Between charity and finance, what does leadership on two extremes of the spectrum have in common?
The world is full of models. There are many leadership books out there, too many theories have already structured the whole concept so far. Different styles make us wonder if leadership is like conducting a Mozart symphony, or if it is something more like... a Jazz improvisation.
To be frank, none of these concepts is subject to study in this article. So, instead of talking theory or metaphor, I decided to devote my very first long article to a particular walk through the meaning of leadership to some brilliant leaders. How do they define leadership and how do they see their role as leaders have an impact? This article is taking the walk to two extremes of the spectrum. A lady and a man. A Princess and a CEO. Charity and Finance. It seemed to be the perfect combination of two different worlds where these two leaders have something in common: being great leaders for their respective communities.
Before we discover together how these two leaders define leadership, I’d like to take a moment to thank my interview guests, Princess Tessy and Mr. David Suetens, for their time, support and kindness.
Tessy de Nassau
Tessy is a humanitarian, an activist and a mother of two, Prince Gabriel and Prince Noah.
A Mrongovius Medal Award for humanitarian involvment and Woman of the Decade Award Winner, co-founder of Professors Without Borders, a very engaged leader in women empowerment projects promoting women’s rights around the globe, Tessy is a great example of a kind, active, tenacious woman.
Her agenda does not stop her from being what she sees to be the most important thing in life, a caring mother to the two princes, Gabriel and Noah.
David is the CEO of State Street and its affiliates in Luxembourg, and he is one of the decision markers in the Luxembourg’s financial industry.
He also holds additional positions as board member at the Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry (ALFI) and the Luxembourg House of Financial Technology (LHoFT).
David has always been influenced by technological changes and their impacts on life. Not a surprise that three words are on his success list: innovation, change and trust.
In Tessy’s own words: “For me, leadership is about inspiring other people, inspiring them to go that extra mile, by showing them examples, because it’s only by doing so that you will be seen as a leader and make other people want to follow you.”
According to Tessy, a great leader is someone who bears a huge responsibility of impact and influence on other people. A leadership role might be quite demanding, but it also requires a dose of gratitude. “A great leader takes the time to be a great leader. You don’t just become the best at what you do, but you also share it. Leaders have to acknowledge that they are very blessed to get this opportunity and, therefore, they must be committed to give something back to others.”
Digging deeper into this definition of leadership, Tessy highlights the main characteristics of a great leader and stresses the importance of values in a leadership role: “Integrity, respect and kindness. Leaders have to be respectful towards others.”
This brought us to talk about true leadership and the importance of genuine values. True leadership goes beyond a job for which leaders are getting paid, with annual goals and bonuses, and a job description listing managerial tasks and requiring managerial skills. “True leaders are aligned with their values and know how to take care of everyone in their teams, recognize their efforts and protect them. They are good at managing their ego because many leaders fall in their ego’s trap.”
In David’s own words: “leadership is a journey with people and yourself. The people element is tremendously important. Moreover, you should recognize that this journey is also about yourself. From time to time, leaders need to look at themselves in the mirror.”
David highlighted the importance of recognizing failures, questioning the status quo and embracing change. For David, the ability to adapt to change but also the ability to trigger change are essential components of strong leadership.
David’s journey in leadership started at the age of 28 when he was promoted to manage a team of 30 employees. The diversity in terms of age, location and nationality within his team was one of the numerous challenges a leader should be prepared to face. “But I realized a year later that I so much love managing people that I would never give it up”.
According to David, it is important to understand your own abilities, personality and vision before taking on a leader’s role, and make sure that this is something for you, since there is no aim to change the course of fate if you are not totally prepared or meant to be a leader. Quite the opposite, you should see this as an opportunity to improve or to do something more aligned with yourself. “I totally respect and honestly prefer when people say at a certain point that this is not something for them rather than taking on roles they are not meant for, because in this case, they just fail to lead people and make them grow.”
While writing this article, I came to think that this insight from David does also communicate a hidden message about true leadership. True leaders should have their people’s best interests at heart way more than just caring about a title, a position, power and other incentives that come with a “senior or top manager’s package”. It is like being assigned to sail a ship with people on board. If your personality doesn’t show a certain set of essential – inner or acquired – skills of a captain, such as sense of direction, vision, judgment, decision-making, active listening, instructing guidelines, managing crisis, etc., do you imagine how negative the consequences would be for every person on board if you were to bear the title of “captain”? This does also apply to organizations and societies.
What's more, people who only strive for a position or a title turn to be ego-driven leaders. One of the main take-away messages we get from reading "Ego is the Enemy" of Ryan Holiday, is that ego is the desire to get success and recognition without working hard to deserve it, and while organizations need solid foundations of real achievements, egotism can be very dangerous and destructive.
Therefore, being a genuine leader requires a high level of emotional intelligence, and thus a deep understanding of one’s own personality and abilities.
Tessy was inspired from her early age by Mae Jemison, the American engineer and NASA astronaut, who became the first African American woman to travel in space in the 1990’s. “I remember people talking about her, and for some reason I picked her words. She said along the lines: 'you should not ask for permission to do what you really like to do'. She was talking about work and that was the time when I realized that there was something about quality and well-being at work. And not everybody is offered that gift of doing things that they really like to do at work”.
In this specific context, where many positions offer little room for creativity and inspiration, people may lose their motivation pretty soon after the start of their career. The leader’s role takes another shape of importance here when it comes to motivating and inspiring their people, caring about their well-being and fulfillment at work because this is often the only source of motivation that one can be offered in certain positions, and it is impossible to imagine a company running with demotivated employees. We all – or almost all of us – are aware of the simple equation: the less fulfilled your employees are, the less performance your company scores (the more your own top manager's position is at risk).
David highlights the importance of strategic thinking and vision in a leadership role, how his need to always plan things has contributed in shaping his leadership style, and how vision should be implemented within an organization. “Once the vision is defined, it needs to be shared with the broader team to engage with them.” For David, a vision should not be defined in isolation and “Should imply an ongoing and transparent dialogue about where we stand today, where do we want to be in the future, what do we stand for, what should we improve, what would we have to give up and not do anymore, etc. You can’t just land and tell people that you are their new leader and that they just need to follow you.” To stress the importance of the employees in defining a vision, David says that “Leaders need ambassadors who share the vision but who also help build it.”
When the vision is clearly shared with the team, the team members become highly supportive and engaged as they feel more involved in that common goal and direction. They feel part of the journey. David declares: “And my objective at that specific moment is to see this train, a couple of years along that journey, start to roll on its own. And this is when my role as a leader shifts a little bit, because at the beginning, you are pulling the whole thing… 'come on, come on, let’s move…' and then, suddenly, you start to see that the train is rolling on the tracks thanks to people and that vision. And that’s a great moment!” David explains that the required skillset is different according to your leader’s position, either at the front or the back of this train. At the front, you are guiding and inspiring people. At the back, you are coaching, managing crisis, protecting.
Then we came to talk about the importance of adapting your leadership style to each specific situation and person. Team members and direct reports do have different personalities and backgrounds, and the situations and problems they are facing might be quite different as well. David says: “I mean, leaders who have a short-term life are the ones who cannot switch from one leadership style to another.” We took a moment to build on the impact of emotional intelligence in this process and David states that “Sometimes, I would ask one of my direct reports why something is not yet done, and I would chase up. But if I use this style for a longer time, it will be ineffective. It may be more effective then to change from a directive to a coaching or a collaborative leadership style with that person, to discover their needs and get better results. At one point, I would ask them, 'hey, tell me what the problem is, let’s have a look at it together'.”
Between Failures and Growth
In the same framework, Tessy mentions that a true leader is someone able to build awareness of the obstacles in front of them and their teams. What's more, they have the ability to effectively manage those obstacles. A true leader is also someone who, instead of bringing you down, they choose to believe in you, have a positive impact on you, invest their time to make you grow and help you overcome your own obstacles. They are aware of their responsibility.
Tessy confirms this, saying that “I was also inspired by some of my teachers and professors and I grew with this inspiration. There are two professors in particular, dear to my heart and who are my leaders, my role models still today, Dr. Wolfgang Deckers and Dr. Russell. I joined the American University after doing my GED at home. English is not my mother tongue and my essays were not good back then. Dr. Russell would just sit with me after school, nights and nights, and teach me how to write English essays. He would take the time for that. That was true and amazing leadership. Dr. Deckers was my counselor at the university in the UK. Although he was a very tough professor, he would never let anyone fail his class because he would give us the necessary tools whenever he is aware that we cannot cope on our own, whatever it takes.”
A true leader is someone who accepts failure and is comfortable acknowledging it. “My father became my hero during difficult times as he shared with me some difficult experiences he went through himself, and it was fine for him to fail.”
Between Innovation and Courage
David is definitely an inspiring leader himself. But he also has his own bunch of influencers. Next to his grandfather and father, David has always been inspired by people who dare to take new directions with courage. He was particularly inspired by Steve Jobs for his innovation and courage. “Steve Jobs stands above a lot of other people. Not for the way he managed people, which was odd, but Steve marketed his innovation, vision and what he stood for in an extraordinary way.” This is also an indicator that an effective leader needs to find an attractive way to market their vision to their teams in order to trigger an admired success, similar to the one experienced by Apple.
David encourages people to dare to take ownership of their own carriers and to be particularly innovative. “Innovation is a big part of the agenda as well. We talk a lot about FinTech and RegTech. And some time ago, five people volunteered to spend their evenings working on an innovation project with the European Investment Bank. That makes me very happy and proud. And frankly, it doesn’t matter if they end first, second or third. But the fact that they are taking part in this project means that the abstract messages colleagues, ambassadors and I came up with a while ago start to affect the DNA of the organization. The train starts to 'roll'!”
Next to innovation, David mentions the importance for a leader to have courage to tackle real problems and highlights that choosing the right battles is a necessary step in the process. “Sometimes, in order to achieve an objective, you have to open a can of worms, as long as it is the RIGHT can of worms.”
The importance of values
True leaders do not lose themselves in the middle of conditioned, infected modern society. Values are extremely important in a leader’s position because of the impact these leaders have on other people’s lives. True leaders are those who are able to cope with their positions and responsibilities without compromising their values.
Needless to say, true leadership is totally founded on values as well as the leader’s capacity of being true to themselves. Tessy highlights that “We tend to ask children what they’d like to be when they grow up. I always tell my boys to never forget that the only thing they really need to do is to be themselves and not lose themselves in all these structures where people tell you what to do and what not to do.”
The importance of feedback
David puts the emphasis on the importance of feedback and encourages people to be brave, speak up, provide but also listen carefully and analyze feedback. And it all starts with awareness. “In our company, when you go to the movie theater, the audio system would say 'the audience is listening'. That's a very important leadership asset.”
According to David, feedback is an investment of a leader’s time, with a valuable worth when it is done properly. Leaders must give direct, constructive but, above all, honest feedback. “I hate it when people 'sandwich' the message. They give a positive side then the negative one and the person who receives the feedback wouldn’t know which side to buy.”
Carine Boutin, VP Head of Marketing Offshore at State Street, who joined our discussion, says that: “It’s your team who defines what kind of a leader you are. So, their feedback is definitely important.” We can’t agree more.
A leader’s success is a common achievement
Tessy does not hog the praise for herself and perceives her success as a common achievement for which she gives the credit and merit to the people around her. True leaders know how to share the accolades with others because nobody is an island, and no one can achieve victories alone.
This shows that leaders also learn, get inspired, count on the help of others, and that leadership is not a one-way street. “I do not know one leader, celebrity, royalty or businessperson who achieved great success on their own. You have people who inspired you. Then, you also have people who follow you, but they can be one of your greatest inspirations as well.”
David declares that a big part of your leadership is linked to your story. We came to talk about Bill George’s work on authentic leadership and about the influence of these personal stories, cubicles as Bill calls them, in defining the leadership style.
Authenticity does also stem from being genuine and authentic to our own stories. In the same process, it is very important to know what the stories of the people around us are. “I’ve had opportunities to travel with people of my team on business trips. I will always use these trips to get the people closer and learn about them: how they are as individuals… how they think, operate and feel… what is important in their life. It is very important to discover the individual. Personally, I cannot work closely with someone if I do not know about their agenda, and by agenda, I don’t mean the technical items, I mean the story, their stories, interests, fears and so on. A purely technical or professional connection is not a foundation of a healthy and long-lasting relationship.”
Tessy believes that leaders are sometimes born with a very natural ability of leading others. Nevertheless, all successful leaders do not have that inherent gift. Some factors make room for great leaders to emerge: motivation, personal life events and other circumstances. “And sometimes, some leaders didn’t want to be leaders but became ones because of an action they did.” For Tessy, leaders are people who are aware of who they are, they seek out challenges, continuously increase their knowledge, push themselves further, learn from their mistakes and are not afraid to take brave actions.
Born or made?
David relates: “I don’t think that a great leader can be totally made from scratch. What I do think is that if you have some of the leadership DNA, you can become a great leader.” David explains that some people, namely technical experts, are more oriented toward absorbing knowledge and gaining expertise in specific fields. However, if you have the basis of this leadership DNA, it can flourish into a great leader, provided that the rough diamond is carefully polished. “In my journey, some leadership classes made me aware of my weaknesses, and focusing on improving them helped me tremendously. I have to admit that I changed a few things about me that I wouldn’t think of changing otherwise, such as visibility and socializing. I mean these are things that you can learn, develop if you dare to change. For example, when I was young, sitting in a meeting room, I would think that something was wrong, but I wouldn’t mention it during the meeting, I would just leave the room and feel extremely frustrated that I didn’t say it. Today, I just say it. It’s courage. And I encourage people to share their ideas during the meetings and to dare to influence the meetings.”
Tessy shares that a great leader is a people-oriented person. The leader’s road is not always easy. Every person is unique, with a particular background, life, values, beliefs, etc., which may increase the risk of communication failures or messages not being adequately delivered and perceived. Therefore, at every step of the road, leaders have to stick to their fundamental mission of inspiring and making other people grow, protecting and guiding them, no matter how difficult the road is. “As a leader, you put yourself out there, with a genuine hope that what you’re doing is being received well enough. At the end of the day, a leader’s mission is accomplished as soon as they have been able to inspire one person.” And it would often take empathy to be able to communicate effectively and inspire the people around you.
Feeling the pulse
According to David, a good leader is someone who develops empathy by understanding what people are experiencing in the organization, someone who finds the right balance between his position as a leader and his ability to feel the pulse of what’s going on at each floor, without becoming a technical expert. “A leader has to feel the pulse of what’s going on in the engine room, and this bank is an engine room. I technically run an organization of 1,100 people in Luxembourg and an additional group of 600 professionals in Poland. But even in smaller teams or organizations, I think leaders in any modern company these days have to walk in the room, either physically or virtually, and constantly feel the pulse.”
David leaves us with an important piece of advice that a good leader should never listen to one voice. “It is very dangerous to have only one single advisor.” Carine adds that: “You need multiple advisors coming from different backgrounds and levels and giving you opinions from different angles.” This implies that hearing a single voice can lead to negative outcomes if the leader was to act upon one single advisor’s opinion. “A so-called advisor would tell me, 'David, don’t open this can of worms', for some reason, their reason. But I wouldn’t listen to a single advisor.”
Protecting your people
Every organization faces internal issues, some of them can be intrapersonal. It takes a great leader, with deep values and courage, to sort these issues out. Tessy declares that “For example, there are situations at work where there is disrespect from one side, and obviously the right thing for the leader to do is to step up and say that this is not okay, and this is not how we work here. I had to do this in the past and, of course, I was uncomfortable, and it felt awkward. But the most important thing is that when people recognize you as their leader, they kind of expect you to protect them, and it becomes your responsibility to do so.”
Managing your ego
Tessy condemns power abuse and the negative consequences of uncontrolled ego as she believes that leaders have to tame their ego and remain humble to achieve sustainable success for the company, the employees, the society and themselves. “Some people, when they become a leader, they lose it, they lose the purpose of their position. It’s such a shame. There isn’t another way of saying this: they lose it and abuse it.”
Ego is one of true leadership’s stumbling blocks. It stops people from learning, evolving, growing, trusting and achieving more. Worse than that, a leader’s ego can hurt people and their careers, which is totally the opposite of what leadership is about.
Gaining confidence and managing stress are very much needed in a leader's position. And the best way for a leader to achieve this is to start with recognizing that he is not a super-man and she is not a super-woman. David says that “There was a time, early in my career, when I was a perfectionist. I cannot do that anymore.” David advises to use the 80:20 rule to become an effective leader and focus most of the energy on the most important matters.
Tessy – “My biggest achievement is when I see that my work has a positive impact, even if it only touches one person, and that my message is well received. It makes me very happy to empower and make other people grow, and this is what every leader should aim for, thinking that when your time comes to step back, you leave the place for fresh motivated people. I often compare leadership to when Jesus brought a small portion of bread, and just by starting with a small portion, everybody had a piece of bread and everybody was happy. There was enough for everyone.”
David – “What I really love about being a leader is the part where you make other people grow and see that they start relying on their own wings or become better than you. That makes me very happy. And at a certain stage, you as a leader must have an honest conversation with them and figure out together what opportunities may suit them. I’ve had the chance to coach some VPs and, seeing how things evolve for them today, that’s a very good feeling.”
And you? Which leadership dimension do you most connect with?
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