Fierce Grace – The art of gracious leadership

Oct 27th, 2016


female boxer


When I think of great leaders I am reminded of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great where he reflects on the rare kind of leadership that makes companies great – he calls it Level 5 Leadership. It is the combination of tenacity (professional will) with personal humility. I call this Fierce Grace.

Tenacity is a key and important quality that is found in good leaders and often their personal profile (and ego) is a large part of the company’s success. When this highly respected quality is combined with grace it can transform a team of followers into loyal advocates that give far more than they are asked.

I often say to clients the difference between compliance and commitment in an organisation or team is how you lead. Humility is not thinking less about you – but thinking about you less.

I recall one delegate of a leadership programme I was running recalling how he did not have a great relationship with his line manager. He did not feel recognised or even known and was in no way motivated by the way he was led. One Christmas, the company was due to have its usual staff party where employees were invited to bring their spouses. Sadly, on the day of the party, his wife was unable to attend due to illness and so he informed his line manager of this and thought nothing more of it. Perhaps in a normal scenario, that would be the end of the story… a pretty boring one at that. However, the line manager did something amazing that day. He sent a handwritten note to his colleague’s ill wife, thanking her for the incredible support she provided to her husband which had contributed to him becoming such an asset to the business and how her presence at the party would be missed. It was a generous thought and an action which changed everything. Not only had the manager shown empathy and gratitude to his colleague’s wife which she valued greatly, but he had also recognised the team member for his hard work. It was an action which inspired great loyalty towards him from that day on.

Gracious leadership is a combination of empathy, generosity and gratitude (EGG)

Empathy in particular, is a hugely powerful skill to have in your leadership toolbox – especially when you’re faced with challenging people or situations. Imagine you’re about to go into difficult meeting with someone whose behaviour you find challenging. A classic behaviour would be to fire yourself up beforehand, build an impenetrable barrier then go into the meeting and force your ‘opponent’ into submission – leaving them to lick their wounds and build up their anger for another challenge on another day. But what if, instead of doing this – you put yourself in your ‘opponent’s’ shoes. Try to understand his or her point of view. Try to rationalise their behaviour. Ask yourself a key question … “When did I behave this way?”. When you identify a moment in which you behaved the same, then you can feel true empathy. In doing so, you will be able to connect and build a rapport with those in the room and that will lead to a more productive meeting and a more positive outcome. As Dr Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

When people talk about the leaders they most remember, they talk about the human things those leaders did. They talk about the grace by which they carried out their leadership.

Grace balances the ego that can accompany power and we become more human. The more human we are as leaders, the more effective our leadership becomes. When we show empathy, gratitude and generosity towards our team, our clients and our shareholders – we build stronger, more committed, more long-term relationships and that’s good for business.

I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Maya Angelou:

People will forget what you said,

People will forget what you did,

But people will never forget how you made them feel.