Don’t Engage, Elevate

March 15, 2022

By Dov Seidman

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a group of senior leaders at a global bank and asked the room a simple question:

“What behaviors do you want to see more of from your employees? What would help you win more customers and grow your business?”

As we went around from table to table describing the best attributes for business success, I didn’t hear one person mention nimbleness, work ethic, or even intelligence. Instead, one man called out, “Empathy.” Then a woman seated along the wall added, “Compassion” and a man beside her chimed in with, “Creativity.” Still more mentioned “Authenticity,” “Honesty,” and also “Humility.”

I’ve asked a similar question of other leaders on other occasions and received similar answers.

While it might seem counterintuitive, this is a business and leadership trend that’s been unfolding for some time now. In IBM’s 2012 global survey of more than 1,700 CEOs, the top four qualities or behaviors wanted from employees were collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility. Last year, the World Economic Forum emphasized these same characteristics and more in its “Skills for the 21st-Century” study, including grit, initiative, cultural awareness, adaptability and curiosity. As more and more companies purchase high-powered computers and increasingly intelligent machines that can out-produce, out-process and even out-think any employee, it is the unique, human qualities that cannot be replicated that are fast becoming the key to winning by outperforming and outbehaving the competition.

This presents a new challenge, one that comes to life when you consider the follow-up question I asked those same leaders.

“Imagine commanding two colleagues to go in a room and not emerge until they develop empathy. Would that work? And, imagine telling others that you will triple their salary once they’ve become more transparent and humble. Would that strategy work?”

Of course, all of the leaders in the room answered, “No.”

The results we want today can’t be achieved by pulling the same old performance levers—tempting with carrots and threatening with sticks. These are classic examples of shifting: using the promise of reward or punishment, applied against policies and expectations, to exert influence over others’ behaviors. Today, however, the old playbook isn’t just N/A, it’s N/L/A. It No Longer Applies to the specific requirements needed to win in the 21st-century marketplace: elevated behaviors and distinctly human qualities.

The job of leaders has always been to influence others and enlist them in collective endeavors, a form of ethical leadership. Today, however, leaders are asking for something different: their full creativity, passion and humanity. When no amount of shifting with carrots and sticks will get you the precious, winning attributes you want from your employees, you need a new strategy—one that elevates.  Despite this, most CEOs still apply outdated leadership tactics used to shift others through quasi-robotic tasks, instead of elevating them to reach for a higher purpose and access their inner selves.

The new playbook runs on inspiration. While coercion and motivation come from without and happen to you, inspiration comes from within and happens in you—where our shared purpose worthy of dedication, mission worthy of our loyalty and deeply fundamental values lie. Leaders who are serious about elevating (and not shifting) others, must first elevate themselves and their way of thinking. It is not enough just to ask for different and loftier things from our workers. Today, leaders must be prepared to hold themselves and their organizations to the same high standard.

The most effective leaders today inspire a sense of purpose and values through their actions, elevating others in all that they do:

Their deliberate approach toward shaping culture emphasizes and sets expectations, not just about what can and cannot be done through rules, but what should be done by emphasizing values and enabling others to bring their full character to every situation. In the past, everyone’s job was to do the next thing right, to do it correctlyToday, when everybody is called upon to contribute their full character and creativity, everybody’s job is no longer to do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. A machine can be programmed to do the former, but only a human being can do the latter.

Inspirational leaders initiate and encourage two-way communication with others, giving up the outdated “Command-and-Control” style for one that “Connects-and-Collaborates,” because they recognize that their employees and stakeholders hold more power than ever before. They listen to and engage with others – conveying the shared purpose behind organizational actions and involving them in the decision-making process. Inspirational leaders demonstrate the ability to empathize and see things from their employees’ perspectives, increasing their opportunity to win them and their energies over to a common cause.

Inspirational leaders extend trust and allow others to live up or fail meet to their example and expectations on their own merits. This extension of trust is the key enabler that inspires others to take the risks that are so essential to spurring innovation. It is in this innovation that real performance and, most importantly, real progress are seen.

Leaders who seek to elevate and inspire are not only more personally effective, they also lead more effective organizations because they are staffed by self-driven workers. As we continue further into the 21st-century and technology progresses further, the demand for elevated, human behavior will only become more urgent. To meet that call, leaders must elevate themselves and seek to inspire that which is deepest in others.

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