational leader motivates for a cause – puts the delivery of an ideal at the heart of the organisation. Management guru Jim Collins has extrapolated the servant-leader to what he calls a ‘Level-5’ leader’, driven to a higher purpose for themselves and their company. Collins emphasises that these leaders blend an intense, almost stoic professional desire with deep personal humility and modesty.

Perhaps a Level-5 leader does resemble a superhero. But simply becoming a more conscious leader, striving to better engage employees around the right performance habits, will generate improvements. As described in a previous article, engaged employees are more productive; evidence supports the premise that a people-oriented culture delivers better results.  

Really listening

Communication is at the heart of human connections. So it is essential for good leadership. But for excellent leadership, emotionally resonant communication motivates more powerfully, and can inspire.

Top-down communication – the strategic essence, formulated on the C-Suite top-floor then filtered and fleshed out lower down – still has merit in some corporate cultures. But the shift is to dialogue, and dialogues flow both ways. Actively seek feedback from trusted senior colleagues; take a walk to the goods-receiving department and talk to the clerks; use Zoom or similar technologies to hold large-scale ‘town-hall’ meetings as forums for input. Call a sample of customers to find out their impressions.

Further, leadership requires being attuned to different conversations, external to the organisation. The world’s unfolding social justice and racial dynamics fundamentally impact business. But think too about the reverse vector of these forces, namely how the organisation can listen and act in ways which add value to the communities in which they operate as well as wider society. Leaders should listen to a diverse spectrum of voices, not only to other leaders. Companies can contribute to building equity within society by fostering inclusivity and diversity within.

Rebalancing for reality

Over centuries, the socialisation of our species has necessitated that women better understand men than vice-versa. Women are generally better at using their intuition – at least they seem to be. More particularly, studies confirm they are more empathetic.

This further justifies the case for gender balance in the workplace. Globally, even before the pandemic, the proportion of women participating in the labour force was declining, and stood at 47% in 2020. Unfortunately, women make up less than 40% of the overall workforce, with cultural and structural barriers continuing to curtail opportunities to women. And the glass ceiling is very much still in place: as at January this year, among giant US companies indexed in the S&P 500, only 30 are led by women. That’s just 6%!

In SA, too, only 6% of JSE-listed companies have a female CEO, and among JSE Top-40 companies only one, Anglo-American, is headed by a woman.

Substance over form, productivity over place

“I work just as effectively from the kitchen table as I do from my desk,” says Sylvia Opperman, shipping manager at a South African clothing retailer.

Surprisingly, as long ago as 1993 the eminent management consultant Peter Drucker expressed the belief that commuting to work was pointless. It took over a quarter century and a global pandemic for many of us to realise he had a point.

A large list of leading corporations is now offering their employees either full work-from-home or flexible arrangements; unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by tech, research or consultancy firms such as Microsoft, Gartner and Nielsen. But the CEO of investment and banking giant Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, has called flexible and remote working “an aberration”, and will imminently require all staff to be in the office. The hard-graft Wall Street culture is mirrored in the attitude of the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose CEO explained, during the early phases of the pandemic, that the company’s driven work ethic relied on co-located teams and internal competition, and insisted a remote workforce was incompatible with AB InBev’s culture.

How should leaders be managing the organisation’s culture in these extraordinary times? Sensitivity is crucial. Realise, first and foremost, that for many, working from home has increased their responsibilities without commensurate reward. Dr Rejoice Simelane, CEO of Ubuntu-Botho Investments, believes that the pandemic has retarded gender equality in the workplace by a decade, because two-thirds of the jobs lost were women’s. Further, extra household responsibilities – work which is unpaid – fell disproportionately to women, and may create stress in a situation where boundaries between work and home are blurred.

Home can be a lonely workplace

We are a social species. Understandably, what most people miss about the work environment is social interaction. Even introverts may suffer mental health setbacks without a degree of contact with others. Loneliness eats at our self-esteem, with myriad consequences for an employee’s performance at work.

A recent study by Cardiff and Southampton universities concluded that 90% of UK office workers would prefer to be able to work mainly or entirely from home – but 30% admitted that their productivity was lower.

Managing with consideration and care

Leaders of virtual or hybrid teams should nurture their softer skill-sets, including cross-cultural awareness and emotional intelligence.

Communication becomes even more important: two-thirds of our communication is non-verbal, now forfeited to the ether. And pay special attention to the extent of collaboration needed within a virtual team. Transactive memory is a form of deeply intuitive, synchronised thinking and actions which occurs when people collaborate closely for a long time. If a virtual team has high-performance or even mission-critical responsibilities fulfilled when previously co-located, this could be compromised. It may be necessary to adjust accordingly through tighter controls, very regular check-ins, or augmented technology tools.

Upweight the amount of quality time given to remote workers. “One of the greatest gifts we can give to others, is that of our full attention,” says Dr Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon-General. “Simply listening deeply, presently, can have a major effect. [The other person] has a feeling of being seen.”

Hold on to ideals – and believe in others

“We have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists,” said eminent psychologist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who still believed in possibilities. His book Man’s Search for Meaning, written in 1946, still reverberates with relevance today. He expanded this idea in a moving 1972 speech: “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse, but if we overestimate him…if we seem to be idealists and are overestimating, overrating man, and looking at him that high, here above, you know what happens? We promote him to what he really can be.”

This is the greatest gift we can give, Frankl believed. Leaders can give their people belief and purpose. To inspire meaning in their lives.

Corporate leaders don’t need to imagine saving the world. But they can, and must, make a difference.

Should I be a hero by proving myself to my team, my company?

Perhaps you still believe that your title requires you to step up, further? Superheroes have titles. But true leadership transcends position or elevated labels. It’s about actions and inspirations, instilling values and trust. By these more human measures, anyone can be a leader.

Without displaying superhuman leadership, how can I deliver innovation? Superheroes are dreamers, but they are also sullen or broody. Real leaders must also be passionate about the primary deliverables, here and now. Balance an adventurous quest for innovation with a practical, tangible foundation of optimised returns on core operations.

Do you feel physically powerful, in control, evidently more so than colleagues? Physical fatigue and mental burnout are modern day business risks – for everyone. Consider your corporate culture: is it genuinely sensitive to employee wellness? Perhaps you should lead by example in managing and pacing your energy so that it matches the company’s priorities and key deliverables?

Is your company’s culture competitive, demanding leaders manoeuvre and manipulate? Over time, try to craft a culture of empowerment, engagement and participation. Instigate skills development, coaching, and mentoring programs.

How can I make my team believe in me? Superheroes are aloof, distant. Real leaders are available, they connect and pitch in regularly – not only when a crisis breaks. Superheroes wear masks; a human leader who shows vulnerability by removing the mask becomes more relatable, more real. Superheroes believe only in themselves. Leaders believe in others.


Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive

Wits DigitalCampus