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How Modern Leaders Thrive By Recalling Their Employee Days

Teamwork couple climbing helping hand
You’ve already walked a mile in their shoes. If you can remember that experience, empathy and great leadership will follow.

I was recently asked to define what leadership means to me. The question spiraled into a reflection of my own journey. I recalled the many times I’d asked my husband about that precise moment when leaders disconnected from their roots as employees. This was no mere philosophical musing—it was born from witnessing leaders who had either severed that vital connection or seemed indifferent to preserving it.

In my narrative, leadership isn’t just a title or position; it’s about remembering the transition from the front lines of being an employee to the strategic heights of leadership. It’s about staying attuned to the everyday battles—juggling work demands with personal commitments, the need to surpass expectations and the stress it invariably invites. Having walked a mile in those shoes, empathy and understanding have become intrinsic to my leadership DNA.

Covid Transformed Leadership…for the Better

The pandemic irrevocably altered the world, including the realm of leadership. As we navigated through the uncertainty and challenges, leadership transformed from a role of mere direction to one of deep empathy and adaptability. The pandemic pushed leaders to become more emotionally intelligent, resilient and transformative, as highlighted by the Leadership Circle.

However, as we progress, we’re witnessing a concerning trend where some leaders are losing these hard-earned learnings. The push for RTO mandates, often without considering employees’ diverse needs and preferences, is a prime example of this regression. It shows a shift to traditional paradigms, overlooking that productivity and well-being are intricately linked and not mutually exclusive. This evolution, or rather devolution in some cases, is at odds with a broader consciousness that has emerged, one that resonates with my leadership philosophy: prioritizing the human element is not just noble but essential.

Employees Haven’t Changed—You Have

I often think about one scene from The Breakfast Club where Carl, the janitor, schools Principal Vernon by saying, “The kids haven’t changed. You have.” This line resonates still today, especially when I hear today’s leaders expressing frustration about the demands of modern employees. The truth is employees have always yearned for more from their leaders. But in the past, employees had fewer choices, so they often tolerated more. This says to me that loyalty wasn’t necessarily earned by employers then; it was given by employees due to limited options.

Technological advancements and the rise of remote work have dramatically shifted this dynamic. Reflecting on this, take a moment to remember when you were an employee. What kind of support and guidance did you want from your leaders? Consider the leaders you admired and those you promised yourself you would never emulate. Ask yourself why. Moreover, ask, “Who am I emulating today?” (Be honest!) These reflections are crucial because they remind us that what we needed then actually mirrors what employees need today. Understanding this can be a powerful tool in shaping how we lead, ensuring we stay connected to our team’s needs and aspirations.

Here are four key essentials I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. Meet employees where they are. In an era where executives earn exponentially more than the typical worker—a stark contrast to the scenario four decades ago—it’s imperative for today’s leaders to empathize with their employees’ current challenges. This involves understanding the realities of balancing tight budgets, managing multiple commitments, or juggling a second job—challenges many leaders once faced themselves. By recalling our own journeys, we can better recognize and meet employees where they are, creating a supportive and flexible work environment.

  2. Prioritize employee happiness. While most leaders acknowledge the importance of the employee experience, implementation often falls short. The tendency to favor the status quo, despite employee feedback, reflects a problematic power dynamic. In our tech-connected world, this resistance to change is a lost opportunity. Progressive companies show that investing in employee happiness and growth is not just right but also a strategic business move. This investment translates into higher customer satisfaction and better business results. Leaders need to recognize this and realign their strategies to also benefit employees. Your stakeholders will thank you.

  3. Rethink the norm. Accepting that “my way is not the only way” is a hallmark of modern leadership. Times change, and so do workplace models and best practices. Leaders should be open to experimenting with new strategies, embracing innovation, and adapting to evolving trends and employee expectations. Being flexible, encouraging creativity, and understanding that the best solutions often come from collaborative efforts and diverse perspectives are crucial.

  4. Stay grounded in your roots. While ascending the organizational ladder, it’s essential to retain the humility and perspective gained from your own beginnings. This trait involves more than just understanding your team’s challenges; it’s about continuously relating to and supporting them from a place of genuine empathy and shared experience. Staying grounded ensures that leaders don’t become distant figures but remain approachable, empathetic guides who truly comprehend the day-to-day realities of their team.

In this new era of leadership, our journey back to our roots—where we began as employees—becomes a pivotal part of our growth and effectiveness. By embracing values that highlight the human element at the core of our work, we’re able to reconnect with the essence of our team’s experiences. Our challenge as leaders is to break free from outdated molds and forge new paths that honor our humble beginnings. Our legacies should not be solely defined by business achievements but enriched by the positive change we inspire in people and society.


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