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Being followed: Evolving attitudes toward leaders requires change

By Carolyn Heinze

Nothing like a few previously unimaginable revolutions and an election year to place the spotlight on leaders. Over the last 12 months, we have witnessed leaders – good, bad and otherwise – struggling to meet, or completely ignore, the needs of those they lead. What can business leaders learn from them? For one, ignorance is probably not bliss. And, if the goal is to move forward and get the job done, it’s necessary to consider exactly whom you are leading.

Diane Thielfoldt is the Charleston, South Carolina-based co-founder of The Learning Café – a consultancy that offers training focused on employee engagement and retention, managing a multigenerational workforce, brand building and, of course, leadership. We recently spoke with her to discuss what today’s leaders need to be thinking about.

Clichés exist for a reason. From your vantage point, what is the biggest cliché that’s associated with leadership?

DT: That it’s easy. That anybody can do it. There is a great quote that I attribute to David Kearns, who was the CEO of Xerox (in the mid-1980s): ‘It’s tough to lead if nobody follows you.’ I think that is what people discover.

From a generational perspective, we have a number of generations in the workplace. Different generations have different perspectives on leadership. Particularly in the U.S., the workforce has moved from a top-down, command-and-control leadership style to a more collaborative approach. As the millennials get into the workforce, they are looking for their leaders to be coaches and mentors. The words that they use to describe their boss are actually describing what they want that person to do.

There has been some shift in leadership – I don’t know that they are necessarily clichés. Leadership, in my view, needs to continue to evolve to fully engage the employees in your organization.

What changes do leaders need to make as a result of this shift?

DT: Employees are demanding more of their leaders. They are looking for authenticity and transparency. Employees are pushing their leaders – they want more information. There are leaders that help employees discover what their talents are. Those talents are their strengths, their gifts – the things they do really well. If leaders can’t help employees uncover their talents and put them to use on the job, what a missed opportunity. If I’m not using my talents, am I as engaged as you want or need me to be?

What about when leaders must interact with other leaders in an organization?

DT: A pivotal point, in my view, is when you move from being an individual contributor to leading others. If you make that transition successfully, there is a far greater likelihood that you will make the next transition which, in a traditional sense, means that you move up the ladder. You move from managing individuals to managing other managers.

But, if you go back to that very first transition from individual contributor to leader, you have to begin to think differently. It isn’t the functional expertise that you have. What got you here isn’t going to get you to the next level; you’ve got to move from getting the work done to getting the work done through others, and growing and developing other people.

Who is your favorite leader?

DT: I don’t know that I have a role model leader. But I will tell you that before I was self-employed, I worked for the Xerox Corporation. When Xerox was having a tough time, they made Anne Mulcahy the CEO. She had a very diverse set of experiences when she worked for Xerox, from sales to human resources. She took over the company at a time when the company was not doing well at all. What I observed her doing is going out to every location and talking to people. She made herself available. She tried to find out what strengths people had, and what passion they had for the future of the organization, and what she could do with that. She touched people. There was an authenticity. There was nothing pretentious about her. It was about having conversations with people to save the organization, and she did that.

When somebody says to me, ‘What does being authentic mean?’ That’s part of it. It’s about being in touch with employees and revealing some of your own vulnerabilities. I’m not sure she thought she had all the answers. But I think she knew that in collaboration and cooperation with employees, the company could be successful.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

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