The Elegant Leader: Simple, Precise, TransformationalWhere else can you build dreams every day and transform people's lives today, tomorrow and forever?
To be elegant is first of all to know oneself, and to know oneself well requires reflection and intelligence.” Those words are from Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, director of the Nina Ricci fashion house and author of A Guide to Elegance (Morrow, 2004).
Referring to Dariaux’s words, Dr. Idahlynn Karre noted, “We have to ‘get’ ourselves as leaders before we can help others.” Karre is an international educational consultant living in Colorado and a facilitator of The Chair Academy, an Arizona-based organization dedicated to delivering “exemplary leadership development.”
The Academy emerged in 1992 when a group of department chairs at Maricopa Community Colleges recognized the need for training for mid-level managers at both two- and four-year colleges. Begun as an international conference for chairs, deans and other organizational leaders, the Academy has evolved into a series of programs, conferences and other supporting materials.
Karre is in demand as a speaker and author, having spent the past 42 years in higher education as both a professor and administrator. She is also editor of the Leadership Journal, whcih the Academy provides to members.
Growing up playing school in her backyard, she wanted to be a teacher because “education is one of the most hopeful of enterprises.” Where else can you build dreams every day and transform people’s lives today, tomorrow and forever?
“That’s elegance. That’s what women in leadership do,” said Karre.
In her keynote address at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership (WWHEL) conference held at Waukesha County Technical College in October 2011, Karre discussed the concept of elegant leadership.
What is elegance?
Elegance calls to mind words like grace, class, a certain style or sophistication. All of those characteristics describe actress Audrey Hepburn, who enshrined the concept of elegance in the public consciousness.
Hepburn’s elegance, widely admired and emulated, came through in her work with UNICEF. When questioned how her hands-on philanthropy meshed with her celebrity image, she replied, “God gave you two hands, one to help yourself, one to help others.”
Hepburn understood that elegance was more than just external. It’s a quality that can help us do great things.
As Dariaux said, leaders first need to know themselves. Only then can they be effective in leading others.
Elegant leadership is simple and precise, much like a calligraphy design, a ballerina’s pose or a mathematical solution. It reveals itself in clean, even, consistent and predictable behavior. “To me it’s flowing, simple and beautiful,” said Karre.
Elegant leaders speak clearly and accurately, connecting their words with actions. They are appreciative, positive and authentic. Using humility, compassion and kindness, elegant leaders bring mindful behaviors to their work.
Referencing the research of organizational leadership experts such as Jim Collins, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Karre weighed their findings against the concept of elegant leadership. In his book Good to Great (Harper, 2001), Collins refers to the fable of the hedgehog and the fox in describing successful leaders. In the fable, the fox runs after many things that interest it.
The hedgehog knows one simple thing.
The hedgehog leadership concept has three overlapping circles:
Circle one lists what you can be the best in the world at. What are you genetically encoded to accomplish? “Each of us is genetically encoded with strengths and talents,” said Karre. “As we move through school and work, people invest in us and people wrap knowledge and skills around them so they become strengths.”
The second circle is what you’re deeply passionate about. The idea should fill you and encourage you to love your work. What is your great passion and what values does it reflect?
Circle three looks at what drives your economic resources. What skills and talents do you have that are useful and of great value to society? What can you do well and get paid for doing it?
The part where the circles overlap creates the “hedgehog.” Knowing what’s in all three circles and being able to identify that hedgehog means that whatever you do, you will never work a day in your life. What do you need to commit to that you absolutely must do and what are you willing to work for?
What are we juggling?
Applying a strengths metaphor to leadership encourages women to be mindful about what they’re juggling. We all have so much to juggle that unless we do what Karre called “catch and cradle” the things we’re best at, are genetically encoded to do and that we get paid to do, we’ll never reach our potential as a leader.
For women especially, every time we’re asked to do something, we need to do a check against those three circles and consider “How can I make my decisions against my own personal hedgehog?”
Only 3% to 5% of the world’s people knows what’s in all three of their circles. What would happen if we could increase that number to 20%?
When women connect their voice with their touch, extraordinary things happen. Kouzes and Posner, who wrote The Leadership Challenge (Jossey-Bass, 2008), showed how to lead while being mindful of and uplifting to others.
As leaders we must be able to connect the overlap of our three circles to inspire our people. We need to say what we’re going to do and then do it. Words and actions must always be in sync with each other.
In Good to Great, Collins studies the leaders of 11 great companies, all of whom were transformational. All of the top leaders had reached level five in his leadership ladder.
On the bottom at Level 1 is the highly capable individual who makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.
At Level 2 is the contributing team member who adds to the achievement of group objectives and who works effectively with others in a group setting.
Moving up to Level 3, the competent manager effectively and efficiently organizes people and resources to pursue predetermined objectives.
At Level 4, the effective leader catalyzes commitment to, and vigorous pursuit of, a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.
At the top is Level 5, the executive who builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and a passion about a cause.
Notice that the levels are not defined just by title, but by skills and practices. At Level 5 is the “duality” between humility and a passion for a cause, the combination of which makes leaders great.
Leaders get the best results from those they lead using a strength-based approach. “Too many of us live a life that’s a lifelong remedial math class,” said Karre. “If we’re bad at math, what do we get? More math.”
If we focus on what’s “right” with people instead of trying to fix their weaknesses, it does three things. First, focusing on abundance generates and predicts engagement. By emphasizing strengths instead of weaknesses, leaders become energized. “When we’re in our strength zone, we’re engaged,” she said. “We’re at our best when we pursue what we do well.”
When we go after what we do well, we achieve excellence. “We see the glass as more than half full. We see abundance in the people around us.”
Call it the “Law of Attraction” or a self-fulfilling prophecy, but strengths-based leadership pays off in more successes, as much as 75% compared to 3% using the alternative approaches.
A leader’s role and responsibility are to promote the 4Cs: connection, collaboration, confidence and competence. Kouzes and Posner outlined five practices that support the 4Cs: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act and encourage the heart.
Leadership is a series of relationships built around caring and around our work. People need to be needed. Leaders can’t go it alone. Leadership is a relationship and a shared responsibility.
Tom Rath, a senior scientist with the Gallup organization and author of Vital Friends (2006), boiled down into three elements what creates successful relationships at work: family ties, the water cooler effect and plug-ins.
In the family, members create a relationship net that supports hard decisions and tough work. Family dysfunction provides the opportunity to have crucial conversations that allow members to get on the same page.
Although the proverbial water cooler no longer exists in most offices, its effects still linger. To recreate its power, create times and places for people to talk about work, to think about their hopes and dreams.
“The WWHEL meeting was an opportunity to experience the water cooler effect,” said Karre. After the meeting ended the women went back to their campuses to continue doing their “good work.”
Before the official business meeting begins, check in with each other. Some leaders use the “good news strategy” before every meeting. “Inside each of us is a piece of good news just waiting to get out,” she said.
Elegant leadership is personal and revealing. Do the people you lead know who you are, what you care about and why they ought to follow you?
What are your colleagues, employees and kids doing on a Saturday afternoon? If you’re an elegant leader, you’ve done the work and developed the relationships that nurture and sustain those you lead.
All leadership is local. Good leaders have a bucket that can fill others when they dip from it. We’re all at our best when our bucket is full.
Short term or long haul?
Higher education has short-term wins that keep us motivated, but we’re really here for what Collins calls the “20-mile march” in his latest book, Great by Choice (Harper, 2011). “What I love about teaching is that every semester you got a bright new group of students ready to join you on your 20-mile march,” said Karre.
Collins uses a metaphor of bullets and cannonballs that applies to academe. Companies that survive turbulent times do so because they “shoot bullets to find out what’s going to work.”
In higher education, we do pilot studies before rolling out the complete program. “That’s how we move forward,” she said. “Then when the pilot works, we do a calibrated cannonball.” This strategy means we invest every penny in the right direction, something critical during these lean times.
Some leaders focus on the day-to-day, engaged in processes that tie them to immediacy. In great organizations success is built to last. Elegant leaders build things for the long run. They encourage their employees to see themselves as “clock builders” not merely “time tellers.”
Every day elegant leaders make a profound difference in the lives of their state, nation and most important, the lives of their students. By completing the work of looking inside to uncover the “essence of your personal best,” you end up bringing “you” to your leadership. Challenges aren’t to be avoided but instead used to introduce ourselves to ourselves.
Karre believes we can all be elegant leaders. An “elegant destiny” is in our hands. Unlock its power.
Contact Karre at:
email@example.com or 970.310.6205
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, January). The Elegant Leader: Simple, Precise, Transformational. Women in Higher Education, 21(1), p.1-3.