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The lesson in leadership that we must learn and teach

Leadership should be about becoming a teacher and enabling others to do the same, writes Lighthouse Consulting founder Larry Robertson.

5 min read



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The world has forever changed in this now nearly 25-year-old century and, with it, the world of work. Volatility and the need for constant adaptation are dominant themes. They make leadership beyond challenging. No leader is immune. Even the leader of seemingly immovable Walmart, Doug McMillon, has said that where strategy was once an annual, maybe quarterly, exercise, it’s now a daily, at times even hourly, exercise in leadership. It’s not just strategy or structure. The human dynamic of business and leadership has changed, too.

Consider the waves in this rising tide of change. One of the greatest is the unequaled voice and power in both direct and indirect ways that employees have now, a voice they are using to demand a seat at the leadership table.  They want and expect to take part in determining how the organization operates — from how work is structured and carried out to defining, shaping and giving priority to workplace culture. Be it the Great Resignation, quiet quitting or the seemingly ubiquitous demand to strike a balance between personal priorities and workplace ones, the signs are many and strong that workers can no longer be expected to just show up to a workplace designed by a handful of senior leaders. 

The broad awareness and pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion is yet another powerful reflection of this demand for a leadership voice. Lately, there has been some blowback on DEI by some organizational leaders — a blowback that, by and large, aims to narrow definitions and assumptions about the much-headlined acronym. Yet, remarkably, what’s far too often under-valued in conversations around DEI is this: While employees are rightfully demanding equity and inclusion, it is the diversity of their experiences, skills and intelligence upon which the future of successful leadership will depend. Translation: Diversity is an ingredient that not only many want to add but one we collectively need if we are to thrive in these uncertain times. 

The theory of multiple intelligences

In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner proposed an at-the-time groundbreaking idea that there is more than one way in which human beings were intelligent, sensed things, ideated and, most important of all, innovated and adapted to an ever-changing world. He called it the theory of multiple intelligences. For decades before Gardner proposed his theory, intelligence was defined narrowly. Gardner argued that human intelligence isn’t limited to, for example, just the logical or linguistic forms that schools, intelligence tests and many workplaces tend to emphasize, but also includes intelligence in areas such as inter- and intrapersonal intelligence, spatial awareness and smarts ,and even bodily kinesthetic intelligence.

In hindsight, Gardner was only stating what we all instinctively know: that humans find their way and find their advantage through a much more complex set of aptitudes and abilities. According to Gardner, we sometimes think of intelligence more narrowly because, in practice, we often end up favoring one or a few forms of intelligence over others or, as in the case of most organizations, because of an overemphasis on specific intelligences over others. What the research around these ideas tells us clearly — as does our own experience — is that everything from problem-solving and innovation to empathy and emotional intelligence relies on not just one but a diversity of intelligences to thrive. The business success record of the past two decades is equally clear: The more leaders encourage and empower diversity and its accompanying intelligences, the higher the likelihood of their organization’s success, not to mention their own. Even with what we know, Gardner suggests there is more, and here’s where leaders ought to take note.

The pivotal intelligence: teaching

Gardner originally proposed eight forms of human intelligence. In recent years, though, he has suggested that more core intelligences exist, including one that may be the most pivotal of all: teaching intelligence. Gardner describes this as our human ability to impart ideas to others, in turn empowering their diverse skills. The relevance to today’s leaders is this: Though more traditionally emphasized forms of intelligence matter a great deal, teaching is the connector intelligence. Both by their elevated position and the very nature of their role in organizations, senior leaders have the greatest opportunity to both teach and enable others to do the same.

It’s something we don’t really talk about enough — not just how we might add diversity to our workforces but leverage it, person-to-person, to learn from each other how to adapt, lead and thrive in an ever-changing world. Many argue (myself included) that leadership should be cultural and collective. We make the case that expecting and empowering every person to step up to their unique abilities to lead is the difference maker in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Yet we stop just short of reminding those in the lead that they have a vital role to play beyond these things — being a teacher, not just a leader, and enabling others to do the same. That’s what truly frees the inherent power of diversity. It also allows leadership to take its most potent form: becoming cultural. If the ability to constantly adapt is what you need — and you do — and if competitive advantage is what you seek, this is where you find it.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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