Humility, Empathy, and Proactivity: A formula for new leadership
When my friends at LLYC invited me to write an opinion piece about new leadership, I admit I felt the stirrings of anxiety. This was in part because I still find it difficult to view myself as a “leader,” but mostly it was due to the current transitional period we are all going through, in which ideas of leadership are being constantly redefined.
When I started my career some 20 years ago, popular ideas of leadership reflected the world in which that leadership was exercised. Generally speaking, global power was much more concentrated, access to information more limited, and leaders relatively uniform. As a casual person with her heart on her sleeve, I had a lot of difficulty identifying with any of the visible leaders at the time.
Nowadays, we are seeing the emergence of a different kind of leader. These new leaders are the product of an exponentially changing world, in which adaptability is a non-negotiable skill. We are beginning to see a much more diverse range of leadership styles in the upper echelons. The leaders I personally identify with display high levels of humility and empathy and act as agents of change. Likewise, I do my best to incorporate these characteristics into my own day-to-day. It is a constant learning experience.
Nowadays, we are seeing the emergence of a different kind of leader. These new leaders
are the product of an exponentially changing world, in which adaptability is a non-
These concepts are fairly abstract, so allow me to provide some concrete reference points.
To me, humility stems from self-awareness. A great leader I was fortunate enough to work with in Brazil, Helio Magalhaes, taught me the importance of “knowing what we don’t know.” I use this as somewhat of a mantra, making sure to evaluate my blind spots for every new challenge I face. I form teams with people whose skills complement mine and each other’s. I ask necessary questions without fear of being judged. I often think about a favorite article of mine from the Harvard Business Review (“In Praise of the Incomplete Leader”) which describes in very practical terms how personal and collective self-awareness give us a clear idea of our weaknesses, subsequently enabling us to compensate for and counteract them. Tools such as the Birkman Method provide foundations on which to develop strengths, behaviors, motivations, and interests at both the team and individual levels. Currently, I am participating in a Positive Intelligence program to help me familiarize myself with my internal “saboteurs,” trust in my internal “sage” perspective to reinforce positive emotions, and, most importantly, allow myself more empathy.
This provides a nice segue to the matter of empathy. This skill is a key element of emotional intelligence. It benefits every aspect of our lives, allowing us to put ourselves in another’s shoes, understand their reactions, and actively listen without judgement. In a leader, this ability is essential for creating psychologically and emotionally safe spaces where creativity and connection are encouraged through common purpose. I recommend two books that have helped me develop the power of empathy and more deeply understand the implications of its presence (or absence): Far from the Tree and Wired to Care.
In 2017, my colleagues in Human Resources and I were inspired to promote an empathy-development experience geared toward engendering success in our field by the book Give and Take. We decided the project should be as hands-on as possible, so with help from Make-A-Wish, our program allowed all our team members to receive training to become “fairies” and “genies.” The goal was to foster understanding and help realize the dreams of children living with life-threatening illnesses. The process required discovering these children’s dreams and gaining a deep understanding of their desires without projecting our own wishes or those of the children’s families. This undertaking took us well outside our comfort zones, but ultimately taught us what true empathy looks like. The experience was transformative on so many levels. Due to the intense nature of the experience, the process of connecting it back to our usual work was challenging, but it led to significant positive shifts across all working environment metrics.
Empathy naturally drives us to become agents of change. At Citi, many of our leaders make exemplary use of empathy to foster societal change, acting with clear convictions and a firm stance. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our CFO, Mark Mason, put out a statement that made me extremely proud. In a working environment, racism is a talent-neutralizing factor and a worrying barrier to human, professional, and economic growth. It is essential that we continually assert the host of benefits offered by diversity, while adopting an actively anti-racist position to encourage change. Our President, Jane Fraser, provided another example in the form of an education and awareness panel about unconscious bias for all our employees, given by Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji. Dr. Banaji helped us recognize the insidious nature of unconscious prejudice and its propensity for creating inequalities large and small. The first step toward addressing this prejudice is recognizing that it exists within us all and making active efforts to prevent it from steering our decisions.
It is essential that we continually assert the host of benefits offered by diversity,
while adopting an actively anti-racist position to encourage change.
These examples inspire me to use our company’s foundational principles to raise awareness, both internal and external, about the value of diverse and inclusive environments that allow every single individual to be the best possible version of themselves. This is the privilege afforded to me by new leadership.