The Surprising Rise Of The Human Executive

Over the last 10 years we have seen a dramatic rise in the more human side of our executives. This has not been caused by our leadership suddenly joining support groups, seeking counseling, or - as HBO's comedy Silicon Valley would have you believe - going on a drug fueled vision quest. Our executive class has become more human because the markets and the customers have demanded it.

Mea Culpa

It used to be that "Being an executive meant never having to say you are sorry." Unless it was the refuge of last resort, our executives and leaders never apologized, and certainly unless it was part of a well orchestrated strategy. Aaron Lazare's On Apologyis a few years old now, but does an adept job at identifying the signal shift in the apology, especially from leaders (the insights on the cultural nuances of the apology are fascinating, by the way)

There has been plenty written about what constitutes a successful apology (vs. the vacuous ones we tend to get, like "I am sorry if you misunderstood me."). What many leaders are becoming skilled at is the ownership behind the apology. The good apologies tend to have 4 aspects: we listened, we acknowledge, we have learned, and we are rectifying.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos is perhaps the poster child of the perfect apology. There are 7 other great examples of how the modern leader owns their mea culpas.

Don't Be Afraid To Laugh

It certainly was not de rigueur for prior leaders to show their funny side - at least not publicly. Whether this was from some pietistic code of conduct taught in some fraternal order of the CEO, or it was a personality trait inherent in those who aspired to be leaders, few of them ever laughed. Fewer still used humor as a lever of conversation. Rare was the person who laughed at themselves.

This is all changing as leaders are showing their lighter side as often as possible. Twitter's Dick Costolo is particularly crafty with humor, as his commencement at the University of Michigan (hashtag Go Blue!) shows some CEO playfulness. Even in serious settings like earnings calls, executives are using wit to showcase both their personality and even deliver some underpinnings of a message.

Don't Be Afraid To Say 'I Don't Know'

J. Crew's Mickey Drexler is both control freak and visionary. He sweats the details. He is . . . unusual, in his own unique way. He is also known to say "I don't know" when asked a question he does not know. Less confident leaders would try to BS their way out of a question. Cisco CMO Blair Christie has confidently and repeatedly stated she can't possibly know all the answers.

Even a $117B company like Cisco's leaders wont have all the answers. What is important is acknowledging it, and defining the action you will take through that uncertainty.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Becomes Pro-Social

CSR used to be a whitewash for companies to soften criticisms over profits. It was a great corporate way of saying "but look at the good we can accomplish." However, leaders are taking the idea of CSR and evolving it into pro-social behavior; namely, how can we all benefit from our giving back. This goes beyond "giving for the sake of giving," but organizations smartly taking a stance on some issue and truly believing in ways to address.

This is particularly astute for organizations courting Millennials. The newest generation to enter the workforce is keen to work in organizations that align with their societal values, many going so far as to say they will leave a company when they no longer align. Put another way, their impact on society is larger than any other factor for staying with an organization.

The recession had an interesting impact on corporate giving where a vast majority saw their contributions stay steady even during the worst years of the downturn since 2008. When companies were tightening their belts in every other area of business, corporate giving and pro-social behavior at least stayed flat.

Leaders have become more outspoken about the society problem they wish to solve and have found unique ways to solve those problems. No longer just about giving, it is the idea that their organization has some ability to resolve an issue, and this community impact benefits all.

The stoic, can-do-no-wrong executive still exists in the wild. There are plenty of examples and perhaps you work for one. But, there is a new breed of exec who aspires to something greater by being uniquely human.

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