4 Secrets to Responsive Leadership

responsive leadershipWhat makes a great leader? Nationally recognized leader and executive coach Jackie Jenkins-Scott provides her perspective as she explores examples of responsive leadership in her new book, 7 Secrets of Responsive Leadership. While you may be a strong leader, she asserts, the ability to adapt your strengths to each new organization, or to changes within the organization—new board members, new staff members, new shareholders—is the quality that will help you remain successful. 

Jackie Jenkins-Scott has more than three decades of experience in executive leadership positions in public health, higher education and corporate and non-profit governance.

We recently asked her more about responsive leadership.

What is responsive leadership?

Leadership is sometimes described as the process of developing people and the organization in order to deal and cope with both complexity and change.

Responsive leadership focuses on the people—the humanity within the organization—to deal and cope with complexity and change in order to achieve organizational success.

In your book, you talk about the four attributes of great leaders. What are these qualities and why are they so important?

Over my decades in leadership roles, in reflecting on my own development as a leader, talking with colleagues, reading and studying leadership, I have come to believe that there are four essential attributes that drive the responsive leader.

These are the attributes that sustain and make a person’s leadership strong in both triumph and crisis, as well as transportable and transferrable in different environments. I call these leadership attributes The Big 4.

The Big 4 Leadership Attributes

1. Curiosity: The desire to continuously learn, discover, and grow intellectually. Curiosity will play a critical role in steering an organizational transformation, creating a new product, innovation or better understanding the competition. With a curious mind, the leader will seek knowledge and understanding from a variety of sources including subordinates, peers, experts, and trusted advisors. And as a result, she and her organization will be wiser and stronger.

2. Humility: A sincere regard for the reality that we cannot go it alone and be successful. Never underestimate the power of humility. Humility reinforces our curiosity in others and the world around us. Humility opens the door for a leader to have the courage to surround herself with the very best people who are highly competent and perhaps even smarter than herself. With humility, we know that we can learn and grow from others fully aware that “I” do not have all the answers. Employees will often respond most effectively to a “humble” leader.

3. Empathy: The ability to feel and appreciate other human beings. The ability to understand feelings of others, will keep us in touch with our own feelings as the organization tackles problems and finds solutions. Empathy is considered foundational to workplace cooperation and productive collaboration. In most work environments, people must work with other people in order to be successful. Empathy will keep leaders tuned into the impact that the dramatic changes are having on the people around and in the organization. Regardless of leadership style, many executives will agree that empathy is a basic and very important quality of a successful leader.

4. Resilience: The capacity to recover, to keep going forward in the face of adversity. All leaders face adversity at some point in their career. Some of the most challenging work leaders encounter is rebounding from a setback. Recovering quickly from what you perceive as a failure or setback, and perhaps an event that everyone around you perceives as a failure, can accelerate your own personal recovery process and as important, it can provide the ability for accelerated organizational growth and continued development. Resilience can provide organizational backbone and stamina during the most challenging of times.

Each of the Big 4 Leadership attributes are the foundational core of responsive leadership. When consistently practiced, the responsible leader will confidently employ a variety of management tools and techniques with courage and confidence.

As a turnaround expert, you’ve taken several struggling institutions and transformed them into thriving leaders in their fields. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who may be looking to revive their businesses?

Organizations (like people) are always in transition. We often do not look at the current challenge as a transition, but indeed, it is. Some transitions are more consequential and important than others and in the case of reviving a failing business is at the extreme of the transition continuum.

When the company is in turnaround mode, consistent incorporation of the big 4 leadership attributes as the leader’s way of “doing” and “being” becomes even more important. Curiosity, understanding how and why the company arrived at this point and learning from others who turned around similar situations (or didn’t) will be key to revival.

Humility, seeking out the very best expertise and help one can find—learning from their experiences, getting and using good advice—is a natural companion to curiosity. Staying connected to the mission and people engaged in the work gives the leader purpose and confidence that the company can move ahead.

Finally, resilience, the ability to stay focused and keep at it, will eventually lead to the breakthrough or the decision to move on. In my book, The 7 Secrets of Responsible Leadership, I describe tools that responsive leaders employ in their leadership journey. These secret “tools” are especially useful for leaders who are leading their company through a turnaround challenge.

What’s one leadership mistake you’ve made in your career—and what did you learn from it?

During my tenure as CEO, our company had an opening to fill a critical and influential position in the organization. I appointed a search committee to recommend a candidate. The search committee recommended two finalists for this critical role. The committee rated both candidates equally and did not indicate a preference, stating that both candidates were equally qualified. I was very conflicted.

My instincts told me to take the candidate with more practical experiences and my intellect told me to take the candidate with more academic credentials. I ended up selecting the wrong candidate and within 3 months on the job I, and many people in the company, knew the selected candidate was not a good fit. The next 18 months were a nightmare for the company in part because I took too long to transition the person out of the role.

In this experience, I learned to trust my instincts and make sure I incorporated all of the Big 4 attributes in my decision making—gathering good and reliable information, receiving good advice and input, understanding how one person’s approach might impact others in the organization, and looking for signs of how the candidate deals with challenge and adversity. I learned that the Big 4 work for me and when I stray from using them, I can get in trouble!

What are the top five takeaways that you hope entrepreneurs and CEOs will glean from your book?
  1. Leadership at its core is about our values. Our values are always on display telling the employees and the world something about the company and its leaders.
  2. Responsive leadership is good for business! Responsive leadership can and should improve the bottom line, productivity, and morale.
  3. Pay attention to key transitions in the company and their potential impact (changes in leadership, major challenges, big wins).
  4. Incorporating and practicing the Big 4 will sustain the leader during the highs and lows of her journey and will give her the fortitude to weather it all with grace and dignity.
  5. The 7 secrets are leadership tools that I have found valuable in my leadership journey. I hope the book will inspire the reader to explore and understand what tools are valuable for them in their own leadership journey.

Jackie Jenkins-Scott is commited to improving society through active community and civic engagement. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Century Bank and Trust Company, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the Center for Community Change, and the National Board of Jumpstart. Jenkins-Scott serves as President of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum, an affiliate of the International Women’s Forum.



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