Cultivating a service-leadership approach

This article represents edited comments from a discussion moderated by Ashley Williams, CEO and chief learning officer of executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Tim Welsh: We may need to think about a whole new definition of leadership, a whole new set of attributes that a leader should have for this new working environment we’re talking about. Most of all, we need humble leaders—in part, because increasingly they will need to be enablers of others, not in charge of others. This requires a very different mind-set. In a world of reskilling, a leader will be a person who needs to act in service to others, empowering a group of employees to do things on their own.

Joe Voelker: In my experience, it’s the hardest for midlevel managers to shift to this new model of the leader as facilitator, with a more growth-oriented mind-set. They often feel the most threatened. Before, they had more relevance; they like being in charge. And, suddenly, with a shift to a more nonhierarchical environment, all that is going away. That’s why creating a positive narrative is so important. Because if you can give them something to aspire to—a new role, not an eliminated one—where they are more of a positive enabler for their people, helping them do better, it helps them to more successfully make that transition as a leader in the organization’s new way of working.

Lynda Gratton: I think another trait that will be increasingly important for leaders to have is empathy. Every single trend we see for the future—be it demographic, social, or technological—leads to greater divisions within society. None of the trends we look at actually brings people together. What we know is you develop empathy for others by spending time with people who are different from you. One of my concerns about being a leader today is that, more often than not, you live in a neighborhood with other rich leaders. Your friends are just like you. Your kids go to school with other children just like them. It’s fundamentally difficult to empathize with the other—whether it’s people from different socioeconomic, educational, racial backgrounds and so on.

David Rock: Earlier this year, we did some research on what even just a little bit of power does to the brain. Essentially, what it does is it reduces your empathy. You can begin to treat people as objects, you’re not thinking about the risks of your actions, and you do things that are stupid and wrong. In an era where it’s all too common to treat people as numbers—literally dehumanizing them—the leaders and organizations that will succeed are those that put human values at their core.

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