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Leadership in Action: Using Both ‘Empathetic’ and ‘Assertive’ Styles

Ami Valdemoro, Harvard MPP, CEO, Three Points Ventures

Historically, effective leadership has been defined as being ambitious and assertive, valuing hustle, placing an emphasis on winning vs. losing, and nurturing a competitive spirit (which at its best can be healthy, but at its worst can be debilitating).

Many of these traits have been traditionally associated with men. And in many situations, these traits have enabled clans, cultures, and countries to survive and thrive, defining what they stood for and allowing leaders to provide, in the Adaptive Leadership language of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “protection, direction, and order.”

At the same time, for as long as we have existed in social structures, a subcurrent has run alongside these “assertive” behaviors, a management style traditionally associated with women. For the purposes of this article, I will call this style “empathetic.” It is an approach based on intuition, “soft power,” networking, and compassion, and is often connected with service or care-oriented professions.

What does the integration of the two styles look like in practice? If you want to adopt this new way of exercising leadership—and empower others to do the same—you’ll need to keep three things in mind:

  1. Know Your Timing. Leadership is an art, not a science. This means you’ll need to figure out day to day when to use a more assertive approach and when a more empathetic approach is more appropriate. One way to make this choice is to consider the differences between your role as a manager supervising functional roles and your role as a coach of human talent and potential. Nowadays, most leaders have to be both managers and coaches. Companies recognize this duality, and each role benefits from a different approach. Traditionally, the role of a manager has focused on the achievement of key performance indicators (KPIs) or targets. In fulfilling this part of your job description, which is results- and output-oriented, you might choose to use a more assertive, goal-oriented, and (moderately) competitive approach. On the other hand, companies increasingly understand the importance of coaching in shaping the workplace culture and overall performance of their organizations. A coaching role focuses less on outputs or outcomes and more on the holistic development of people—making sure they feel seen, heard, and understood so that they can confidently make decisions and feel committed to their teams. To be effective in this role, you might employ “softer” approaches, including listening and empathy.
  2. Listen to What’s Being Said and Not Being Said. You won’t know which approach to use if you aren’t attuned to the companies, communities, or teams that you want to mobilize or lead. That means understanding the culture of your group. Is there an imbalance in the way they approach tasks or challenges, over-favoring either assertive or empathetic energies? What is or isn’t being said about the current norms of operating? What might you do in your role to facilitate a better integration of assertive and empathetic approaches, if an imbalance does exist? In your next meeting or group consultation, step back and observe what’s going on in the room. Can you notice patterns in who is contributing to the discussion and who isn’t? How about people’s body language and behavior—what tends to get more air time? Predictable behaviors can be a sign of a predominant culture, one that may or may not be benefiting your group in their attempts to reach your objectives.
  3. Be Open to Adapting When Things Don’t Go as Planned. Employing both assertive and empathetic energies, and prizing both traits in your teams, will not always be easy, particularly given your own and other people’s expectations and assumptions. Often the process will be wobbly and things won’t go as planned. But there is no one right way to lead. Allow yourself to learn and adapt based on your objectives. That way, you won’t risk pigeonholing yourself into one style of leadership or, more critically, lose your effectiveness and authority. At some point in the past two chaotic years, I found that I had reached my maximum professional load. I was short-tempered and more aggressive, and I rushed from one thing to the next without giving myself time to think. Eventually, rather than trying to cover up what wasn’t working and simply plow forward, I decided to sit down with my team and tell them that I needed their help in figuring out a new way to operate. By demonstrating my own vulnerability, I unintentionally allowed them to do the same. The meeting was immensely productive, and I wished I had held it much sooner. I encourage you to do in advance what I didn’t: set aside time on a regular basis—whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly—to reflect on your leadership and assess objectively what has worked, what hasn’t, and how you may need to adapt to changing circumstances.

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