Welcome back! Though we here at Leadership’s Edge are firm believers in a sunny approach, there are certainly times when it is valuable to reflect on disturbing events and what they mean to leadership and the organization.  The following is a foray into recent events, our changing landscape, and ways we might learn and grow by reflecting on our experience. 

A Watershed Moment?

What do you think? Is it a watershed moment for harassment victims across the globe? Has a visceral reaction to current events galvanized a legion of women (and a few men) to stand in demand of workplace civility and an equal playing field? Is this social dilemma the result of society turning a blind eye to decades of bad behavior? While we might agree and resolve to change, perhaps we should also ask what other ways powerful people have – wittingly or not – done harm. Surely, sexual harassment isn’t the only culprit. Consider behaviors common to the toxic environment: aggressive communication; constant criticism; verbal abuse; gossip and rumors; and the silent treatment, to name a few. Let’s consider how the potpourri of abusive workplace behaviors continues to hinder the workforce and impair our progress. Why the persistent oppression? Are these harmful behaviors dispensed unwittingly? Do they originate with our many biases and eschewed values? Most importantly, how are we going to change?

Here is a fact that might startle or set you on a path of fervent denial: we all have biases and are capable of discriminatory behavior. It’s true, but not to worry, bias is perfectly normal. The trick is to be aware of our own prejudices and what they mean to the way we interact in the world. That being said, the workplace is rife with all kinds of bias and discrimination – perpetuated by men and women – that suppress peoples’ ability to contribute in healthy, productive ways. Therefore, we must ask, what type of leadership and culture does it take to create environments where people – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or background—have the tools, support, and safety needed to reach their full potential?

Truly, it is up to all of us to ensure that healthy and innovative work environments are not unusual, but commonplace. How you ask? First, and importantly, let’s focus on developing the quality of our leadership. Second, let’s recognize and promote the value of shared leadership practices. Yes, I mean shared leadership. To quote author and retired nuclear submarine captain David Marquett, “Leadership is a team sport.” It’s not about a single heroic leader who rides in on a white horse and saves the day. It’s about an organizational process. A process that anyone in the organization, depending on the expertise needed, can and should use to step into and out of a leadership role. After all, can we agree that it’s unrealistic (if not arrogant) to think that one person has the time, expertise, insight or temperament to manage everything that happens in a complex organization?

If you will permit a slight detour, you might be surprised to know that the first person to write about shared leadership in the workplace was a woman. The year was 1924, when virtually all leaders were men and women had scarce educational and professional opportunities, Mary Parker Follett noted that sometimes it made sense to follow the person in the group who had the most knowledge. Decades before her concept of shared leadership was recognized and fully appreciated, Follett seized upon the idea of “group power” over “personal power” by describing the preeminent leadership quality as:

The ability to organize all the forces there are in an enterprise and make them serve a common purpose. Men with this ability create a group power rather than express a personal power. They penetrate to the subtlest forces at their command, and make all these forces available and most effectively available for the accomplishment of their purpose. [1]

Today, Follett’s ideas – still considered innovative – have finally become part of the mainstream leadership debate.

Returning to the topic at hand, harassment in the workplace as an example of the many forms of bias and discrimination that suppresses talent, and how we might overcome it. Leaders, illustrated by powerful men acting badly, have enormous control and influence. In fact, we can make the argument that leaders transcend the workplace to play a larger social role. As much as we might want to deny it, leadership plays a significant part in creating the state of mind that is our society. Therefore, let’s hope that this is a watershed moment, but not just for women who have suffered at the hands of men behaving badly, but for all of us who have suffered and been suppressed in toxic workplace environments. With a solemn nod to the importance of leadership in our lives, let’s remember and be inspired to action by the words of noted leadership scholar and author Warren Bennis, “the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our leadership.”[2] Your thoughts?

[1] Kellerman, B. (2010). Leadership: Essential selections on power, authority, and influence. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

[2] Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

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