Enlightened leaders and the changing face of leadership

"I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"
- Benjamin Disraeli


Exceptional leadership is the key to building an exceptional organization. Great leaders have the unique power to motivate others toward a vision for the future, while driving action and exceeding goals. We often think of great leaders as a stereotype — charismatic, charging, loud, standing over others — the legends of history books and Fortune 500 companies. But, impactful leadership isn’t reserved for prime ministers and CEOs, and this biased image limits our perception of what leaders today can and should be.

The meaning of leadership is changing.

As technology and globalization have dramatically changed culture, the demands of leadership have likewise evolved. Certain qualities in leadership have always been recognized — hard work, dedication to company, and clear vision, but leaders today recognize the importance of being aware as a leader — the importance of listening to employees and fostering healthy team dynamics and an inclusive culture. With the emergence of enlightened leaders, we are witnessing a new type of exceptional leadership.

Enlightened: Free from ignorance and misinformation; having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook; spiritually aware.

It is the endless search for knowledge and honest and accurate feedback that separates enlightened leaders from the rest — and they are everywhere, in every company and organization and in every role. The true power is that anyone can become an enlightened leader. So, what do all enlightened leaders believe and practice?

  1. The key to productivity and my company's success is the creation of a healthy, inclusive culture.
    Enlightened leaders are progressive big thinkers that go beyond the boxed responsibilities of job titles and roles. They look at the bigger picture and actively pursue change. Unlike leaders that have come before them, enlightened leaders recognize that company culture isn’t just a box for HR to check off; it’s part of the foundation for optimal productivity. Project Aristotle, Google’s initiative to determine the qualities of great teams, found that how team members interacted was more important than team composition in determining performance.
  2. I make space for diverse perspectives because I make better, more informed decisions when I listen to my team's feedback and ideas.
    Enlightened leadership means empowering others — facilitating healthy group interaction, encouraging collaboration, and providing vehicles for diverse perspectives. The rigid power dynamics of direct orders from management has been replaced by a multi-way relationship where group members trust a leader to act in their collective best interest. With the knowledge that companies who commit to diversity and inclusion are more successful, enlightened leaders listen and seek out different opinions and perspectives to ensure the best, most well-informed decision-making process.
  3. I allow people to try new things, and I allow them to fail.
    Fear of failure will kill all innovation and, eventually, your company. Researchers at Google found that the most influential factor for team effectiveness is psychological safety — how comfortable employees are speaking up, sharing ideas, and making decisions. Enlightened leaders recognize that groups require this safety for optimal performance and that, as leaders, they hold the greatest responsibility in building the requisite environment. Individuals can’t be afraid of ridicule or shame for a failed idea. Rather, leaders work to build an environment where ideas, questions, and criticism can be shared freely. Astro Teller, Director of Alphabet’s X Labs and one of the faces of innovation, holds a “Day of the Dead” to honor failed ideas. Effective teams have individuals that feel they can be heard, make a difference, and safely fail after an honest attempt. Creativity thrives when leaders can create an unfaltering atmosphere of appreciation for new ideas.

How can leaders implement these principles?

Lead by example. Encourage contribution and practice acceptance. Once put into action, this philosophy fosters diversity of thought that can spread throughout your organization. Values and practices, good or bad, spread up, down, and across a company. An important step to this process is that individuals need to recognize their potential to become an enlightened leader. One leader’s commitment to these principles can be an example and catalyst for the rest of the organization. Eventually, this philosophy can become the leadership standard, a company where enlightened leadership exists at all levels of management — an enlightened company. These enlightened companies gain a significant edge over lagging competition by leveraging the creativity and productivity benefits unlocked by this powerful leadership philosophy.