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A Leadership Stimulus Package

Rotman School of Management’s Nouman Ashraf offers a prescription for better post-pandemic leadership

 

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Facing an economic downturn as universal and disruptive as the pandemic that caused it, governments around the world are considering fiscal stimuli and incentives to kick start recovery. Nouman Ashraf believes we need to go deeper—we need radical action to strengthen the leadership we will need to rebuild a better future. We need a leadership stimulus package.

Ashraf, an Assistant Professor within the Organizational Behaviour area at Rotman School of Management, maintains that “leadership work is people work. And, if you can't love them, you can't lead them—not that you have to love everyone that you lead. But in everyone that you lead, there must be something that you have to love to see grow and to develop.” This clearly resonates with the situation we find ourselves in after the pandemic. Employees at all levels of organizations have been under considerable stress and leadership focus must first be about helping people recover, in order to help organizations and ultimately the economy recover too.

Nouman Ashraf

“A leader’s role is to sufficiently care about the people in their team,” says Ashraf. “And to discover what it is that each individual wants to do with excellence.” To do this they need to shift the lens a little bit away from just motivational theory—aligning the conditions that will reward behaviour—towards doing things that create equal value for the organization. “You have to ask people: what do you want to be excellent in, in the context of your role?” At the same time, leaders should ask the team what it needs from them, and what adjustments are needed by the organization to enable team members to achieve excellence.

There are a couple of things that can get in the way of this conversational approach to leadership. First, the phenomenon called propinquity—our human tendency to be attracted to people of like kind. “The leader’s role isn't just to guide and support those that resonate with their personal outlook and ways of behaving, but to have a higher calling,” what Ashraf describes as a “duty of care obligation.” As a leader this means a duty to enable excellence from everyone at all levels, being inclusive and being open to diverse perspectives to enable valuable authentic dialogue. The second potential barrier to a meaningful dialogue is what Ashraf terms “privilege inequity”—the sense in which, from the comfort of the executive suite, leaders can be disconnected from their employees.

Privilege inequity has been highlighted during the pandemic, where typically an executive locked-down in his or her relatively large home can too easily assume others are in the same position—when their young team will likely be struggling to balance complex work and family commitments, doing so with young kids, and maybe from crowded apartments. “The assumption that somehow everyone can work from home, and just pull up their bootstraps and get on with it, demonstrates that leaders have forgotten one thing, that leadership works if people work,” says Ashraf. It highlights how leaders should invest in their people by always asking the question: what do you need to be excellent?

In everyone that you lead, there must be something that you have to love to see grow and to develop

Prior to the pandemic, leaders were, typically, deeply entrenched in their own reality—reacting to what the board wanted, worrying about next quarter’s figures or changing customer trends, planning to renegotiate terms with creditors, and so forth. Coming out of the crisis, says Ashraf, “It is time leaders were given some tools, some exercises, some leadership development, that gets them up-to-speed on the behaviour and lived experiences of the ones they are leading.” He quotes the Marshall Goldsmith’s adage, “What got you here won't get you there.” Leaders need a stimulus package.

Three components of a leadership stimulus package

  1. Safe spaces. Instead of chastising leaders, and wagging fingers at them, it is important that HR professionals and executive educators create safe spaces for leaders to talk about their areas, not of competence, but of incompetence. Ashraf’s observation, as somebody who regularly coaches and engages with board executives, is that “there are far too many comfort zones and not enough safe spaces. You've got to enable safe space for people to be honest about what they don't know.”
  2. Authenticity. The stimulus package should require leaders to develop capabilities to be “meaningfully vulnerable and honest, around challenges that they themselves are facing.”
  1. Paying attention. Leaders need help in developing “the capacity for active listening, synthesizing, and operationalizing.” A common mistake is that, rather than really listening and providing valuable support, leaders merely respond by talking about their own misery—when someone says ‘I'm really struggling with this’ and the leader says, ‘yeah, same thing here’ and turns the conversation back to themselves. Communication of suffering is not the answer.

Active listening can be hampered by what Ashraf describes as “the overconfidence in one's own perspective…. If you start to believe your own press clippings about how great you are, then what incentive do you have to listen deeply?” This goes back to leadership work being people work. To build a resilient successful organization we must focus on people and ask the question, what behaviours do we as leaders and our team members as individuals need to start, stop, and continue.

To find answers leaders need, as Ashraf puts it, “completely different ways of thinking, because that's where the good stuff comes from. If you keep going to the same old, same old, right, you're going to get the same old, same old.” A stimulus package should encourage leaders to abandon their preference biases and welcome diverse views and different perspectives. Ashraf uses the term “emancipatory leadership.” Emancipatory leadership is based on the simple premise that leaders do great things for themselves and their organization. “Not because they don't have strong preference biases, but despite them.”

A stimulus package should encourage leaders to abandon their preference biases and welcome diverse views and different perspectives

“Imagine how much more actualized, impactful, and engaged leaders might be if they have some tools to mitigate these strong preference biases in themselves and at the organizational culture level,” asks Ashraf. Emancipatory leadership, he says, allows leaders to “emancipate themselves from epistemic privilege—the way we privilege what we see to be valuable.”

To counter the various barriers to effective leadership a stimulus package should encourage reflective practice and discernment (a more considered quality than judgment, which just says I like that or I don't). Discernment involves asking a question: How does this new idea both challenge my thinking and inform us? The package should also focus on empathy, understanding that empathy is not about lowering expectations. Leadership empathy is actually about raising the leader’s acute awareness of people’s needs in terms of excellence and in the context of the organization’s needs. As Ashraf suggests, quoting the old adage, “empathy is about walking a mile in somebody else's shoes.”

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Nouman Ashraf is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream within the Organizational Behavior area and Director, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Rotman School of Management. He possesses a broad range of professional, academic and research interests, with a specialized focus on enabling inclusive and innovative practices within teams, organizations and boards.

For the last decade and a half, he has held progressively senior roles at the University of Toronto, including most recently as the Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion the Rotman School of Management.

He is a recognized thought leader in governance and has taught thousands of directors in the national Rotman program on Not for Profit Governance in partnership with the Institute for Corporate Directors since its inception in 2007.


Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world



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