Recently, we stumbled across this article on the Harvard Business Review blog. The post emphasizes the value placed on inspirational leadership, what inspiring leaders do, and how they do it. We certainly don’t want to give too much away and spoil the article — but we do have some questions, and we hope other readers would agree!
At the end of the piece, the authors start to go in a very interesting direction: can leaders become more inspirational through effort and self-improvement? Is the capacity to be inspirational an innate or learned trait? Their research suggests that it can be the latter: in a focus group of 310 executives who attempted to improve their inspirational abilities, they collectively moved “from the 42nd percentile (that is, below average) to the 70th percentile.”
Positive news, certainly – but what has provoked our curiosity is the conclusion of the article, which, in referring to improvement in inspirational abilities, says: “This is a statistically significant positive gain, and compelling evidence that when leaders use the right approach they can learn to become more inspiring. In other words, with awareness, good feedback, and a plan of development, leaders are able to improve this most important of all leadership competencies.”
This made us wonder: what is that “right approach?” What exactly did these leaders do to become more inspiring – what areas did they alter, how did they change their approach, and what did their ‘plan of development’ entail?
As ever, Tipping the Scales would like to know what you think. In your opinion, how does someone become more inspirational? What has to change?
Lon Povich is Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of BJ’s Wholesale Club. He is a member of the BBA’s Council, and was Chair of the BBA’s Public Policy Development Working Group. Lon served on the Judicial Nominating Commission from 2005 to 2010, and is a member of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Legal Aid in Massachusetts and of the Advisory Committee to the Business Litigation Section of the Massachusetts Superior Court. He is also Treasurer, Chair of the Audit Committee, and a Board Member at the Greater Boston Food Bank.
How does one adapt to change within one’s organization and help to guide it at the same time?
I think the key to adapting to change is to be open to the ambiguity and uncertainty that goes along with organizations in the midst of change. It is essential not to be tied to the current way of doing things. People tend to think that whatever is going on in the present, good or bad, will continue for the future, which is certainly not true. If you are willing to change, you need to model openness and acceptance to others in the organization. After you have yourself and your team in a productive, change-accepting mind frame, you can help shape the change process to achieve the most optimal results possible.
What are the benefits of seeking and/or holding leadership roles in a variety of fields or subject areas?
It’s probably true that there’s little that can replace experience. The broader one’s experience set, the more history or analogy you can bring to bear when responding to a challenge. You need to have a basic skill set, of course, but seeing the way that different fact patterns have worked in various circumstances in the past will be a great asset in dealing with new issues.
What advice would you give to someone trying to develop a skill set that will prepare them to handle diverse challenges or roles in shifting environments?
There is no magic bullet for success in responding to diverse challenges. You have to acquire good basic skills in research and analysis, in organization, and in oral and written communications. Those are the big three (or maybe the big five.) At the same time, if you’re trying to experience diverse, interesting, and exciting roles, you have to be willing to try different things as opportunities present themselves. At the end of the day, you need both the right skills and an open mind to new adventures.
Is there anything you would want to say about being a leader that we haven’t covered otherwise?
Leaders must inspire their teams and create an environment for success—but there is no one right way to be a leader. You have to build on your own unique strengths and assets. Not everyone can lead like John Wayne, after all. Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but they all seem to project three traits: vision, confidence, and charisma.
“That person is a born leader” – does the phrase sound familiar? For most, it is a casual figure of speech; for academics at the Arizona State University, it could be the literal truth.
The research of David Waldman, a management professor at the university, and his team has studied the neurological patterns of successful leaders – entrepreneurs, CEO’s, and various others – and found certain measurable physical features of the brains’ electrical activity in common across the board. For example, according to the research findings, “subjects rated “inspirational” by their employees generate high levels of coherence in the right frontal part of the brain, which is responsible for interpersonal communication and social relationships.”
What does this mean from the ground? To start, the early conclusions could indicate that if these results can be artificially replicated in the brain, then leadership responses thought processes can be learned. Waldman and his colleagues are already formulating neurofeedback-based leadership training, which could turn out to be a much more effective way of developing and educating better, more plentiful leaders.
Another question to think about is whether there are ‘leaders’ who display this electrical activity and ‘non-leaders’ who do not; and how definitive might these results be at predicting who would and wouldn’t make a good leader?
As always, Tipping the Scales welcomes constructive feedback. What do you think about these findings? Are you convinced by this relationship between neuroscience and leadership?
Maura Healey is Chief of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office where she oversees work in consumer protection, health care, environment, antitrust, civil rights, and insurance and financial services. She is a BBA Council Member and previously served as a Co-Chair of the BBA’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Section. She is a member of the Boston Advisory Board of the American Constitution Society, a recipient of the Mass LGTBQ Bar Association’s Larkin Award for Public Service, and a member of the Women’s Bar Association’s Leadership Initiative Charter Class.
1. In your role as a leader, how do you motivate those working in a government agency?
The way I think about motivating those around me is by supporting them, giving them the room to exercise initiative on how to handle problems, and put their skills and expertise to work for the public interest. I try to encourage others to feel that they have the latitude to think carefully and critically about issues and how best to reach a solution, because a lot of what we do focuses on identifying problems and trying to solve them.
To avoid micromanaging, I’ve found it helpful to sit down with the other person, have a discussion, and agree on goals, expectations, and a course of action — then step back. As a manager, I might aid the process by asking questions or helping to make major decisions, but most of the time it’s about maintaining a positive environment. Part of that is reminding colleagues of the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish and why we love what we do, especially when somebody has a tough day…we all need those reminders.
Motivation isn’t difficult at the Attorney General’s Office because it’s full of people who love the work they do and are committed to it, so for me it’s more about making sure that they have the support they need to do their work, and that they know at all times – when things are going well or when they’re a little more challenging – that their work is appreciated. Collegiality is hugely important – and as a leader, it’s important to have a vision, confidence, and conviction, but to also foster a team environment so that everyone is rowing in the same direction. You accomplish a lot more that way.
2. What is the toughest ‘battle’ you’ve faced, and how did you manage and overcome it?
Working on our challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act taught me a lot. At the outset, which started with Attorney General Coakley’s belief and commitment to seeing this law undone, many thought the odds were stacked against a successful challenge, and we saw this as a real uphill fight. Tackling DOMA required a lot of homework and preparation, and building a team of smart, enthusiastic, and committed lawyers from our office and pro bono counsel from Wilmer Hale was key. I also think that having a strategy that sought to build a big tent and bring many supporters on board was integral. One of the challenges, but also one of the great joys, was getting to work so collaboratively with great lawyers and firms, bar associations, academics, businesses, civil rights organizations, and others on framing the issues and making the case. There were ups and downs, but happily, having a plan and sticking with it through the long haul paid off. Another big part of leadership that we exercised here was taking advantage when you’re in a position to make decisions or recommendations by having a goal, devising a strategy – for the long term and the short-term – and then gathering the resources to get you through that process.
3. What are the unique challenges in your environment, and how do you handle them?
The Public Protection & Advocacy Bureau covers a wide range of subject areas. One of the challenges is that there are so many matters you’d want to tackle, but then you run the risk of spreading resources too thin to accomplish anything. I think the way we handle it, and the way anybody should, is by being smart and strategic in what we take on and how we do it – what’s the real core problem, how does the issue fit within our mission, what are the potential solutions, and what’s the plan for getting there. Once that’s figured out, it’s about keeping on course. It’s necessary for any manager to establish priorities and stay with it to make sure you’re moving ahead and ultimately achieving those goals.
Over the last couple of years, this TED talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, about the paradoxical power of vulnerability made huge waves on the Internet, catapulting it to popularity as one of the most viewed videos on the website. By now, TED lists it in their playlist of “classic” videos. The talk focuses on the roadblocks to interpersonal connections created by shame and fear; the relationship between self-worth, courage, and vulnerability in establishing connections; and the problematic tendency to numb vulnerability.
If you are skeptical about how applicable this might be to leadership, consider this: one of the most frequently cited skills of a great leader is his or her ability to connect and communicate with others. In a recent forum through Inc.com, Brown translated some of her original ideas into a more pragmatic setting. Her target was to bust four common myths about the role of vulnerability in leadership:
Vulnerability is a weakness.
You can opt out of vulnerability.
Vulnerability means “letting it all hang out.”
A person can go it alone.
To read her explanations negating these myths, you can find the article here.
You may have noticed we have a live comment box, so feel free to sound off! Is this a valid connection? Does vulnerability have a place in leadership? If so, how much?
Chief Justice Paula Carey of the Probate and Family Court becomes Chief Justice of the Trial Court on July 16. She was a founding partner of Carey & Mooney P.C.
How did you develop your own style of leadership, and what experiences contributed to shaping it?
It has been mainly intuitive for me. My personality is such that I listen with empathy, and I generally try to help people find their own strengths. It helps to have a cooperative and inclusive leadership style. As a judge, I have learned that if people have the opportunity to be heard and voice their view, then they will have a greater ability to understand a decision even if it ends up contrary to their view. Also, I have always been a huge proponent of teamwork – I used to be involved with sports – and you learn that much more can be accomplished as a whole versus individually.
How can a leader most effectively foster cooperation, particularly with groups that might have conflicting interests?
This needs to be done collaboratively with all interested parties at the table with a real presence. That’s even possible in legislation. There was one instance, concerning the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code, in which certain Article 5 provisions proved difficult to implement. Hospitals and nursing homes ended up on one side of the issue, then legal services on another, while judges and other lawyers were in the mix as well. At that point, I said that we have to try to fix this and get everyone at the table to help come up with a consensus. In the end, we revised the language for the bill and submitted it to the legislature cooperatively, as a combined effort. We called that ‘negotiated rulemaking.’
What have you done, and what can a leader do, to maintain an inspiring presence and motivate others in the face of difficult circumstances, such as inadequate resources?
It’s necessary as a leader in these situations to maintain a supportive presence, work harder than everybody else, and maintain a realistic but positive view. You also must ensure that people understand their own value within the organization. In Trial Court, it’s easy – the delivery of justice is such a noble purpose, and performing public service is a great motivation. Our judges, employees, and the lawyers who practice in our court truly help people each and every day. In being an effective leader, you have to let people know that you have their interests in mind; not only that, you have to mean it. Being credible and real is a huge part of being a leader.
Lisa Arrowood is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. She is the Secretary of the BBA Council and a member of the BBA’s Executive Committee. She is also a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and is Vice-Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee. She holds a three year appointment (2010-2013) as the First Circuit Representative to the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.
What leadership experience was necessary to found your own litigation boutique?
My litigation boutique, Arrowood Peters, is the second new law firm I have founded; I had co-founded Todd & Weld in 1992. So I had done it before, but I learned a lot in the 20 years at Todd & Weld about being a leader within a law firm. It was an interesting experience to be one of two female partners at Todd & Weld – for the first five years, I was the only one. There’s a certain understanding that comes from being the only female partner in a firm with a lot of female associates – you have to be a good role model and leader for women in particular.
That, combined with a lot of experience leading teams on cases that went to trial, helped a lot in setting up the new firm – especially learning how to organize people, how to get tasks done, and how to motivate others, among other things.
As a leader of other lawyers in volunteer organizations, what skills, qualities, or style do you consider crucial to ensure success?
I think this is true of leadership in general, but one of the most important abilities is to make decisions and ‘let the buck stop with you.’ In order to be a good leader, you need the courage to make those decisions, and sometimes that means you need the courage to be wrong and work from there. In a volunteer organization, something key to keep in mind is respecting the fact that all of the volunteers are very busy and have a lot of responsibilities, so being efficient and not wasting time is extremely important. Volunteers are giving very precious time to the organization, so it’s always important for leaders to be sensitive to that.
How do you establish credibility as a leader?
As a leader, you have to be willing to do some of the work and not just delegate, although good leaders do know how to delegate and are good at it. I am a firm believer that you can’t get everything done if you insist on trying to do it all yourself.
Beyond that, it often depends on the leadership role. For heading up a trial team, for example, where the goal is to win the case, people who work under you have to be confident that you know what you’re doing, that you’re going to do a good job, and that things need to be done a certain way because that’s the best way to do them – and it has to show up in results. That’s where people will see you as an effective and credible leader: when the direction you provide will get everybody to the place they want to be. Within the BBA or a volunteer organization, it’s a little more complex, because it’s a multifaceted organization with many different goals. That’s where it’s great to have an unbelievable team like the BBA staff to prepare and assist its leaders.
By now, TED talks are a well-established series known for insightful content, big ideas, and, above all, an engaging format marked by personal stories, humor, and captivating stage presence. It’s easy to soak in these brilliant presentations with slight pangs of envy and assume that their presenters must just be naturally gifted, but that is actually not the case at all – more than half a year of training goes into making each 18-minute talk a compelling and informative final product.
It just goes to show that, with a lot of work, great ideas can become absolutely transformative; what’s more, effective communication can be the difference between someone with one of those great ideas and a true thought leader – or, for that matter, any leader.
For those who want to learn to orate like TED presenters, Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED archives and one of trainers for the presenters, has offered TED’s tried-and-true techniques to the Harvard Business Review, summarized in this article by Upstart. Some of the advice is intuitive, while other suggestions – such as not trying to cram every data point into a short presentation – might be less so. Not only does Anderson highlight the preparation and knowledge required for every TED Talk, he provides readers with the basic skill set to hook an audience and make them think, a crucial leadership ability.
Of course, we would love to hear feedback on what readers think about these tips, or if anybody has anything to add that can make or break a presentation. Barring that – what is the best TED talk you have ever seen, and why?