LORI’S BLOG

Intentionality and Diversity of Thought in Leadership: Is it enough without empathy?

Last week, the website Fast Company ran a story titled Does Trump’s Rise Spell the End of Empathetic Leadership? and I would like to respond with an emphatic who knows? It’s the way I feel about many things since the election.

Dr. Gail Golden, a management psychology expert who was interviewed for the article believes that not a lot will trickle down from the election of Mr. Trump, and goes on to cite two components that can create good working environments even with an ‘alpha-male’ (she used this term) at the head of an organization: diversity of thought and intentionality. Ensuring that you have people around you that hold different views and are willing to share them, and that the actions one takes are clear and reflect where the leader wants the organization to go.

Diversity of Thought and Intentionality

I am not in disagreement that, as a manager or leader, having people around you with differing opinions and being intentional are important. While directing nonprofits, I deeply valued people who were committed to the mission and who would tell me when they thought I was wrong, or when they had an idea that went against the status quo. Those voices are invaluable. They allow leaders to reflect, to take a step back, to do what we in the nonprofit world expect others to do—change. It gives us credibility.

Intentionality also leads to credibility. I interpret intentionality as acting in a way that allows an understanding of why decisions are made, and gives staff a role in making those decisions. It involves transparency, accountability, responsibility and two-way communication. Although most decisions can be made with staff input, there are decisions that need to be made solely by leadership because otherwise they would interfere with the work or with the relationships in an organization; letting go a staff person when they are not a good fit for a job is one such example.

Are Intentionality and Diversity of Thought Enough?

As a woman in nonprofit management, the whole ‘alpha-male’ persona provokes multiple reactions in me:

  • It makes me want to laugh and roll my eyes;
  • It makes me want to laugh nervously because I have been subjected to the power imbalance perpetuated by the anger/advances/harassment of alpha-males in positions of leadership while I was trying to manage others;
  • It makes me angry.

As a staff person, these feelings result in me being cynical, anxious and angry while working. Now one might, as an alpha-male, tell me to ‘put on my big girl pants and toughen up’. Except I’ve worked in situations that forced me to be tough in ways that in my earlier life I could not have imagined. Work in conflict zones. In humanitarian emergencies. With homeless women in shelters. A colleague and I were locked in an office with a hostile government official who quizzed us (I want to say grilled, but there were no bright lights or handcuffs) about our mission in their country.

And instead of hardening me, instead of wanting to emulate the ‘alpha-male’ and have the power and call the shots, these experiences made me want to create relationships, systems and structures, in organizations and in my life, that reflect a world I want to see. A world based in human rights, equality, fairness and empathy. Which does not leave a lot of room for the old paradigm of ‘strong man’ leadership—because in that paradigm, there’s only so much room at the top, and that means that there will be too many people at the bottom. The hierarchy will be intentional and the space for diverse thought will eventually disappear.

Thank you,
Lori Heninger, Ph.D.

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