Effective and Human Leadership: webinar transcript: In this webinar transscript, Srdjan Vukčević of Blue Coach Montenegro and Thomas Gelmi talk about effective and human leadership. The conversation was recorded June 9th, 2020.
Srdjan: Welcome to our monthly webinar “Inspiring conversations” on the topic “Effective and human leadership” with Thomas Gelmi. We are excited to see participants from all over the world join in. With Thomas Gelmi, we have a very special guest and partner with whom I would like to spend the next 60 minutes discussing the human and effective side of leadership.
Thomas: Thank you very much, Srdjan, for letting me join you today. It is an honor and pleasure.
Srdjan: My first question to you today: How do you experience the current situation, and how will the world develop from your perspective?
Thomas: At the moment, I experience the situation very similar to many other people: I spent most of my time at home recently, had to adapt to the circumstances and find a way to deal with the whole thing. My home country is Switzerland, where I live near Zurich. Despite all adversities and challenges, our situation here is still very comfortable. The social and professional restrictions are easing bit by bit, but are still characterized by precautionary measures. Recently, the number of cases has increased again more than before. My personal situation is nevertheless quite good, and I have had a lot of time for reflection and very inspiring discussions in the past weeks and months. In summary, I experience the whole situation as follows: There is unrest in many countries worldwide, people are still dying, and we are all economically in the middle of a very challenging time. Despite all this, changes have taken place that are certainly worth preserving and even developing further. On the other hand, there are also things that we should leave behind and not pick up on anymore.
Srdjan: I also observe that there is a positive and a negative side. These two forces are also literally fighting each other in the areas of politics, digitalization, and business. How do you experience the positive side
Thomas: In my view, there are two positive aspects of the crisis: an individual and a collective one. Collectively, there is a lot of solidarity and mutual support. People care for other people who belong to a risk group. I observe that despite, or perhaps even because of the social distance into which we have all been forced, the need for closeness, attachment and relationship has increased. Some people report that relationships have become deeper and more connected – even though communication has been allowed for a long time and mostly only virtually, in both private and professional contexts. Individually, we were, so to speak, exposed to ourselves and/or spent a lot of time with the whole family. On the one hand, this was a breeding ground for friction, but on the other hand, we got to know ourselves perhaps a little bit better. To a certain extent, we were forced to move from bustle into silence. This can be a challenge, but it also opens up opportunities.
Srdjan: It seems to me that there are two sides to leadership: One is, as you say, personal, in that we come back to ourselves and guide ourselves, and the other is interpersonal. The latter is driven by the personal and shows itself in the way we interact with each other. These two sides have not disappeared with the Covid-19 pandemic, but have even potentiated if I understand it correctly?
Thomas: Yes, if you want to build and maintain a relationship with other people, it helps to have a solid foundation of self-competence. This means that you should know yourself well and be in balance with yourself. In the many years of my work, I have become increasingly aware that this is a key to human and, therefore, effective leadership. An impressive example of this is one of my clients, a pharmaceutical company that sent the majority of its employees to the home office at the beginning of the pandemic. During this time, an employee satisfaction survey was conducted, with overwhelming results: employee satisfaction went through the roof! This prompted the company management to let the employees decide for themselves in the future whether they would prefer to work from home or in the office. Everyone has the individual choice to work where he or she is most satisfied and happy. Thus, a large organization has understood that employee satisfaction is an essential factor for productivity. Two of the main factors influencing satisfaction are the quality of relationships and the quality of leadership.
Srdjan: It’s true; effectiveness is actually related to well-being and how I feel connected to myself and the people around me.
Thomas: My basic human needs must also be met. The need to be appreciated by colleagues and superiors. The need to be heard or the need to be able to act largely autonomously. By moving the workplace from the office to the home, the need for autonomy is better met. The question is what of all this we will continue later.
Srdjan: What can we get after the pandemic? What are the good things, and how can we preserve them? Humanity in leadership is essential. Emotional intelligence is essential. Friendliness is important. The way you deal with your employees is important. In our work as coaches we make the experience that managers have an almost natural tendency to work on strengths and weaknesses. In this context, a strength can sometimes be exaggerated and become a problem. How do you deal with something like that?
Thomas: This is an essential point: I personally do not believe in this concept of strengths and weaknesses. A characteristic you have can be a strength in one context and a hindrance in another context, and more likely, a weakness. As I understand it, I prefer to speak simply of qualities. We have qualities, and every quality has two sides, like a coin. It can be helpful and useful, but it also has a dark side and can be a hindrance, practically “too much of a good thing”.
Srdjan: Too much of a good thing, that is, a quality driven to the extreme, can become a weakness?
Thomas: Exactly. In my opinion, the goal should be to get into balance. If I have a certain strength, I am particularly good at something, and therefore, I may tend to overdo it. To balance this, it can help to integrate a little more of the other extreme of my strength. One example: If someone is very frugal and cost-conscious, always keeping an eye on the numbers and focusing on opportunities for savings, then that is good for the company. But if this cost awareness is exaggerated, it can tip over at a certain point. Investments might be important, but they are not made for fear of spending money unnecessarily and can harm the company.
Thus, thriftiness can become stinginess – but basically, it is one and the same quality that becomes an obstacle. If we recognize such a positive characteristic in ourselves, it can be helpful to look at the other extreme more closely and try to understand why other people throw the money out the window from our perspective. Then, we could consider, for example, how a cost-conscious person can integrate more generosity into their personality in order to become more balanced and avoid extremes.
Srdjan: In research with Hogan, for example, we have seen a mature person would never push their willingness to take risks to the limit. They have learned through experience that you have to balance things out in a certain way. In terms of leadership, it is impossible for one person to have all the necessary qualities. She needs a team that consists of as many different personalities as possible with different qualities who can contribute to the team. How do you see this?
Thomas: It is important to realize that nobody can cover all qualities and, therefore, it is all about diversity. The diversity of a team with different personalities and qualities is more than the sum of its elements. This diversity can make things happen, but it can also be a breeding ground for conflict because differences create friction. On the other hand, differences can also lead to enrichment, creativity, and innovation. The essential question here is whether we can accept or even appreciate differences as equivalent qualities in ourselves and others. And whether we do not regard the uniqueness or otherness of others as wrong or inferior, but as what it is: different. If all people in the world were to see these differences merely for what they are, many problems would not even exist.
Srdjan: I think you are talking about understanding. Understanding for others, and that they are different. This is a quality that each of us should have.
Thomas: Absolutely. To reach a point where we can tolerate or even admire the differences of other people, we must first understand ourselves. The better you can understand and accept your own uniqueness, the better you can do the same with others.
Srdjan: From your point of view, what path should a leader take in order to accept the diversity of others?
Thomas: Integration instead of competition. It makes a difference which climate a manager creates in his or her team. Does it create and promote competition or does it create and promote community and cooperation? Does she succeed in creating a climate of security in which everyone dares to say what is on their mind? In which everyone can admit without fear that they have made a mistake? In which everyone can openly communicate when they are at a loss? Where everyone feels valued as a person for the contribution they make to the company? Or does the manager rather create a climate of psychological threat, where every employee is under constant stress and emotional tension because nobody knows what happens when a mistake is made. Where meetings are all about who is to blame, rather than asking how it happened, what needs to be done to prevent it from happening in the future and what can be learned as an organization. Unfortunately, far too many managers see this human aspect of leadership, in which psychological security and trust are created, as weakness.
Srdjan: Many managers achieve short-term results by highly exploiting their employees and literally wearing them out to achieve their goals. What do you think of this management style?
Thomas: The good news is that there is a trend – in the right direction. We are seeing more and more women and men in management positions who lead in a very human and employee-oriented way – and are therefore very effective. Nevertheless, there are still too many leaders for whom numbers, data and facts are more important and who still live a rather traditional management style in the sense of “Command & Control”. This approach may have been effective in the industrial age of the last century, but is no longer considered contemporary. A leader today must be able to recognize when he or she should lead in a very clear and directive manner because circumstances require it and when, for example, an agile approach is more effective. Then it is really effective.
Srdjan: A leader should therefore be balanced, neither too soft nor too directive, and always be able to identify the type of leadership that is most effective in the long run, taking into account the situation.
Thomas: Absolutely. It’s almost like reducing the polarity, bringing the extremes into greater balance. We will never get rid of polarity, because we live in a dual world. Duality is everywhere – although we might be able to make it more balanced.
Srdjan: For us as coaches, this means that we need to use our tools and skills, as well as our behavior, more attentively. Being present in the moment and recognizing what the moment requires in order to use it in the right way for the situation.
Thomas: This is a core element and applies not only to us as coaches, but also and especially to managers in companies. Science has finally found evidence why mindfulness works and how mindfulness changes the brain and puts us in a positive state of serene presence. We know that the brain in a positive state works better, more effectively, more creatively and more productively than a brain in a neutral or even negative state – that is, under stress. Basically, it is quite simple: Which emotional state a leader creates in a team is absolutely crucial. And this in turn depends directly on the manager’s own emotional state. So it all starts again with oneself.
Srdjan: There are important things that come with increased mindfulness. You can even use your anger in a constructive way. Especially at a time when many people are angry about social unrest in the world, mindful leaders can use this in a fruitful way by transforming and channeling all this energy into something constructive and operational.
Thomas: Yes, especially dealing with anger and rage. It is not anger that is bad, but rather the uncontrolled, unchanneled and non-constructive expression of anger. It is a signal that something is not as it should be and can then lead to positive change if it is consciously perceived early on. Then you are still able to make a considered decision about what you want to do. Talking about it with the person concerned can be one way of dealing with anger, for example. This is then a healthy way of dealing with it. If you only realize that you are annoyed after you literally exploded, it is too late.
Srdjan: We can teach others how to deal with anger and resentment in a mindful and skillful way and to transform both into positive and constructive energy?
Thomas: Yes of course. And as with many other things, consciousness is the key. Only what we are aware of can we control and direct. What we are not aware of controls us.
Srdjan: Our relationships are also much healthier when we put our mindful self into a real and authentic connection with others, right?
Thomas: Right. And the quality of relationships is particularly crucial in leadership and collaboration. As a manager, I want to be able to do something to change a situation. By my saying or doing, I might want to invite a person to change their behavior. I’m looking for a way to make them open up to me. And it is important to be able to listen. Listening in order to understand the other person and help, rather than listening to answer or to be right.
Srdjan: What can we, as coaches, convey to the leaders if we want to support them in this process?
Thomas: The first and very important step in any change is for the manager to become aware of what the current reality looks like and also to know their blind spots. Once this awareness is there, one knows that words do not teach. You have to experience it by making small changes and see what happens: Go into the next meeting with the intention of giving more space to others and listening to what they have to say. Every leader can do this little experiment on his or her own at some point and see what effect it has. He may then discover that it not only works, but even better than before. It is a continuous process. Small steps that lead to small successes, which in turn lead to bigger successes and motivate people to become a little more courageous, to try new things and to leave the comfort zone. Because that is where growth and development take place. It is a process that takes time. It is a journey.
Srdjan: Self-knowledge is one part. But beyond that, you also have to get into action – and this is what distinguishes us as executive coaches from therapists: We develop people with leadership responsibility to change their behavior in order to increase the effectiveness of their team and their organization – and of course to contribute to their own well-being.
Thomas: Exactly. Some aspects help additionally: a certain humility of the person who wants to develop further and the courage to face the feedback of others. Discipline to constantly repeat what you have learned until it becomes a new habit. Only then does it not cost any more effort, because it is integrated and has become established in natural behavior. The beauty of it is that leaders are always role models and when their behavior changes for the better, they invite others to follow suit.
Srdjan: So leadership behavior is a lever for the behavior of others and influences the culture in the team?
Srdjan: Thank you, Thomas, for this interview.
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