Wanda T. Wallace: Leadership as an Exercise in Empathy
Wanda T. Wallace’s new book is endemic of the current, postmodernist shift. This is applicable not just in terms of culture, but in terms of workplace practices. Seeming to take a page from Toyota’s lean system, Wallace writes with humor and smarts about re-introspecting the corporate hierarchy echelons. What she advocates for is that leadership is as much an exercise in pragmatist’s empathy, as it is following standards and mores that have stood the test of time. “I’m not the only person to see this—there’s a burgeoning area of academic literature that focuses on expert leadership and compares it with generalist leadership.
But I might be the only consultant or coach who rejects the expert/generalist dichotomy in particular and the ‘generalist leader’ terminology in general. I don’t see many pure generalists—if any—who can parachute into completely new territory and lead comfortably there,” Wallace states accordingly. “…I’ve seen far too many managers struggling—really struggling—to break out of expert-leader mode and find new ways to lead. Every day in every organization I encounter, I see expert leaders taking on responsibility for areas that are outside their expertise. They are asked to lead teams whose members know more about the work and the content than the leader can ever hope to know.
For someone who has built his or her career on being an expert leader, this transition is shocking…this book grew out of my experiences coaching and teaching, my empathy for the people I was meeting, and my intense feelings about what I was seeing. The book is a synthesis of the understanding I’ve gained from working with a vast array of organizations and talent. It’s the essence of a new perspective on leadership.
And a key part of this view of leadership is my conviction that while expert and spanning modes are highly distinct, very few managers are all one mode or the other. I’ve seen that man- agers exist on a continuum on which expert and non-expert leadership are blended in varying degrees. Even the most narrowly focused expert leader has to interact with people outside that area of knowledge and take a broader view of the company at times. Even a company’s topmost leaders continue to use their expert knowledge as the basis of decisions.”
It's fitting the title of Wallace’s book resembles something less akin to a glitzy, commercialized commodity, and more of something fitting of a position paper. With You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise, she’s able to highlight and outline things in a manner that showcases all complexities – but in decidedly simple, upfront presentational quality. “Handling mistakes is an inevitable part of the process. Some mistakes are foreseeable; some are not. When you are doing something no one has done before, there will be missteps.
Regroup and discuss what happened as well as what to do next time, without accusation if you want to gain trust. The good news is that when a mistake occurs, apologies and explanations of next steps work pretty well. Research shows that if an apology is done well, it can make the relationship even better than it was before the mistake happened,” Wallace writes.
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