John WilkinsManagement
June 3, 2020

Cultivating uncommon touch

Moonlight overcame a major gaffe during the 2017 Academy Awards to be named Best Picture. Barry Jenkins’ delicate, low-budget, independent film is pure art. It looks at three defining chapters in the life of Little/Chiron/Black, a young man growing up in Miami. His epic journey to manhood is guided by the kindness, support, and love of the community. This is the story of a lifetime – a common tale presented with uncommon touch.

Managers sometimes lose touch. They assume top-down attitudes to compensate for feelings of powerlessness or alienation. They put paperwork before people, prioritizing results and deadlines above relationships. They become dictators by virtue of seniority or position entitlement, missing out on collaborative opportunities. They embrace communication chaos, believing there is never enough time. And they fail to mentor prospects or prepare for succession because of resistance to change.

Why do public managers who want to make a difference make these leadership mistakes? Daniel Goleman offers this insight: “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Keeping in touch

Managers who have a common touch are effective and memorable but are far too uncommon. What do they need to do to stay in touch with those who matter? Many attributes are worth practicing:

  • Caring – knowing people, attending to needs, listening, comforting, giving courtesy and respect;
  • Charismatic – making others feel special, showing genuine interest, leaving a lasting impression;
  • Courageous – overcoming fears, trusting one another, building bridges, reaching out;
  • Empathetic – understanding and sharing others’ feelings, shaping world perceptions;
  • Fair – reconciling opposing viewpoints without offence or compromise, confirming consent;
  • Genuine – being yourself, authentic self-awareness, walking the talk, setting an example;
  • Modest – balancing public service and private solitude, comfortable in the public eye;
  • Patient – operating in the short-term and long-term simultaneously, making choices;
  • Reciprocal – giving and receiving, expecting to learn more than to teach, mutual benefits;
  • Selfless – healthy growth beyond fears, remaining content in spirit, maturity to serve;
  • Sharing – coaching performance, mentoring learning, succession and talent management;
  • Supportive – encouraging others, revealing opportunities, a helping hand; and
  • Welcoming – conveying warmth and hospitality, inviting, finding time to get to know people.

Nurturing emotional intelligence

Leaders help make wonderful things happen. They have a vision of the future and how to achieve it. They go beyond the bottom line to determine how goals are reached and the organization is impacted. The best leaders know that eventually it all comes down to people.

Leaders also tend to be more inspiring and likeable than managers. Managers manage people in teams. Developing people cannot be outsourced to HR while managers focus on the organization’s business. Rather, it is their business to develop, nurture, and lead their team.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage your own and others’ emotions. It also means being aware of the non-verbal cues sent and received. The cycle of high EQ starts with becoming aware of your ability to manage emotions. It is remaining calm when stuff happens, knowing your strengths and blind spots, and growing in self-confidence.

Empathy is a key differentiator of personality. Being in someone else’s shoes, looking through their eyes, and experiencing joy and pain with their soul takes personal engagement to another level. We can digitize processes, decision making, and problem solving, but can artificial intelligence replace empathy and relationships?

Leaders who are admired enjoy equanimity with the people around them. People listen to them with interest and are inspired. They just seem to vibe right. They know when to let go of control and offer support. They know the signs of burnout and self-correct. They can read who needs appreciation and who needs help. They pay attention and listen. They learn to build stronger teams.

It is one thing to know something and another to apply it every day. Developing high EQ is a marathon, not a sprint. Being a manager takes you only so far. Being a leader with uncommon touch brings you home triumphant.

About this author

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John Wilkins

JOHN WILKINS IS ASSOCIATE: PUBLIC MANAGEMENT AT YORK UNIVERSITY (JWILKINS@SCHULICH.YORKU.CA). HE WAS A CAREER SENIOR PUBLIC SERVANT AND DIPLOMAT.

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