Developing Great Leaders in the Workplace – Guest Column

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Opinion: Can Leadership Skills Still Make a Big Difference Today?

By Zee Tan, August 2023

"Great leaders develop other leaders"

In the age of technology and growing AI capabilities, it’s natural to think that computers can outperform human functions and eventually replace us. While that may be true for certain skills, our humanity still holds incredible value when it comes to ‘undeniably human’ areas such as leadership and connecting with others – which I believe, leaves AI with considerable catch-up to do.

One Opportunity for Leadership Today   

Leadership has been discussed very widely and from many perspectives. There are plenty of ready literature and opinions on a quick search. But when it comes to organisational leadership, the definition I resonate most closely with, is still that of Maxwell’s, where “Great Leaders develop other Leaders”. I like to define and plan this for organisations I work with for various reasons – it’s simple to understand, puts people first (it’s people that run the organisation) and ensures business longevity, and provides more ‘purpose’ than acquiring a random array of leadership competencies over time. I also like the notion of ‘growth’ within Maxwell’s definition – more so as an L&D practitioner – where this definition has become a major goal I aspire toward when developing talent and teams.


Is Empathy Still the Flavour of the Month or A Leadership Essential?

Why Empathy Benefits You

Whilst we talk much about developing others; actually, having empathy benefits mostly firstly ourselves. Empathy requires us to be introspective and take life with a little humour so that we can see things from another lens. It also humbles us and makes us grateful for every given moment and not attribute everything to ourselves. If we can laugh at ourselves, our own hiccups, our own guffaws, we can be sensitized to others certainly more. One essentially gains from being kinder to yourself first then we can do the same for others.

Developing Empathy can be an effective starting point to better relate with others, like your team members. With fostered mutual connection and trust, these elicit ‘honest interactions’ that are at the heart of creating true impact on others. Interestingly, Managers have often commented to me that being empathetic is too ‘soft’ an approach, or that it’s tougher to later disagree with employees to avoid eroding trust.

In the corporate jungle, leaders are often dichotomised to be either empathetic OR assertive. Taking a step back, we can reframe from the tyranny of the ‘OR’, to instead embrace the beauty of the ‘AND’. Leaders can deliver a hard message in a manner both assertively AND yet emphatically.

Mastering this comes back to constant practice and capitalising on avenues (as shared earlier) to keep doing this, so that you can harness and deliver empathy with apt and finesse.


The Leader’s Role in Developing Potential

Growth’ itself is rather elusive. You may realise growth only at a later stage as an ‘a-ha’, whether from newfound confidence executing previously uncomfortable tasks or from others’ feedback. Some individuals may not even trust their capabilities (“hidden potential”) of achieving certain skills. Thus, leaders being the custodians of work opportunities and default authority as coaches and feedback providers, are critical in growing hidden potential, big or small, within their teams.

I always credit a past L&D Manager I had in my early career – her name is Emily. Being introverted and quiet by nature, I did not pursue many avenues to build a voice, nor did I aspire to be more visible or lead in the future. But Emily used a daily coaching approach with me – “what do you recommend, what do you think… etc.” that gradually helped me find my voice and shaped my confidence. I never knew I had those in me; but now with one foot in, I could plan to develop further. These have served me well today whenever I teach, facilitate, and do change-related work. I am grateful to Emily till this day. Emily’s leadership gave me the opportunity and the challenge beyond my comfort zone, to express my thoughts, ideas and recommendations that taught me a lot about myself.

I often see the same unrealised opportunities in others during my career or development conversations with them, which motivates me to pay it forward and has shaped the way I choose to lead and develop others.

In my many years doing leadership work with various organisations, I’ve also had the chance to see the not-so-positive effects of lacking leadership, and hear first-hand from their subordinates how their growth, productivity and general career outlook was discouraged and vastly dampened. It’s a tragic loss of potential.


The Call to Aspiring New Leaders 

To aspiring new leaders carving out your leadership niches – firstly, congratulations for wanting to make this step to greater leadership. Secondly, I would strongly recommend “prioritising” these areas for your development:

1) Recognise that your role has changed

Understand your revised role as a leader, which is different from your time as an Individual Contributor. You now have to get work done through ‘Others’. Here you will find that growing your coaching and feedback skills are more necessary than ever.

2) Identify your personal leadership brand and your personal leadership mantra

What kind of leader do you want to be? It helps here to identify a role-model in the early stages. Then work towards this in your personal leadership development plan. Revisit this leadership ‘compass’ often, keep learning and growing key leadership skills from here!

3) Develop trust with your teams

Be authentic. Nobody tends to follow the advice of, or be open with, someone that they don’t trust. There are various styles of building trust, find your own – or otherwise, start simply, with Empathy.


Empathy Is Learnable

Think of Empathy as a supplement to your leadership toolbox – it’s a good-to- have, but having it can take you a much longer way. Empathy may come more naturally to some but nonetheless has been proven to be learnable. The next time you face difficult conversations like resolving remote work preferences, promotion requests, or any matter that needs alignment of expectations, try taking a pause and imagining how it’d be like in your team member’s shoes – what are they feeling and seeing? Also am I truly ‘listening’ to appreciate their perspective, or have I already judged and made assumptions? These are simple reflection areas to get started.


Make Your Difference as a Leader – If not now, then when?

It’s a good time to take stock of our personal leadership growth, given the new demands & preferences of our future workforce, coupled with the impact of Industry 5.0. Of course, leaders shouldn’t disregard other core skills like strategic planning or decision-making etc., but being mindful to Grow Other Leaders and practise Empathy can be that eventual differentiator of your leadership, your brand and your legacy. As Maya Angelou’s famous quote goes “People will forget what you said/did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”. There is always room to grow more in the ‘human’ areas that are difficult to be replaced by technology and AI.

So, which skills would you choose to prioritise first?

Zee Tan

Associate Director of Learning & Organisation Development

Professional Services Firm

His work spans the learning, leadership, talent & culture spaces to help companies improve and strategically adapt. Zee particularly enjoys the leadership and talent development space and is experienced in both the private & public sectors across the full L&D and talent spectrum, from needs analysis to design & assessment, facilitation and change efforts. 

Citadel Search is an executive search firm of choice at the forefront of bridging capabilities to unlock possibilities. In the course of working with many top tier MNCs, we have our ears to the ground on pressing issues, and hence seek to empower our clients to close gaps between their organisation’s talent requirements and what top talents are looking for.

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