Leading from the heart

Good leadership is about far more than profit. Lani Carstens, Managing Director at John Brown Media South Africa and part-time executive coach, shares her top insights into being a better, more balanced leader – in life and at work.

The world is changing rapidly. Increasing interconnectedness and accelerated development have made the need to enhance the way we collaborate with colleagues and clients greater than ever before. Leaders are also tasked with delivering commercial outcomes (and keeping shareholders happy) while cultivating and mentoring employees within an ever-shifting business environment.

So, what makes a good leader?

There is plenty of research, opinion and expertise available on the subject, but a common thread that seems to run through it all is that EQ matters as much, if not more, than IQ. A great leader is said to display self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and strong social skills. Hardly surprising, and of course easier said than done, especially in a stressful work environment.

I’m sure we’ve all had encounters with different leadership styles, but the most critical lessons I’ve learnt are the importance of not only being authentic and knowing what you stand for, but also practicing rigorous consistency between what you feel and what you say or do. There should be harmony between your own values, that of the organisation and how you “show up” in both. People are quick to detect when a leader’s actions contradict company values (perhaps because we’re primed by politicians dominating the headlines, where we see examples of this playing out in real life).

A science-based perspective 

Being a great leader also means understanding what motivates people, in order to collaborate more closely and elevate performance and culture. There is a relatively simple model from a neuroscientific study (also known as SCARF) conducted in 2007, which states that our brains are hard-wired to move away from perceived threats and towards rewards. It essentially speaks to five domains of human behaviour, which I am sure will resonate with most of us:

Status: Knowing one’s relative status in an organisation (or at home) and getting supportive feedback and recognition for one’s work is a very important driver of positive human behaviour. This is not only about the role we play at work but also our roles within the greater community or at home. An example of a threat to one’s status could mean promoting someone who is not ready (increasing the likelihood of incompetence). Recognising and rewarding someone’s performance, particularly in front of their peers, has a positive impact on one’s perceived standing within the organisation.

Certainty: People are wired to try to predict their future – and any change, however small, is perceived as a threat. This is particularly tricky in business where rapid change seems to be the only constant! So how do we help to create some stability? Leaders can help by setting clear objectives and outcomes, and by breaking complex situations down into smaller steps. Communication is also key. Letting people know when they can expect feedback, and making sure you give it to them, will help to establish a sense of certainty.

Autonomy: This is the sense of control you feel over your environment, and having choices. If you give someone a project to run, set clear parameters and let them get on with it, making it clear that they have your support, even if it means making mistakes (how else do we learn?). Micromanagement is poisonous to a healthy company culture. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Relatedness: This is the extent to which you feel you are part of a greater whole, be it your family, friends, organisation or community. People naturally form “tribes” and knowing whether you are “in” or “out” socially is a key driver of how you behave. Higher levels of relatedness in an organisation lead to higher levels of trust – we generally trust people we have a good connection with. Ways to build relatedness at work can be through setting up opportunities to collaborate in small groups, coaching and mentoring sessions or social networking sessions. Never underestimate the importance of downtime and sharing a fun activity with your colleagues!

Fairness: The perception that we are not being treated fairly is one of the greatest hindrances to a healthy company culture. Having different sets of “rules” for different teams, or if company values are not being demonstrated by its leaders, can lead to a perception of unfairness. Leaders need to be as transparent as possible about company or business challenges, keep the lines of communication open, and set clear, measurable and achievable objectives.

Finally, a quote from one of the greatest leaders of our time: “A leader… is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, where upon others follow, not realising that all along the way they are being directed from behind.” – Nelson Mandela