Park Perspectives: The heart of leadership

Students sitting in on circle in a field
Park Fellows take time to reflect on and talk about personal leadership styles. 

By Zach Zirkle, Two-Year MBA ’20

Park Perspectives are authored by Johnson’s Park Leadership Fellows

Think of those people in your life who consider you a leader. Why do they allow you to influence them? Is it because of your title or because they respect who you are as a person? Are the teams you lead characterized by excitement and accountability or excuses and resentment? I’ve pondered these questions and others while participating in the Park Fellowship program at Johnson. The program has inspired me to reflect on my own successes and failures, as well as what I’ve seen in the leadership styles of others. I’ve observed people employ various techniques to obtain influence including intimidation, creating conflict and then posing as an advocate, withholding information, flattery, and deploying one’s charisma. There are some leaders, however, who don’t rely on any of these strategies and yet have an incredibly powerful influence. These leaders hold little in common in terms of background, oratory style, physical appearance, or personality. Instead, they are unified by the fact that each of them truly cares about the well-being of those they lead. To me, I truly believe the practice of this type of leadership—altruistic leadership—is surprisingly uncommon yet the most effective.

At the core of altruistic leadership is the recognition that the true purpose is to serve; the best leaders view their position as a platform to improve the lives of those they lead and achieve the objectives of the organization. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget this truth and instead view leadership as an opportunity to feed one’s ego.

What does altruistic leadership look like?

The book Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box (2010) by The Arbinger Institute is an interesting study of the effect that biases—conscious and unconscious—have on our ability to influence others. One of the primary lessons is that leaders should refrain from viewing the members of their team as tools in a tool belt that exist primarily to advance the leader’s initiatives. Instead, the leader should respect the humanity and perspective of his/her team members. Herein lies an important truth: How one sees another—the conscious or unconscious summary of that person which one drafts in the mind—determines how one feels about the individual and largely determines how one treats the individual. Employees can usually sense that something is off when the leader’s words and feelings don’t align.

The altruistic leader’s influence begins with how he/she views employees. The altruistic leader:

  • Sees employees as worthwhile human beings with the potential to make significant contributions and worthy of respect and development,
  • Takes a personal interest in the well-being and progression of the employees, which generates a desire to help the employees find greater happiness and success,
  • When appropriate, learns about what is important, difficult and exciting to the individual in his/her life; that doesn’t mean the leader sets aside the interests of the organization to coddle the employee and turn the work environment into a therapy session – to the contrary, the goals of the organization remain paramount but the way of achieving those goals is improved, and
  • Views strengths as permanent and weaknesses as temporary (until proven otherwise).

This type of leadership is heightened by communicating expectations clearly and, where possible, identifying specific and measurable goals to help the employee continually push towards higher levels of achievement.

Crucial conversations become painless

One significant benefit of altruistic leadership is that crucial conversations become painless. Much of the discomfort experienced during crucial conversations arises from the leader’s desire to be liked. The leader subconsciously thinks, “I want you to like me and I feel awkward right now because I’m about to do something that might make you like me less.” Often those feelings result in the leader resenting the employee for making choices that would force the leader to have an uncomfortable conversation. If, on the other hand, the leader cares more about the subordinate’s well-being and progress than he does about his own popularity, he is free to think and communicate with extreme clarity and compassion. His mind is clear enough to help the employee identify if the substandard performance is tied to a lack of motivation/discipline or a lack of skills and, consequently, can develop an effective plan for improvement with the employee. The employee feels the leader’s genuine appreciation and concern and leaves the meeting with the motivation and tools to succeed. The employee recognizes the leader’s attitude is, “let’s find a way to help you succeed. I am here for you—even if that means respectfully calling you out” instead of, “I am inconvenienced by your substandard performance and I am frustrated that we need to have this conversation.”

Performance improves dramatically

When the leader’s employees know the leader genuinely cares about their well-being, a culture of optimism and energy follows. The employees are inspired to follow the leader’s example and they are motivated to go above and beyond because they are invested in the success of the rest of the team. Furthermore, the leader has established the personal capital necessary to push the team members towards new heights and stretch themselves. They trust that what the leader is asking is good for them and they respond positively. Moreover, they trust the leader enough to bring questions, concerns and new ideas. Because the leader is interested in their development, the leader transforms the employees into another layer of leadership that has a significant impact on the organization. In this type of culture, the energy isn’t directed towards navigating office politics and jockeying for position. Instead, employees are free to adopt the attitude of “us vs the world” or “us vs what’s possible.”

Phil Jackson (the head coach of the Chicago Bulls during their championship run with Michael Jordan and then with the Los Angeles Lakers during their championship run with Kobe Bryant) refined his ability to create championship cultures by drawing upon principles from the book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (2007) by D. Logan, J. King, and H. Fischer-Wright. In this book, the authors discuss the cultures established in organizations of varying effectiveness. The cultures of the most powerful teams have moved into the stage of “life is great” and are competing with what is possible rather than with each other or competitors.

Approaching leadership through the lens of an altruistic leader accelerates a culture through the stages of effectiveness and drives productivity.

You are responsible for your influence

To conclude, truly caring for the well-being of one’s team has a dramatic impact on the team’s performance. In the course of finding investment targets for private equity clients prior to business school, I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of business owners about their experience growing companies, shaping cultures, and outpacing the competition. On occasion I was privileged to observe the powerful impact of altruistic leadership within companies operating in industries as diverse as HVAC contracting, investment banking, and healthcare services. The impact that the leaders of these organizations had on their companies reminds me of the following quote in W.G. Jordan’s book Self Control, It’s Kingship and Mastery:

“The only responsibility that a man cannot evade in this life is the one he thinks of least – his personal influence. Man’s conscious influence, when he is on dress parade, when he is posing to impress those around him, is woefully small. But his unconscious influence, the silent, subtle radiation of his personality, the effect of his words and acts, the trifles he never considers, is tremendous. Every moment of his life he is changing to a degree the life of the whole world… Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil, – the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what a man really is, not what he pretends to be. Every man, by his mere living, is radiating sympathy, or sorrow, or morbidness, or cynicism, or happiness, or hope, or any of a hundred other qualities. Life is a state of constant radiation and absorption; to exist is to radiate; to exist is to be the recipient of radiations. Man cannot escape for one moment from this radiation of his character, this constantly weakening or strengthening of others. He cannot evade the responsibility by saying it is an unconscious influence. He can select the qualities that he will permit to be radiated. He can cultivate sweetness, calmness, trust, generosity, truth, justice, loyalty, nobility, make them vitally active in his character, and by these qualities he will constantly affect the world” (Jordan, 1907, p. 36).

Link to learn more about the Park Leadership Fellows program

About Zach Zirkle, Two-Year MBA ’20:

Portrait of Zach Zirkle, Two-Year MBA 20

Zach Zirkle is a first-year MBA candidate at Johnson. Before business school, Zach worked as a Director at IndustryPro, a boutique investment bank in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia area. He spent his last 18 months at the firm as the senior director and helped the firm achieve historic growth by reforming the company’s strategy and training other IndustryPro employees. He is an experienced M&A professional and arranged transactions in several industries while at IndustryPro. He will spend his summer internship as a summer consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. Zach holds a BS in psychology from Brigham Young University.