The Myth Many Professionals Believe About Leadership

Advice from Seattle U's Dr. Marilyn Gist on empathy, leadership styles and developing the "whole person."

April 4, 2017

Jane Robinson


Sponsored by Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics

Business leaders today have to succeed in an environment that’s transparent, fast-paced and rapidly evolving. Whether it’s navigating an unexpected social media scandal, uniting a diverse workforce to build a strong, cohesive culture, or managing shareholder, customer and employee expectations, business leaders have to think and act quickly, decisively and ethically in a climate where their every action can instantly become the subject of public scrutiny.

The Executive Education programs at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics give mid- to senior- level managers the tools to do this. We asked Dr. Marilyn Gist, professor emerita, management and past executive director of the Center for Leadership Formation at Seattle Universitys Albers School of Business and Economics, for her advice for professionals on a range of topics, including how technology impacts leadership, the quality most business leaders share and the downside of being driven.

Whats the biggest myth incoming executive education students have about leadership in business?

The most memorable, significant leaders are known for broader impactcreating a culture and results that affect others in a positive and significant way. Yet many experienced managers believe that the measure of a good leader is primarily good business results.

One of the tenets of your leadership program is developing the whole person. What areas do you find most business leaders need to develop moreor tend to over-develop?

Educating the whole person requires more than delivering intellectual knowledge. It means providing experiences that develop emotional and even spiritual dimensions.

One quality many leaders lack is a deep sense of empathy. They may demonstrate caring and the desire to help others. These form a strong foundation for the practice of empathy. But true empathy is the ability to understand anothers experience. Many leaders assume they know what others need and make decisions based on that. They dont reflexively check assumptions to ensure they are on track. Good leadership always starts with asking questions and listening to the answers.

If I had to name one common deficit, it would be that emerging leaders can have blind spots around how they are perceived. Theyve been successful and effective so their sense of self is built on that, and rightly so, but they have yet to develop a mature, integrated understanding of themselves.

Notice I say yet. Anyone can develop a clearer, less-insular level of self-awareness through reflection and discernment but it requires time, effort, and commitment.

A common, over-developed quality is that business leaders tend to be driven. They are geared toward high achievement and working at a rapid pace. Being driven is an excellent quality in some ways, but it has a down side. Many leaders need to invest in understanding the needs of those working with them. Often, in their drive to achieve, they can fail because their actions conflict with human dynamics like motivation, team constraints, and political agendas.

In your experience, how much do cultural and gender differences impact business leadership style? How do you teach leaders to incorporate those differences?

Cultural differences, including gender, tend to shape how we approach others. The dominant model in the US is that of a native-born white male. People whose background is different may bring different histories, behavioral norms, and interests. They may also lack role models to help navigate these differences. So it can be tougher for them to feel they fit in, and both sides may need to make an effort to adapt.

Whats important is that there are many ways to lead effectively. One size does not fit all, so we need to focus on the desired organizational goal and provide support for those whose backgrounds encourage different approaches.

In our programs, we emphasize that a deep sense of empathy is one quality great leaders share. The ability to recognize the commonalities among different groupsa hallmark of empathyand to focus on those is one tactic leaders can use to deal with differences. And you can be taught to do that.

Likewise, people can also be taught to see and understand situations from different vantage points and make decisions that benefit diverse constituencies.

The possibility of reaching a win-win outcome is greater when all parties have a chance to be heard. How that outcome is reachedthe process used and the interim choices that are made to reach itis what separates effective managers from influential leaders.

Issues related to ethics in business are increasingly in the news. What ethics-related areas do you believe are most important for business leaders to understand and embrace today, and what areas seem to be the most misunderstood by current business leaders?

Its critical for leaders to realize that, regardless of their position or level, they are public figurespeople are always watching them. Integrity is a hallmark of great leaders. Word and deed should match, and respect for policy, regulation and law are essential. If we do those things, we will avoid most ethical dilemmas.

However, leaders are sometimes forced to operate in a gray zone where it isnt entirely clear whats best, or where none of the options is particularly good. Situations like these can present ethical challenges. Sometimes a decision simply must be made and its going to involve unpleasant trade-offs.

How should business leaders use social media?

Leaders have embraced social media in several ways. They understand its value for marketing, and most organizations use various tools to support that. Some leaders also use social media for communicating with customers and employees. They blog, or they post to internal social nets. Others use it for networking. So these are some effective uses that are quite common.

In terms of challenges, again, leaders are public persona and need to be mindful that anything they post on the internet has a life of its own. We often hear of comments going viral that may have been intended for a private audience. Apart from this, social media exposes us to the range of humanity and its opinions. Leaders are not immune from trollsor even from harsh, public, online critiques of their comments and policies. So its important to think carefully about how we use social media and what we actually say.

Seattle is a hotbed for technology related business. What unique challenges does the tech industry bring to leadership in business?

Tech companies face many of the same leadership issues that other industries do but the pace might be faster and effects can be exacerbated. Leaders inevitably answer to others for the decisions they make and the impact of their results.

For example, a start-up has a finite amount of seed capital and a finite amount of time to show returns. How do they balance speed and efficiency with quality, and what are the implications of that for others? For a company like Amazon, what are the effects of their growth on the livability and cost of living in Seattle? The challenges that face bio-tech companies are fraught with implications for peoples lives. What if the wonder drug of today turns out to have serious complications/side-effects a few years down the road?

When the innovation curve is higher, the speed of impact increases. Leaders need to be nimbler in both anticipating and responding to the challenges that result.

What’s the most important business advice you personally ever received?

From a career-development standpoint, follow your heart. If that requires a job or career change, do it and dont look back. The world tends to rearrange itself to support you when you take a stand for whats in your heart.

Executive Education at Seattle University’s nationally ranked Albers School of Business and Economics is designed exclusively for mid- to senior-level professionals, to bring out the best in leadership for a changing world. Learn more about their programs here.