My title could have read Why I Champion Conscious Empathic Leadership In Men, to emphasise the extra importance of men having to work more consciously at displaying empathic behaviours in their leadership, but that feels just as sexist as saying that female leaders need to ‘man up’!
Traditional ‘male’ characteristics like decisive, powerful, authoritarian and abrasive are not solely displayed by men, any more than traditional ‘female- labelled’ characteristics like empathy, tolerance, vulnerability, sustainability and intuition are displayed only by women. Many male and female leaders demonstrate a mix of both.
Leadership traits are not gender specific!
There’s no denying the historical male/female divide however, with power and opportunity dramatically weighed towards men. Women have been suppressed for decades, subconsciously as well as consciously.
In recent years there’s been a cultural shift in the Western world. The way women have systemically been treated as inferior is being challenged and overturned. Women are being treated with greater respect and their voices are increasingly being heard.
This is long overdue. However, the harsh truth is, for a lot of (especially) older men in executive leadership positions their ingrained perceptions of the male/ female dynamic run deep. It takes a colossal amount of conscious effort to overturn these entrenched prejudices.
I speak from personal experience when I say that this effort is well worth it. It reaps huge rewards for leaders who can shift their own behaviours, both for themselves and for everyone around them.
My own leadership style has changed over the last 20 years. I used to demonstrate incredibly ‘male’ characteristics. I founded, built and sold five companies in 25 years, the epitome of a single-minded, target- driven approach to business, quite oblivious to the effect I had on other people or how I communicated with them. The impact of my words and actions just wasn’t on my radar. I was tunnel-visioned and purely results-oriented.
Then, a series of bad experiences in business stopped me in my tracks. I stepped back, took stock, listened to the nagging voice inside me that was telling me something wasn’t right. My successes felt hollow and my soul felt empty. As I unpicked my behaviours and examined what was truly important, I slowly evolved into the leader I am today.
I had always believed that love in business was an interesting concept; however, it had been a small voice that was drowned out as I chased financial results.
Now, I consciously encourage that side of me to flourish. I connected my values to how I conducted my business relationships.
What does love in business mean to me?
Stereotypically, in the business world some leaders are embarrassed by the word love and find it an incongruous fit.
They’ve shied away from the word itself. Yet love doesn’t have to mean lovey dovey… hearts and flowers… the ‘woo-woo’ stuff. For me, the very definition of love in business can be distilled into two words: purpose and passion.
And the facts bear this approach out (see Footnote #1 below).
That’s why I believe in purpose-led businesses. That means doing business with care, empathy, engagement, tough love and radical candour (see Footnote #2 below) at times — though always grounded in the value of love. It means being connected to a greater good, a desire to make a positive impact for the people you work with, your customers, the planet, and the world at large. In other words, the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ = People, Planet and Profit (see Footnote #3 below).
To want to make money is a given. However, without a purpose, we are chasing short-term goals with no lasting fulfilment, either personally or professionally.
To lead an organisation that does business in a way that balances commerce and compassion; putting long-term sustainability ahead of short-term profit, you must authentically live the leadership qualities that epitomise these values.
Through my own experience and that of so many others’, I feel it’s vital that business and love are intertwined. How important this is, in addition to the impact it has across your business ecosystem, can’t be underestimated. Traditional male characteristics have been seen as the ‘hard’ side of business and traditional female characteristics have been seen as the ‘soft’ side of business.
Robert Haas, Chairman and CEO of Levi Strauss & Company, said, “What we’ve learned is that the soft stuff and the hard stuff are becoming increasingly intertwined. A company’s values — what it stands for, what its people believe in — are crucial to its competitive success. Indeed, values drive the business.”
You must ensure that your business has a defined, articulated Purpose and Values; think of it as an equation:'Purpose + Values = DNA' or, if you prefer, Culture. Then, you have a foundation on which you can build and actively manage your business’s DNA. The benefits of building and managing your business’s DNA include:
Increasing employee retention.
Attracting and recruiting better talent.
Strengthening your brand’s reputation.
Improving productivity through a happier, more engaged team.
Making better decisions.
Boosting your P&L.
Increasing shareholder value (see Footnote #4 below).
You can’t manage your business’s DNA in isolation. You can, however, lead by example, through your consistent, considerate, respectful and motivational behaviours.
Be constantly mindful that the right people are your business’s most important asset — hire slowly, fire quickly. Think about how you’re going to attract and retain, lead, manage and motivate your team. As a leader, it’s your job to ‘own’ the environment and be in tune with the atmosphere. Is there any friction? Any resentment? Any insecurities or misconceptions? Negative situations like these need to be identified and resolved honestly and transparently.
There could be die-hard prejudices at play.
It’s common, for example, to have an atmosphere of unconscious bias against women; intrinsically feeling that they’re inferior — that their opinions don’t carry the same weight as a man’s around a boardroom table. A woman in this situation can feel unheard, outnumbered and frustrated, which can then spiral into withdrawal and self-doubt. An empathic and relationship-oriented leader will pick up on this and manage the dynamics to equalise the voices in the room.
The business world is changing fast, partly driven by Gen X, Millenials and Gen Z entering the workplace — all with very different expectations from Baby Boomers.
Openness towards, discussion about, and the platform given to mental wellbeing, has exploded. With the amount of time people spend at work, it’s inevitable and absolutely right that this shift in understanding, and awareness of and sensitivity towards people’s mental health, is becoming more and more inextricably woven into leadership styles that are fit for purpose in today’s environment — traditional feminine traits like compassion, deep-listening, patience, generosity and emotional intelligence, to name a few.
It can be hugely challenging for ‘old school’ male leaders to evolve their leadership style into this newer consciousness. Just like an elite golfer who changes their golf swing technique halfway through their career, it can take a mammoth effort, intense concentration and sustained hard work to make the change. However, their results show that it is worth it.
Leading with purpose — with love — expands beyond the leader’s fulfilment to create a more harmonious environment, leading to a happier, more secure, more productive and thriving workforce who will generate better quality output and a more profitable business for all (see Footnote #4 below).
A recent survey (see Footnote #5 below) of over 2,000 employees in the UK found that 55% had left their jobs because of bad management, with the majority of respondents saying they didn’t think managers were equipped to deal with the human or emotional sides of their jobs. This resonated with me and really highlights the importance of this transformation in how we approach leadership.
Just saying the words love in business like a mantra is not much use. It needs a practical application in business. It’s about engagement.
So, what is your approach to running your business? How do you engage with your colleagues, your team, your suppliers, and your clients? Do you acknowledge your colleagues, clients or suppliers when they do a good job?
And don’t forget yourself!
Are you open, genuine and transparent in the way that you deal with people? What about a spirit of partnership in your approach to business? Love in business is all about relationships rather than transactions. Relationships created through shared values — how often have you been offered a big contract but you’re doubtful about how your business would be treated by the client? Of course, business is not all a bowl of cherries and sometimes you have to let people go. I call it tough love. You can still be caring, though you have to challenge directly and honestly.
An interesting example I’m picturing, where the effectiveness of a visionary male leader approach is being challenged, is a niche medical instruments manufacturer I know of. Sitting on a goldmine of potential, having invented a revolutionary, perfectly timed and highly sought after new product, this company is projected to increase its shareholder value by a huge amount. The Board comprises ‘big guns’ with much experience and successful track records. They've recently recruited a senior female marketing expert, who isn't a board member but would like to be in the future. However, the perception of her and treatment towards her by the all-male board leaves a lot to be desired. The atmosphere is crackling with the eager anticipation they’re all feeling. You could say it’s a testosterone-fuelled environment. Their eyes are on the prize; they’re single-mindedly driving the business towards the jackpot that’s awaiting them if all goes well. It’s a tricky dynamic — making sure everyone feels secure and valued so that they can all perform at their optimum level for the combined good of the company. Achieving this requires the CEO to embrace emotional intelligence and harness his so-called ‘feminine’ leadership traits, in order to have an aligned, motivated Senior Leadership Team.
Let’s go back to the key word in the title of this chapter — empathy — and deep-dive into its meaning. Empathy is about assuming someone else’s life circumstances, walking a mile in their shoes to genuinely understand what they are going through. It starts with listening. Listening with a view to understanding sets the scene for a relationship built on trust.
A good leader forms an alliance with their colleagues, stands in the trenches with them, experiences the highs and lows and is always ready to hear what their colleagues have to say.
Empathy also means that understanding flows in both directions. A good leader will hear their team out and listen well, and also communicate well too; being generous in sharing their knowledge and insights.
It’s telling that, when I define six qualities of good leaders, they are grounded in the so-called 'feminine' leadership traits. They are:
Empathy and self-awarenesss.
Prioritises personal and professional development.
Focuses on developing others.
Encourages strategic thinking, innovation and action.
Advocates and demonstrates the values of the business.
As a leader, ask yourself how many of the six qualities can you confidently tick? This list is a fantastic benchmark for sense checking your leadership style. Do you have the attributes to be an effective leader today and all the tomorrows to come? And, if you don’t, are you self-aware enough to realise it — an attribute that’s often the biggest hurdle for many leaders. Then, are you willing to put the work in to evolve, grow and improve?
If you are, the sense of purpose, joy and fulfilment you’ll receive in return will be priceless… as well as the level of your business success.
Note This is the chapter I contributed to ‘Visionary Male Leaders’, a bestselling book edited by Sarah Bellorini, in which 15 influential male leaders write about identifying and integrating feminine and masculine leadership traits. The book is available from Amazon.
In the book ‘Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose’, the authors measured 28 corporations over a two-year period, 18 of which were publicly listed, using this model. These widely-loved public companies outperformed the S&P 500 by huge margins, over ten-, five, and three-year time horizons. The public ‘FoEs’ returned 1,026 percent for investors over the ten years ending June 30, 2006, compared to 122 percent for the S&P 500; that’s more than an 8-to-1 ratio!
Scott. K (Author) (2019). Radical Candour. Pan Macmillan.
Elkington. J (Author) (1999). Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Capstone.
A recent Deloitte Insights report found that purpose-driven companies witness higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction.
A YouGov survey of 2,006 employees, conducted in 2018 on behalf of HR and payroll solutions provider MHR.