Leadership is the ability to influence others. As simple as my definition of leadership is, the act of effective leadership requires skill and has lasting implications to its recipients. I have always been passionate about leadership. Long before I understood the theory and data, I observed very early the effect of effective and competent leadership. Equally through my career I have also been the recipient of and a witness to the carnage of incompetent, toxic and dysfunctional leadership. This dichotomy was one of the reasons I decided to start my business Build Global.
I have a skill for combining effective leadership practices with core business services to provide solutions. Build Global is one of the platforms that I have that gives me the opportunity to be a leader, add value, serve my community, clients and ecosystem. Influencing, service and value are all attributes I believe are required for effective leadership. Leading is not only about its definition but the attributes that underpin the act. There are a number of sources that provide tips and tools for effective leadership such as, Harvard Business Review’s, “The most important leadership competencies to leaders around the world”. However, there are three attributes that I want to focus on, the inconvenient voice, empathy and conflict management.
From relations after a post Brexit Britain, to the UK economy experiencing an increase in size post downturn at 7.3% yielding concerns about the pace of growth, external factors are increasingly making their way into daily interactions while opportunities are still being created. Leadership today requires effective management through contrasts. Today’s leader must extend their attributes to include the inconvenient voice, empathy and conflict management. Let’s explore this through a recent experience.
During my journey on the DLR, I heard a young man state to the operator, as he was entering “can you please not shut the door in my face”. The operator in turn stated “ I didn’t shut the door in your face”. The young man retorted, “yes you did”. They went back and forth until the young man finally said “can we just leave it here”. The operator said, “No, you need to get off the train”. The young man refused stating that he purchased a ticket and would not leave. The operator responded by shutting the train down and calling for support while the young man refused to leave.
During this time a group of individuals were screaming at the young man and using smart phones to record the incident. Several moments later another DLR operator enters the train and initially politely asks the young man to leave. Again, the young man refuses and the operator responds by using force to physically remove him. The operator tries this twice but both efforts fail.
The young man responds by saying “I can’t believe you touched me”. At this point I have now gotten up to speak to the parties involved. A larger crowd has formed on the platform and is still screaming at the young man. As I am making my way to the scene and the young man is calming down, the same DLR operator lunges using excessive force to hoist the young man from behind trying to remove him from the train. Four men step in between the DLR operator and the young man to prevent another attempt.
The young man has rightfully noted he has been assaulted. Once the two are separated, I speak to the young man and crowd to de-escalate the situation. When the police arrive, me and another young woman are the only people who stay behind to provide our accounts.
While there are several themes to pick up, I will deconstruct the situation through the three attributes of focus.
As a leader it is paramount to tap into the inconvenient voice. Speaking up when it is not convenient even when sometimes the stakes are high. In this situation I was getting up to speak to a visibly upset young man in between what turned into a hostile audience as well as missing my meetings. In the context of business, it may be the moment when a peer states an idea that is repeated by another counter-part and credit is attributed to the wrong person, it could be when you witness a line-manager taking credit for work that was clearly from the team, it could be promotion and/or compensation discussions that marginalized someone because they are not ‘liked’.
These situations and many more provide opportunities for the inconvenient voice to have an audience and are required to cultivate a safe and thriving environment.
I have personally had doors slammed in my face. Rejection either physically or figuratively is part of doing business. Therefore, I could empathize with the young man wanting a modicum of respect. Equally, I understood the first DLR operators desire to be respected. Both men did not have empathy for each other and neither did the majority of the travelers that day. Everyone was right; however empathy could have ended the situation before it began. As a leader the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your teams, community and clients fosters better relationships and facilities open communication.
The entire situation could have been avoided through the skilled application of conflict management. The ability to effectively manage conflict through constructive feedback, difficult conversation, and de-escalation is imperative for today’s global leader. A lot of leaders engage in conflict avoidance or conflict contribution. However, given the rate of change and disruption all industries are experiencing, leaders are now being sought to mitigate and manage conflict now more than ever. The skill of effectively managing conflict is required for increased productivity and performance.
I am a believer that skilled leadership changes the world. Adding the inconvenient voice, empathy and conflict management to your portfolio will ensure effective and competent leadership that creates space for others while delivering value.
Sabrina Clarke is the founder of Build Global, an organisation committed to supporting, recognising and contributing to leadership, community and economic development. She has built her subject matter expertise in leadership, strategy, organisational performance, culture, change and transformation across industry disciplines internationally working for organisations such as EY, Nordstrom, Ogilvy & Mather, Barclays Investment Bank and Barclays PLC.