How Do Leaders Think About Leadership? A primer for healthy leaders


2020, nearing its demise, has provided us with myriad examples of leaders rising to and failing at the challenges we’ve faced this year.

Often this blog space is dedicated to correcting the seemingly endless leadership peccadillos we’ve seen every day in the news. Politicians, religious leaders, academics, businessmen,

Today, however, we explore what healthy leaders think about the responsibilities and joys of leading well. What do healthy leaders look like and how do they act?

The academic literature on Leadership is replete with well-established theories that provide tried-and-true exemplars: Transformative Leaders, Servant Leaders, Authentic Leaders and many more. Popular publishers have distributed the work of sage authors like John Maxwell, Simon Sinek, Daniel Pink, Warren Bennis, Jim Collins, Daniel Goleman, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and Sun Tzu.

My newest favorite is a leader little known outside his own industry: Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a manufacturing conglomerate. His Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family should be a must-read for every leader and aspiring leader.

Here’s my extraordinarily brief review of these superb authors and their works:

· Chapman — potentially a professional (and life) sea change agent

· Maxwell — prolific, wise and caring

· Sinek’s Start with Why is conceptually groundbreaking and essential reading

· Pink on motivation, startlingly simple, yet shatters foundational paradigms

· Bennis “the Dean of Leadership Gurus” on making leaders — insightful

· Collins’ Good to Great helped start an organizational revolution

· Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence created a whole new category

· Kouzes’ & Posner’s research remains the standard for exemplary leaders’ behaviors

· Sun Tzu’s 2000-year-old strategies of war are alive and well today

And there are so many more. If your family is desperate to find a Christmas present you’d actually use, hand them the list of volumes you don’t already own. Enjoy!

But I also want to open the suitcase (no time to unpack it here) and stimulate your imagination on these essential leadership concepts:

Transformative Leaders

Servant Leaders

Exemplary Leaders

Leaders who truly care

Transformational Leadership

Conceptually introduced by James V. Downtown and greatly researched and developed by James MacGregor Burns, the theory explains that these types of leaders are those who create an environment in which leaders and followers are changed (transformed) and thus advance to ever higher levels of morality and motivation. Four key characteristics of the transforming leader:

· Intellectual Stimulation — fostering an environment of collaboration and safety, leaders encourage their employees to take risks, achieve at higher levels and boldly explore innovation, excellence in a morally-based integrous manner.

· Individualized Consideration — here, think “coaches” or “mentors.” The transformative leader thus encourages her teams to recognize the unique contributions of one another.

· Inspirational Motivation — enunciating a clear vision, modeling passion for the vision and mission creates a unified team all working together to achieve desired outcomes.

· Idealized Influence — Herein lies the single most common definition of leadership: “Influence.” The transforming leader creates a trusting and respectful environment wherein everyone has opportunity to excel and advance.

Servant Leadership

The magnum opus of Robert Greenleaf, this theory unabashedly harkens to the model presented by the Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Greenleaf and a host of researchers who have intellectually and practically examined the characteristics of the servant leader since 1970 argue that the most effective leader, the most empathic leader and the most influential and motivating leader first serves their organization and each employee.

Ten leadership styles or characteristics are embodied by the Servant Leader:

· Listening — listening to understand allows the leader to care more deeply, provide stronger and more effective solutions.

· Empathy — the hallmark of EI (Emotional Intelligence), helps the leader more fully understand the feelings and emotions of others and creates an environment of appreciation.

· Healing — leaders care for the overall well-being of followers which results in a supportive and emotionally healthy work environment.

· Awareness — Servant Leaders are introspective (“aware” of their own strengths and weaknesses) and equally aware of those characteristics within their membership. They don’t have unrealistic expectations of others or themselves.

· Persuasion — servants persuade rather than coerce or demand. This influence leads to a cooperative environment of trust and mutual admiration.

· Conceptualization — big dreams for the benefit of everyone. Not just in the present, but with a strong future-focus.

· Foresight — learning from the past, understanding the present, the servant leader has a firm grasp on a desired future for all involved.

· Stewardship — a strength of the SL that results in a caring responsibility focus on all aspects of the organization and its resources: personnel, financial and operational.

· Commitment to Growth — far more on the progress and development of group members rather than the leader’s growth or even the organization’s.

· Community Building — values unity and harmony that leads to a strong sense of belonging and mutual commitment.

Exemplary Leaders

The findings by prolific researchers James Kouzes and Barry Posner on how the best leaders behave have been instrumental in guiding leaders worldwide.

They condensed thousands of responses to these five exemplary practices:

· Model the Way — leaders clarify their own and their corporate values system. They set a positive example of how to live out those values.

· Inspire a Shared Vision — first, the vision must be inspirational and ennobling. Then, it must be a vision everyone can understand and can find themselves within it.

· Challenge the Process — find opportunities to innovate, grow and improve. Try. Fail. Learn. Rinse and repeat.

· Enable Others to Act — based on a strong trust foundation, exceptional leaders foster an environment within which team members have personal power and ownership.

· Encourage the Heart — a truly empowering organization recognizes achievement, individual and corporate. Encouragement is intentional and consistent.

Truly caring leaders

No doubt you’ve noticed repeating concepts and ideas in this brief list. You’ve found the value of caring for the vision and the people who operationalize it, bring it to fruition.

Bob Chapman discovered the highly personal nature of caring leadership when he realized that every single employee within his global conglomerate of companies was more than a worker, manager or leader. Each was “…someone’s precious child.” The notion of exerting the same energy toward nurturing, caring, and even loving his employees transformed his company into a prime example of healthy leadership.

Yes, there are elements of Transformational Leadership in his new approach — the truism that “…a rising tide lifts all boats” is apropos. The whole of Barry-Wehmiller has benefited from these transformative behaviors.

And you’ll find a strong link to Servant Leadership in Chapman and his team. Putting others first is what a loving parent does with her children.

Each of the 5 Practices of Exemplary Leaders is on full display in Chapman’s company.

Point is, there is no single theory or construct that fully embodies all the possibilities available to healthy leaders. But these are among the most read and practiced by leaders deeply concerned with leadership.

Norm Mintle