A recent New York Times interview with Rachel Ashwell, founder of Shabby Chic, reveals an orientation and practice that reflects often overlooked qualities and expectations of leadership.
First and foremost quality is being human. Oh many might say, aren’t we all human! Would this not mean that everyone provides leadership?
While we are all human, we don’t all act out of our humanness. Many act as objects, not as subjects; as the position/title we hold and not the human being we are. We all don’t acknowledge that we are all (at base) the same; with the same essential human needs such as relatedness, respect, and trust. As Rachel stated “…And, to me, you’re a human being. And if we have problems, I’m going to treat you as a human being.”
As testament to this Rachel notes, “when having a conversation, you’re really there and you’re interested and you’re interesting.” What being ‘really there’ means that you are truly engaged with the other in the conversation; you are respectfully listening with an open mind. When you do this you communicate that you trust the other by being open to his/her influence. This is truly connecting person-to-person. Consequently when dealing with people being superficial will not suffice.
An expectation Rachel has for those she works with is that they think. Now on the surface this may seem common, but it isn’t. In far too many organizations most people are hired for ‘doing’ while ‘’thinking’ is usually restricted to those in management. In fact many organizations are structured based on the principles of division of labor (horizontally) and division of authority (i.e. thinking) vertically—the often heard phrase check your brains at the door wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t sadly true.
Generally those who believe they are leaders because they hold (what is often referred to as) a leadership position, likely believe that they know best—at least they carry on as if they do. Hence the expectation is for their subordinates—and they use this demeaning term to refer to people below them—should simply fall in line and do as directed. Such toxic managers are fearful of people who actually think and have independent ideas. Rachel says that she actual doesn’t feel safe if she sees non-thinking!
Leadership is about engaging the power of others, not propping up one’s ego. Simply leaders develop partnerships. Leaders engage others by asking insightful questions that invites and challenges others to join them in thinking critically with an open mind poised for learning. As Rachel asserts, “I think the words ‘I don’t know’—in a positive way—is a little phrase much avoided.” The hidden lesson is that an inquiring critical thinking mind is an essential leadership practice. The leader is an unceasing learner and facilitates the same in others.
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