In my early days as a CEO, a member of our board who was mentoring me, looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t just want you to be successful—I am going to ensure that you are successful.” I was so moved by his words. Looking back now, I see it as a gift of grace.
Unearned and unmerited, grace is the goodwill of human nature predisposed to helping others, and it defines so much of what leadership is about these days. After all, leadership is inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality.
Today, the challenge is that we’re seeing more change than we have in the past 10 years. As the world tilts on its axis, people are turning to leaders for help and hope, direction and decision, and the best way to respond is with grace.
I’ve had countless conversations about grace in the context of inspiring, motivating, and leading others. Like truth, art, or love, grace is often hard to define. But we know it when we see it. Grace calls us to accountability, responsibility, and action. In our words and actions, we signal, “I care enough to see you.”
An executive recently shared a story with me that really spoke to the importance of truly seeing others. It was early in her career as an engineer at a factory. Her boss, who had worked in that plant for more than 40 years, told her, “It’s gonna be real hard for you to get the respect of the floor.” His advice for her was to start by learning everyone’s name. She took that to heart and started working the line at the factory every day for an hour.
“I asked stupid questions while they got a laugh from putting this young engineer to work screwing in bolts and putting pamphlets in boxes,” she told me. “I learned the names and stories of nearly everyone out on those lines. I was not the smartest or the most talented person working in that plant, but I had the power of true relationships.”
To exhibit this kind of grace in leadership, we need to show our human side— with greater self-awareness and genuine connection to others. In today’s world, it’s about establishing community so everyone can be part of something bigger than themselves.
In the new year, as we strive to be good leaders, better colleagues, and the best of ourselves, we can find our inspiration in the five graces—gratitude, resilience, aspiration, courage and empathy—that together literally compose the word “grace.”
• Gratitude: Grace starts with gratitude, and it’s more important than ever as the connective tissue seems to be fraying for so many people. They want and deserve to be gratified by their work. They want to know that others notice and are grateful for them.
• Resilience: Here we find strength for the journey, propelling us forward. We remind ourselves that over the millennia, humans have faced countless catastrophes—and with far less science and technology than we have today. Our hope is always in the resilience of the human spirit.
• Aspiration: This is our vision—our goal—capturing no less than who we are and what we want to become. As we raise our sights, we elevate others. Aspiration is the knowledge that we can make tomorrow different and better than today.
• Courage: It is not having “no fear,” but rather to “know fear”—and move beyond it. Courage reminds us that failure is usually temporary; it passes like a storm. So why would we let it paralyze us? The bigger question to ask is, what greater accomplishment or goal could we achieve if we never gave into our fears? What might others become if failure became part of our culture?
• Empathy: We meet others where they are and ensure that no one is left behind. Empathy is the catalyst that turns “we’re all in this together” from only words to a feeling and then to an action. We tell others, verbally and nonverbally, “I understand how you feel. Our circumstances may be different, but I’ve been there, too.”
Finally, grace reminds us of a paradox that is always true about leadership: it starts with the leader, but it is never about the leader. Grace is that voice of humility that whispers, “It’s not about you.” Grace keeps our focus on others.