Great leaders aren’t great alone. They’re hubs that bring people together.
This lesson on leadership isn’t intuitive, and it wasn’t for me. But through my friend and colleague Steven Skinner, a Cognizant associate whom I deeply admired and who sadly passed away in 2019, I learned this and other leadership lessons that only grow in importance. This is especially true today, with businesses and societies striving to cultivate inclusion and unify people of diverse backgrounds, races, genders and experiences.
Perhaps Steven’s greatest leadership lesson is that the strength of any hub is its connections, and that leaders can play a key role in forging those connections by being unafraid to share their personal selves with us.
Casting a Wide Net
“Steven brought me in.” Work at Cognizant long enough, and you’re sure to hear that refrain from an astonishingly wide circle of co-workers. I remember arriving several years ago for a large offsite company meeting and entering the hotel bar area for dinner and kickoff. There, drinking a Shirley Temple or some other fruity cocktail, was Steven, holding court and entertaining 30 or so employees and running the tab. The people around him were young, old, men, women, white, Black, Indian, American. That sight redrew my image of what a leader is: someone who stands out by being their own self but also stands with others.
At the same time, leaders need to command respect. Steven’s knowledge of retail and operations was expansive, and he was a perceptive consultant, always pushing us to do better. He was always Steven, never Steve, and he looked like a leader straight out of central casting: He stood six foot five and spoke in a booming voice. An initial handshake with him could be intimidating. Years after leaving the Navy as a retired Naval Commander, he still walked with the stride of a commanding officer.
Revealing Your True Self
But being unafraid to share what makes you “you” is what draws people in, making a whole that’s greater than its parts. Steven was totally, utterly unafraid to be himself. Anyone who worked for him learned early on that he loved chocolate milkshakes and Battlestar Galactica. Despite his elevated title, he was willing to share his human side, and he wanted us to do the same.
Many leaders probably feel more comfortable staying in the lane of professionalism, and that’s to be expected. But it can’t be denied that blending the professional with the personal is more effective.
While it doesn’t come naturally for me, I try to emulate what I learned from Steven because I saw the difference it makes. Just as Steven cared deeply about my family, my career growth and my success within the organization, I do the same for my team. I want them to feel comfortable enough to be their true selves. Like Steven, I’ve made a point of mentoring young employees looking to navigate their way.
As with any leadership lesson, it resonates best when you see it in action. What Steven can teach us is that great leaders rarely act in isolation. Instead, they weave together strength and a willingness to share who they are to create an environment that welcomes us all.
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