Why is good leadership important?

| 19 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


What is leadership and why should we care about it? What makes an effective leader? And can followers be leaders? 

Get answers to some of the most asked questions surrounding leadership.

Guest: Dan Gaken, director of the Sarah R. Opperman Leadership Institute at Central Michigan University.





Adam: What is leadership and why should we care about it? What's really at the heart of leadership and what's the greatest need for leadership today? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. Bypass Google and sidle up to The Search Bar instead, as Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts answer some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we are searching for answers on leadership. Dan Gaken, the Director of the Sarah R. Opperman Leadership Institute at Central Michigan University, is here to help us do just that. Hi, Dan.

Dan: Adam, I'm glad to be here.

Adam: All right. We're gonna talk about your area of expertise today, which is leadership. Which is…it's a little esoteric, right? It's kind of one of these things where when somebody told me, "Hey, we're gonna talk about leadership with Dan, I was like, that's exciting. What the hell is that?" I think we all have like some sort of an idea of who is a leader, who's been a leader in our life, or who's a leader that we've seen on television or something, or who's a political leader or a sports leader. But like, when we start to like, dig down into that and how we value that in our day-to-day functions or professional functions, it's a thing that becomes more tangible or at least more studyable is sort of what I've come to. And I've been kind of being tutored on this by a 22-year-old who's been leading me in kind of my understanding of it at an academic level.

What is leadership? 

Adam: So, I just wanted to kind of help level set that for people who might be kind of going, "What is leadership and why should I care about leadership at all?" So I was hoping if you could give us kinda what your definition of it is and, and maybe just give people that introduction for like why it should be important to them.

Dan: You're absolutely right. When folks say leadership, that can mean anything and everything depending on context. For some folks, that's very positional, that's their manager at work, that's the manager of a baseball team. That is, that folks people that see in those leadership roles. What I will tell you is that question you ask, what is leadership? And you said, you know said, "hell if I know” that's part of of our discipline is trying to narrow that down. There are more than 900 published academic definitions of leadership. What that should tell you is as a discipline, we don't know. And so at Central Michigan University in the Leadership Institute, what we always advocate is we want folks to find a model, a definition of leadership that works for them, that helps them create influence, make changes, and build the world that they wanna live in.

And so, when folks ask me what my definition of leadership is even in the Leadership Institute, we have not adopted one definition. We've adopted a definition of leadership education, right? We're helping folks create change in an ever-changing and challenging world. And it's to make this world better for others. And so when folks ask me, who's a leader? I don't know that I care about their title, or what profession they're in. I wanna know, is this somebody who's trying to make themselves better and make this world better for others?

What makes an effective leader?

Adam: To try to drive the conversation into where those ethics are. Like we are, you know, right now it's the Hollywood strikes, right? The big headline catcher is like, you know, don't scan us and use our digital likeness or don't start writing screenplays that are in the style of, you know, whatever Christopher Nolan. This is a good place at least 'cause we're paying attention to it 'cause everyone watches movies and TV shows to start going like, do we want this to improve at all costs or not? Right?

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I think there are lots of worries about what it could be used for and what it will be used for. And I mean, you know, the, the strikes in Hollywood are about among other things that the issue with AI is this gonna be used to replace us as human writers or as human actors, right? I mean, I think there's other worries. There's similar worries in other venues too, right? So, I mean, I've read pieces about lawyers using them to write briefs, right? Which didn't go well of course. Or politicians using them to write emails, right? So, are we gonna be using them in that way? That will eliminate jobs for people, right? That's a real concern. It seems like it's the kind of thing like we've been saying, it's a powerful tool, seems like it's useful and the genie's out of the bottle, it's not going away. So I think, look, I can easily imagine like a small business owner who I don't know, does whatever work during the day, runs a restaurant, does landscaping, whatever at night, is doing accounting and email and stuff like that and doesn't have any employees. Right? Or maybe it's me and my spouse, right? I could easily see somebody like that making their life easier with this kind of tool. It's a big difference between that and using it to write screenplays and then not have to hire screenplays anymore, screen screenwriters anymore. Right.

Why is empathy important as a leader? 

Adam: That falls into that kind of empathy as leadership. Right? So, I am servicing to a certain extent the needs of the individual that I need to be leading. Is it co-equal? Is it more, is it less than the needs of the institution? Like, how do you kind of make those two things mesh? I think that's one of those ones where, you know, and if I spill you off down a long road, go down the long road, it's fine. It feels like the democratization of the workplace is something that's hot. It's to talk about right now politically. But just I think functionally, if we kind of just step down to that interpersonal connection, it's something that I feel like our students at an institution like this are more expectant of out of their leadership, where what I get and what I value here should hopefully be in line with what the output of the institution is like. But if you're in your leadership position, like sometimes you have to find a balance between those.

Dan: Those, those models of leadership that try and help a leader balance that. There are two ways to look at that. Sometimes we put those each on an axis, right? About interpersonal relations or task-oriented behaviors. Now, I think we're in a world where we understand that those are not mutually exclusive, that we can both care for each other, get along, get to know each other, be respectful, and understand what that goal is. Now, as a leader, what I tell folks is there's nothing more important for a leadership skill than having emotional intelligence, right? And when I say emotional intelligence I think a lot of folks, right? They're very familiar with IQ, right? We know what IQ is, right? That one to 200 scale of how bright you are. And there's this belief, and I know there's some work in the psychology areas, different disciplines that's challenging this now.

But for a long time, we believed IQ was a fixed point, right? You are, you are born with what you get. Now, whether or not we live in a world where everybody has access to achieve that potential, that's a different story. But EQ, when we're talking about emotional intelligence, there's a benefit there, because that's a process, right? That's a growth area. That's something I can practice. And when I say EQ, I know some folks are less familiar. It's about how comfortable I am working with others. There are two halves to that, right? Me knowing my own emotions, right? What causes me to feel hope or anxiousness or fear or love and understanding that those emotions and how I show up impact my team. I get to decide how I show up now in our day-to-day lives, there are things that are gonna cause us to feel anxious.

I mean, there's a lot of lights in here, right? That's why I've always wanted to know about the podcasting world, is there's two of us in this room. Why am I wearing headphones? Right? You know there, but I have that choice of knowing, this is this is a bit surreal. You're in the lights, you're thinking about this. But then to think, how do I wanna show up? I can rationalize that and say, it's unusual, but it's just Adam and I having a conversation. I get to recognize that emotion and decide how I wanna show up. Now, when we take that to the other side of that equation to the interpersonal side, that's where that empathy comes in. Now, I'm not just thinking about my emotions, but I've gotta be conscious of how those make you feel.

To be able to connect with somebody on an emotional level to cause them to change a behavior or to vote a certain way, or join an organization or to somehow help my movement. I can't do that. I'll never be able to do that unless I know what matters to you. And so that level of empathy, of listening and listening to understand is at the heart of leadership one of the things I advocate with students or with professional clients is always to enter every space as both a teacher and a learner and to think about how can we create spaces where everybody brings value? When you've got folks that are excelling in leadership roles, what they're doing is they're looking around, they're making asset maps, whether it's a physical document or if that's something they're doing in their head of talent to know who excels at what, where can people thrive? The best leaders are the ones who are concerned with the folks under them, not above them, right? They're taking a look at how can I make the people around me better.

How can I become a better listener?

Adam: If I want to have an exercise or even if it's just a mental exercise that helps me kind of not do the astronaut at the party thing, right? Yeah. When that, I don't know if you know this, I don't even know where I heard this, but like the idea that if the astronauts at the party, their tendencies to sit around and listen to everyone's story and then go, I walked on the moon. Like, they're not listening to anyone else's story. And I think it's a very human thing to do, is go, I'm just waiting for my turn to have a better story. And I'm always gonna win because I walked on the moon. Like, how do, how do you fight that urge, right? Because sometimes that urge is like, maybe you are the astronaut, and it is just always gonna win the story contest. But it might just be, I know where my values stand and you're saying something that's antithetical to my values, rather than hear you, I'm gonna wait for the space for me to come in the conversation, or if we're having for planning something and go, no. Right. This, like, how, what's an exercise? What's something that somebody can do to be a better listener?

Dan: You know, we've got a document. I'm sure it's something we could share with folks that are listening. It's a PDF that we created, that's a step-by-step process to practicing active listening. But it starts by, I mean, being conscious and being intentional and saying, I'm gonna practice this. And inviting somebody to share, right? Inviting somebody to share and meaning it. Now Adam, we disagree on this, but tell me your thoughts. And I'm trying to understand, and so while you're sharing that story with me I'm reflecting, I'm thinking about how this either aligns or doesn't align with my own lived experiences. I am going to restate that. I wanna make sure that I can say that back to you and honor the authenticity. Is this what I'm hearing? I wanna make sure that throughout this conversation I'm paraphrasing, that I'm restating in a way that keeps it true to your words, but ensures that I understand and that I wanna reflect.

Now, the most important part of that process is to validate for me to say, "Even though that's not what I believe, I recognize that that's your truth," right? There's nothing that stops a conversation like saying, but because of that moment where I have, I've sought to make your story less valid or less true than mine. I've shut you down. And it's one of the hardest things to do. But it is something that we get better at. That's the beauty of emotional intelligence. When we talk with employers, you know, CMU is part of N.A.C.E, the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And we ask first destination folks, what is it that you need in a college graduate? And they're telling us things like communication skills and problem-solving, those things that we define as leadership to be able to do that, to be able to have conversations about and across differences that sets folks up to be successful. So when we're talking about these emotional intelligence skills that our leadership, that's the beauty of it, is you can grow in it and they matter, right? These are the things that are transforming lives by expanding my capacity to create change by building relationships with people. It sounds so simple, but it's very difficult to do, to actually be present and listen to somebody.

Can followers also be leaders? 

Adam: What does it mean to be a follower who is using leadership? What does that look like for somebody who's, I don't have charges in this organization that I have, I don't really tell anybody what to do, but I still need to lead. How is that different?

Dan: I think the folks that wherever you're at in an organization, right? If you are at the top of that org chart, or if you're the newest member of that organization, the folks that excel in those roles are the one that realized that leadership is always a continuum between leadership and followership. If you're at the top of that, that's about being vulnerable and being okay with that, that asking for help is not a weakness if you are that new person. If you don't have that positional leadership, if there's no authority that comes with the title or the job description, understanding that the attitude that you bring to that team changes the way that that experience for others, leaders create value for others. It's as simple as that. And so, wherever you're at in that organization, what can I do to make this work easier, more productive at a higher level for the people around me?

People notice that I don't care if you're the new person on any sort of work group or team. If you are making value for others, if you are creating accolades that that team recognizes your teammates value those contributions and understand that that is leadership and that that's reciprocated, right? If you are that person that's on that team that's creating value. That's, and I'm not talking about doing extra work or unpaid work. You know, those things, we wanna be conscious of, but are we able to be kind to others? Can we offer suggestions and help? Are you that person who protects voices from below where too often we see people in teams that either because of their identity or position or title or their seniority have fantastic ideas that the organization can't benefit from it because people aren't listening? Can you create space and say, "Hey, you know, I think Lance has an idea that we should all be listening to."

Fictional leaders in pop culture

Adam: We're gonna talk about leaders in pop culture, okay? And they're all fictional leaders, okay? So I want you to either tell me what kind of a leader you think they would be, or rank them. Gimme your one-sentence reaction to their leadership. Monty Burns.

Dan: Oh, from The Simpsons? Yeah, I mean, that, that's old school. That's your autocratic, "I'm in charge because I own the company." That power plant's going under.

Adam: Right? Absolutely.

Dan: I think Monty doesn't work anymore.

Adam: My favorite Monty Burns line is, "Chew. Now swallow on your own time." Ron Swanson.

Dan: Ron, I mean, right. Anti-Big government, but is also somebody who's willing to do the work. I mean, there's some parks in Pawnee, Indiana that I'm sure are a much more beautiful place because of Ron Swanson's woodworking skills. We use Ron as an example for too many things - usually on what we're trying to order for breakfast. But I mean, that's someone that probably politically I don't agree with, but I would work well with. 'cause I appreciate them getting it done.

Adam: Michael Scott.

Dan: You know, too often I've been, compared to Michael Scott. And, nobody's ever given me the, you know, the world's best boss mug. But…

Adam: Someone get on that.

Dan: I think that they intend it as, as a compliment. But the number of times folks in my office will send me memes, like, "This is us!" And I'm like, which at 1:00 AM I'm like…so I don't wanna be too hard on Michael Scott.

Adam: It's empathetic Michael Scott, and there's totally unaware Michael.

Dan: Right? But Michael Scott leads a team of talented individuals that do exceptional work because he lets them do what they do best.

Adam: Right? Ted Lasso. I gave you a manager.

Dan: Oh, yeah. I mean, Ted Lasso is now why I watch soccer. I think I know what's going on. But that's somebody who highlighted the importance of having this conversation about mental health. Mental health is health. And we think about this generation in those movements that they've started ending the stigma around mental health and so many other social issues takes leadership. And, that's what Ted's doing in the show.

Adam: Darth Vader.

Dan: The end of that Darth Vader's, right? Is he the hero? I mean, it's a good…

Adam: Question. It's…

Dan: Right. So I think that that shows us that leadership is, you know, deeper than the composure of our masks. You need to know the full arc of the story. And there is an opportunity for redemption. Doesn't matter where you're at, you can always, it's never too late to do good.

Adam: And maybe, maybe Darth Vader was a victim of bad leadership himself.

Dan: I think so.

Adam: Right? Because Palpatine. Dan thanks so much. It's been enlightening. It's been a lot of fun. Thanks for being here today. And tell us about leadership.

Dan: I appreciate the invite. You know, leadership's an important topic. It's important for folks to know. It is for everyone. Wherever you're at in this world, you can make it better.

Adam: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Subscribe or follow so that you never have to search for the next episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.