The Unexpected Character Trait Every Leader Needs Now

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If your CEO isn't demonstrating grace in their management style, odds are division and polarization will perpetuate in the culture.

There’s a philosophy you don’t hear often enough these days in business: grace.

Having courtesy or goodwill toward others is not exactly in oversupply at the moment. But it should be.

Far too many discussions at work seem to include an element of strife or divisiveness. In some cases, absolute polarization is on display. This was true before the idea of working virtually became an ongoing power struggle, with endless conversations and media coverage of remote work amounting to a showdown of bosses facing off with employees. The state of discourse isn’t likely to get better anytime soon with the ultimate form of American demarcation – a presidential election year – just around the corner.

The role of a leader is to create an environment where people can perform at their best individually and as part of a team. The ability to move people forward in a way that’s aligned is paramount.

This is far too difficult, in some cases impossible, if there’s an environment of simple binaries where no one can win unless someone else loses.

This is why it’s so vital for leaders today to demonstrate grace. An interpersonal flexibility that goes beyond what is required of anyone else at the workplace.

This might be a more natural conclusion for me given my background. As the daughter of immigrants working for much of my career in corporate America, it seems I’ve spent my whole life trying to fit in. Creating a culture of belonging became that much more important for me as a result. And that culture can’t exist unless the leader is doing the most to be as inclusive and nonjudgmental as possible.

Leaders have to be the most flexible person in the room. Given there was never anyone like me around the table, I had no expectation that the system would flex to me. I assumed the opposite. That assumption allowed me to embrace different backgrounds and ideologies in order to find common ground.

There’s a Thomas Jefferson quote I love: “I never considered a difference in politics, in religion, or in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Part of the reason this resonates with me is how unusual it feels in today’s working environment, where stats and surveys show a rising number of workers feel as if the discussion of politics or other divisive issues is actively getting in the way of work.

Some of those surveys occurred before the pandemic. It doesn’t require great gifts of observation to know that a reduction in proximity to our co-workers can make finding common ground that much harder.

When it comes to our interactions with each other, we not only have to move from tolerance to understanding, as an old boss of mine said in a memorable speech, we actually have to move toward empathy and then, ultimately, embrace compassion.

Yet grace as a concept in business can feel foreign. In a world where self-motivated employees with a strong desire to dominate are in high demand, grace can feel “too soft,” like an attribute that actually reduces your chances for differentiation and impact. Maybe too sensitive to survive in a competitive landscape. But we don’t live in a world of absolutes. The idea that there are only two alternatives is problematic.

What exists is a blank slate to be filled by those who desire to lead for greater inclusion and impact. Leaders whose job it is to create a compelling culture would do well to ignore the idea that there is only one route to success. Rather, they should extend to their employees, and to themselves, a level of grace, understanding and flexibility that will set them and their teams apart. It is through this grace that we can move forward together – professionally, respectfully, collaboratively with civility and compassion. At a time when discourse can be dominated by loud volume, grace can be the way to hear the signal, not the noise.

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