What intimate leadership entails

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Maersk’s Natalie Unstead says intimate leadership allows leaders to bring out the best in people.

I have read many articles, books and publications on leadership, and one common theme that runs through all the literature I have read thus far, is that the role of the leader is to bring out the best in people. This may sound simple to achieve, but clearly it is not as easy as it may sound by virtue of the fact that people, leaders included, are dynamic, unique and ever evolving, and what may be the best approach for one individual may have a catastrophic impact on another.
The question then remains: what type of leadership will bring out the best in people? I do not profess to have all the answers, but I would like to share my thoughts on a concept called intimate leadership.

As a starting point, it is apt to define intimacy in this context, meaning “into me you see”: nothing more, nothing less, but equally as powerful. Perhaps with more intimate leadership we can get closer to bringing out the best in people. It is certainly worth an attempt.

There are a few ingredients that need to be in the mix to categorise leadership as intimate, and the primary ingredient is learning that vulnerability is possibly one of the strongest and most powerful characteristics a leader can possess.
I do not mean vulnerable in the sense of being insecure, weak and unsure of oneself: being vulnerable in this context means the opposite, as there is great strength of character, inner confidence, coupled with self-awareness that comes from a leader who can be open and vulnerable. It is a distinguishing factor between being a good leader and a great leader.
Vulnerability is a scary concept for many of us, because we are taught primarily through an unwritten code that effective leadership and climbing the corporate ladder require exuding control, power, strength, and using the inner political system to your advantage.

While these characteristics are important to some degree, without the heart and pulse in the mix, these characteristics are suffocating, and thus not sustainable.

Vulnerability is not something that we can learn in a five-step manual: it is a process and transformation that needs to take place at an individual level and it takes much courage and strength to get to that place, because as unfortunate as it is, vulnerability in business is often categorised as weakness. Vulnerability is associated with being emotional and volatile, but the opposite is true.
Vulnerability requires extreme control of emotions, primarily because it is not something that comes naturally in a business environment, and any leader who has the ability and self-awareness to know how to show this openness with the people being led is an extraordinary talent.
I have not come across anyone who has woken up one morning and said, “well today I am going to be vulnerable”, and instantaneously, the person is vulnerable. It does, nevertheless, require a choice to start to change behaviour, which I do not believe is attainable or sustainable unless you truly know who you are and are prepared to show some of that to the world.

We have been taught to adapt to the environment we find ourselves in to survive and if that environment calls for a certain style, then we adapt to that style and consequently we either become extremely unhappy or find ourselves in the unemployment line. I believe that intimate leadership is attainable regardless of the environment we find ourselves in, because currently, I cannot think of a single company that would fail to embrace a leader whose team is performing above average, who has the respect and trust of their team and peers, and who brings value to an organisation.
In the ever-changing business environment, we find ourselves in, we need leaders who can embrace intimate leadership and role models for the generations to come. By no means am I advocating for reckless or negligent behaviour, but what I am advocating for is change.
Self-awareness, another ingredient, is critical to successful intimate leadership. Leaders who have an acute understanding of themselves and who can not only recognise their strengths but also their areas of development, and who truly act to address these, will set themselves apart. It is likely impossible for a leader to let others see into them if they cannot see into themselves.

Self-awareness brings a deep level of inner understanding and a silent confidence that cannot be robbed by a person or circumstance. Self-awareness also means being wise and having the maturity to know how to adapt behaviour while remaining authentic at all times. The success of self-aware leaders rests in their ability to know when their behaviours are not benefiting others and having the foresight to change that.

I have witnessed first-hand how self-aware leaders have an innate ability to take the people who they lead on that same journey. It is a beautiful transformation, similar to a rosebud opening up to bloom on a summer’s day. It radiates beauty and splendour in the people who encounter it. Imagine every rosebud chose to remain closed because by blooming and allowing its petals to flow it would be exposed to harsh elements. What would the world be without that beauty? The same question can be asked of us in the reverse: what would the world be if we, as leaders, chose to open ourselves and bloom?

I have grouped authenticity and trust together because trust in a leader cannot be attained in the absence of authenticity. People are perceptive and can often decipher authentic from unauthentic behaviour, primarily because being authentic requires consistency in behaviour. Let me however qualify that consistently exuding poor leadership behaviour is also authentic, but does not benefit the people we lead. Through openness, our people see that we trust them and usually the same level of reciprocity is extended.

There is no better compliment to hear than a leader being trusted, because what that does to the team dynamic and person cannot be bought for any price. Trust is built when leaders really listen to their people, even when it does not suit them. There is something rather magical that happens when leaders are trusted: employees start to feel confident to be honest, the level of efficiency improves dramatically because people feel trusted and thus empowered, and employee retention is not a matter of concern.

I firmly believe that as leaders we have a responsibility and obligation to the people who we lead, to help them to be the best version of themselves that they can be daily. So, imagine a situation where a leader can truly understand what drives and motivates that person, knowing what the person excels and flourishes at, and who can tailor and adjust the role so that the person is doing what they are best at every single day. Sounds impossible? It is not, but it requires a level of trust where people feel that they can be open and honest with leadership without the fear of retribution. This takes effort and challenging work, because building trust means building a solid relationship and solid relationships are not built in the absence of trust.

Through putting vulnerability, self awareness, authenticity and trust together, you likely have a recipe for success for intimate leadership, the direct benefit of such being bringing out the best in people. All four of these components require time, accountability and the desire to not only want to be the best version of yourself that you can be, but also the desire to see your people flourish.

The beauty of this journey is that it is never too late for self development and it is an ongoing process. As a leader, I am the only person in control of the legacy I leave.

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