The way people currently work is different than in generations past. This means organizational leadership needs to be different as well.
Jeffrey Hull, PhD, has written on a style of leadership that is coming into its own, despite being counterintuitive to much of the culture. Listen in to his and James’s discussion on what leadership is needed in an increasingly virtual world.
In the podcast:
Leadership is a topic we love at SuperFastBusiness. Most of our audience have a team or should have one. That’s why it’s a great pleasure to have as guest Jeffrey Hull, author of Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World.
Jeffrey has an impressive amount of experience, 20 years’ worth, and has partnered with c-suite executives on matters of high performance leadership and organizational strategy. He’s Director of Education at the Institute of Coaching, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, and an adjunct professor of leadership at New York University.
In his book, Jeffrey breaks down effective leadership into a handy acronym, F.I.E.R.C.E. – flexibility, intentionality, emotional intelligence, realness, collaboration, and engagement. More on that later.
Because leading isn’t just for old white guys
James wants to know: what has been the most surprising thing for Jeffrey since he published his book, in terms of the feedback he’s gotten?
A lot of people, says Jeffrey, have been grateful for a book that is not, like many leadership books, about elderly white men. It’s a book that speaks to them, a book about people of all different demographics, people of color, lots of female leaders.
What Jeffrey wanted to do was to pull back the covers of what’s really happening in the landscape of leadership, which is that so many more interesting people are stepping up to lead these days. And they’re doing it very effectively, and they’re having huge impact.
It’s very gratifying, he says, to have people write him and say they felt like the book was written for them.
The emergence of beta leadership
Is it most people’s belief that they don’t have the potential for leadership, that leading is for someone else?
In his book, Jeffrey writes in depth about an emerging leadership style, what he calls beta leadership. It’s not so much historically, he says, that people didn’t think of themselves as leaders, or that they were reluctant to take on leadership roles. The issue was that they thought they had to be alphas.
This was the prevailing idea, especially in the West, where additionally, you usually had to be a white male to lead. Even if you were a woman, to be a successful leader, the notion was that you had to be charismatic, you had to be directive, you had to be decisive, you had to be visionary, you had to be the one at the front of the pack. You had to set the targets and run off and people would follow you.
It’s similar, says James, to the typical image of a good salesperson – loud, outgoing, talkative. This was an idea debunked in SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham, who showed that better salespeople were just able to ask questions and follow a system.
There is a need for alpha leadership, though, says Jeffrey, in certain situations. In an emergency, undergoing surgery, or on a plane, he would hope the person in charge was an alpha.
Dispelling a false narrative for would-be leaders
Anything other than alpha leadership didn’t fit the Western cultural narrative till a few years ago. Now there’s a whole broad spectrum of leadership breaking open, and Jeffrey sees it happening in his coaching practice and in his classes.
Jeffrey teaches a capstone leadership class at New York University. He has 25 students, and New York being New York, they’re from likely the same number of countries.
He asks them, What do you think it’s going to take to be successful? The answers come back: I have to be Steve Jobs. I have to be the one that does it all.
What if, Jeffrey says, the quieter, collaborative leaders are actually just as successful? Let me show you some research that shows that that’s the case. Seventy-five percent of the class is like, Really? I don’t have to be like that to be a successful leader? Tell me more, please. Because that’s what I’ve always been told.
That begins a conversation around, leadership is not about you and what you do. It’s about what you create with other people. It’s a story of we. It’s a tribe, it’s a community, it’s a group, it’s a team. It’s not about this special personality that’s sitting at the top of the pile.
This is what these leadership training students have known intuitively, and now they have research and a professor to back it up. That’s what led Jeffrey to write his book.
Generational differences and expectations
How does the environment of the present generation affect their expectations and leadership?
The number one change Jeffrey’s seen is that the technology younger people have grown up with puts them in instant contact with whoever they want to connect with. And if they want information, they can Google it – no need to read an entire book.
This instant access to people and information has given millennials or Z’s the expectation that they won’t have to wait, that they won’t have to go through layers of people or layers of information to get where they want to get. And that changes their expectations around their careers. They want things to move quickly.
The current need for virtual leadership
The pandemic has created a sort of virtual generation, always online. What effect has this had on work leadership?
“Leaders have to be willing to be more human and more vulnerable.”
Says Jeffrey, it’s necessitated a sort of virtual leadership. It’s been interesting for him to coach leaders in becoming more connected to their team through remote platforms. The one big learning they’ve had to adjust to is that they have to be willing to be more human and more vulnerable. They have to let go of any perception or any presupposition of being perfect.
Because if you’re on Zoom and the dog jumps onscreen or the baby cries, that facade is immediately dashed. And trying to maintain it sets the tone that it’s not okay for everybody else to have a life.
The most effective leaders are the ones that relax. They become flexible and human, and they’re willing to share what’s working and what isn’t working. And ultimately, their team feels more connected to each other, because they feel like they’re going through an experience together with a lot of empathy and support.
“There’s really no such thing as extrovert or introvert.”
Jeffrey has coached leaders to be more effective in the context of a Zoom call by encouraging everyone to contribute input. The result, he says, is that introverts are becoming extroverts, and vice versa. To his mind, there’s really no such thing as extrovert or introvert. It was made up by Carl Jung about 50 years ago, and we latched on to it like the secret key to personality.
A decade’s worth of experience leading virtually
James’s current team of seven, all in the Philippines, have worked with him virtually between eight and 11 years now. An interesting thing is their weekly call, which is solely audio, no cameras. They’re comfortable that way and don’t have to worry about appearance or surroundings.
What James has discovered, however, is that meeting his team face to face and spending time with them in person has taken the relationship to the next stage. They’ve gone surfing, shared meals, hung out with a minimum of business content. And they’ve become bonded, and the team knows the business as well as James does.
James encourages his staff to have a great life – to work whatever hours they want, to have whatever days off they need, to build their business activities around their families.
They’ve stripped away traditional roles in the business, and James has allowed his team to take whatever tasks they want within the business, with the result that each does an eclectic mix of jobs you wouldn’t expect one person to do.
They function with checklists and SOPs, and make few errors. It’s something James’s customers find hard to believe, when he speaks of it.
Four keys to effective teamwork in a virtual world
Is this something any team can achieve? Jeffrey is of the opinion that it is, if they can distill down to the core elements of what he’s heard James describe. These are what Jeffrey would call the four key principles of effective teamwork in a virtual world:
1. Equity – This is demonstrated in their going audio only on meetings. The key is all or nothing. Everyone is off camera, by mutual agreement. To have some on camera and some off would create an imbalance.
2. Leveraging the power of being together – Because it’s so rare for James’s team, being together is meaningful, and is relationship building. Jeffrey hopes leaders he works with and their teams will be more intentional about this in the future, whereas before they took physical connection for granted.
3. Knowing people personally, not work-related – James spoke of surfing and bonding. Jeffrey has just finished an article called Setting the Virtual Table. It’s a whole article about how to have dinner with your team, when you can’t be there in person. And it’s not a joke. You really can have cocktails, you really can have dinner.
4. Autonomy – James nailed this one, says Jeffrey. He stripped the roles in the hierarchy and asked people what they really wanted to do and what they were good at. That’s getting at one of the core research elements of success in today’s academic research, that is not as well known in the real world, that autonomy really motivates people.
Revealing a surprising truth about coaching
James mentions as well that when something goes well in the business, when the show get good rankings or comments, they post it to their wins channel and all celebrate it.
Every week he tells his team, he doesn’t take them for granted. He knows how great the work they’re doing is.
“Coaching is not magic.”
Funny he should says that, observes Jeffrey. That was one of the reasons he wanted to write a book that was pulling the veil back about coaching. Because coaching, he says, is not magic. It’s actually a very simple skill, but you have to do it properly.
And to James’s point, one of the key elements of really good coaching is celebrating wins. You’ve got to take the time to acknowledge, recognize and celebrate when people make successes, even if it’s small. And you’ve got to do it regularly.
These things are not rocket science, says Jeffrey, but they are proven to work. And people who want to be an entrepreneur or step up to be a leader, if they follow these core leadership principles that James has outlined the way he runs his team, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be successful.
Science versus a traditional viewpoint
What science-backed discoveries has Jeffrey found that countered a traditionally held point of view that almost surprised him?
A lot of things have surprised him, says Jeffrey, but a couple are:
1. You can be an incredibly successful leader and be a quiet personality. You don’t have to be the belle of the ball to be a super successful entrepreneur or a leader.
2. You don’t have to master all the different activities of your business. That humility goes along with that vulnerability that he talked about earlier, that the most successful leaders he’s working with these days don’t think about themselves that much. They really focus on other people.
The case for creating a safe environment
One of James’s observations is the importance of creating a safe work environment, to take away a team member’s fear of losing income or security. A psychologically safe workplace was something he talked about with a previous guest, Nir Eyal.
Has Jeffrey seen some movement towards that?
He has, says Jeffrey. He thinks it’s a huge sea change, and that leaders that recognize it are going to be tomorrow’s winners.
The key to success today is innovation, and to achieve that, you can’t have just a small number of creatives. Twenty years ago, there was something called skunkworks, which set apart creative people and gave them a lot of freedom and autonomy. Google does about the same thing for its hires, letting them work on their own projects. But why should Google be the exception to the rule?
Uncovering the potential in everyone
What we’re moving toward, says Jeffrey, is a leadership model where you recognize that there’s potential creativity and innovation in everyone.
James has a sort of skunkworks in his business, what he calls an infinity project. It’s a site in the surfing market that his team works on when they want a break from the business stuff, or when they have extra capacity. There’s no limit to the blog posts or videos they can post there.
He recommends this to customers when their team member is burning out – put them in a skunkworks. One of them has a business that’s doubled every year for five years, just by peeling off people from his team and giving them their own projects.
Some closing thoughts on leadership
So what is Jeffrey’s parting advice? How can one be a good coach leader?
What Jeffrey would say to anyone who wants to start a company, or who runs a company, is look around at the people that are within your circle. That circle could be a Zoom call, or it could be an office, or whatever it is. But look at them again. After you listen to this podcast, look at them again.
What do you see? What are you missing? What are you making up about yourself and about them that is not true? What are you telling yourself about their ability to do x or y or not, be a good this, not be a good that? What are you saying that is a story that’s not based on fact? Go into exploratory mode.
“A great coach is a detective of human potential.”
A great coach is what he would call a detective of human potential. You’re on the search to find what helps someone, what makes someone tick, what makes them creative, what brings their greatness out.
And if you do that for yourself in the mirror, and then do it for family and everyone around you that’s part of a team, then what you’re doing as a leader is you’re elevating everyone to bring their full potential out into the world – their creativity, their innovation, their passion, whatever it is that turns them on.
That’s going to make you a great leader.
Check out Jeffrey’s book, Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World
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