Following a year like no other, marked by intense societal shifts and cultural disruptions, change is all but inevitable. But what kind of change?
Cultural and business theorist Hamza Khan (UTSC BA 2010) argues that businesses of all stripes – from the micro shop to the largest corporation – will need to rethink their model of leadership.
Ahead of his free talk on April 8, “The Bright Side of Leadership: The Complexity of Managing People in the New Normal,” we sat down with Khan to talk about leadership, empathy, and who might benefit from his talk.
The Bright Side of Leadership: The Complexity of Managing People in the New Normal
Elevating Career Success Series – Thursday, April 8, 7 p.m. EST
Who is your ideal audience for this talk? Will attendees obtain practical tips for changing their approach to leadership?
This talk is for leaders at all stages of their leadership journey. Whether you’re a recently promoted leader, on track to a promotion, or a leader keen on shifting your perspective, this talk will serve you well. And in doing so, it will empower you with practical tips to change your approach to leadership, and ultimately serve others, as well.
Did you experience an epiphany or tipping point that led you to this “Bright Side” paradigm shift?
During the eerie early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, my father suffered a near-fatal experience. His brush with mortality opened for me a portal into a “new abnormal”–a shifting reality where death is imminent and change is inevitable. A few days after emerging from the emergency room, Naval Ravikant—the co-founder and former CEO of the start-up platform website AngelList—tweeted the words that ultimately served as the impetus for me to explore modern leadership in the future of work. He wrote: “Leadership in the coming months, at every level, is the audition to lead in the coming years.” His words crystallized a jumble of three intertwining ideas that I had been ruminating on over the past decade:
- Leadership is a values-based system of action. It requires operationalizing and maximizing a shared set of integrated positive values.
- New leadership requires a profoundly human touch. This involves leaning into attributes and behaviours like empathy and servitude that are traditionally overlooked as counterproductive.
- Change must happen before change is required. Intentional self-disruption (or reinvention) is mandatory to survive and thrive in our ever-changing world.
This broad epiphany rewired how I began to perceive the actions of leaders around the world. Like most, I used to believe in the conventional wisdom that leaders, when faced with difficulty and uncertainty, step up. That they somehow rise to the occasion.
But I now know that this is nothing but an optical illusion—one caused by other leaders falling back, enabling successful leaders to stand out. Confronted by a moment of unexpected adversity, instinct almost always overrides rational thinking, and we fall back to the level of training and character that we’ve already established within ourselves.
What is “leadership”?
The meaning of leadership has always been somewhat flexible. Its Old English etymology traces back to a pair of somewhat distinct meanings:
A person who guides, conducts, or shows the way—an individual with specialized or expert knowledge.
A ruler of chieftain, someone with widely recognized status and acknowledged authority over others.
Since about the year 2000, there has been an increasing tendency to add to those characterizations and redefine leadership as that which elicits voluntary followership. And, even more recently, leadership has been repositioned as a system of action that is more humanistic, less exploitative, and more values-based.
Does western leadership have an empathy problem? How widespread is it?
Traditionally, western leadership encouraged avoidant, aggressive, and autocratic behaviour. It rewarded abhorrent personality traits, such as Machiavelliansism, narcissism, and psychopathy. And in turn, it produced widespread unconscious bias against, and even blatant disregard toward, those with less power and privilege.
But in the last decade, we’ve seen many critical upheavals play out in the zeitgeist. From Colin Kaepaernick’s kneeling in 2016 to Harvey Weinstein’s arrest in 2018; from the long-awaited ruling in favour of LGBTQIA+ workplace protections to the inevitable George Floyd protests in 2020; the call for a sweeping reset can no longer be ignored.
The absence of empathy makes leaders oblivious to the realities of their people and the world at large. This issue was raised at the 2019 Business Roundtable—a lobbying organization that represents almost 200 of the world’s largest corporations, from Apple to Walmart. They proclaimed that the purpose of business now transcends serving shareholders. And the CEO of cloud computing company Salesforce, Marc Benioff, called for a “reinvented system” focused on “employees, customers, communities, and the planet.”
We’re on the brink of a new era in thinking and behaviour, one that walks a fine line between economic self-interest and the fundamental moral duty to build a better society. And at the heart of this transition is the value of empathy—the ability to develop genuine attunement with the people who comprise the internal and external environments of an organization.
How important is it that our concept and practice of leadership change? (What happens if we maintain the status quo?
Leaders who are stuck in the old ways of thinking are merely avoiding the reality of their predicament. They seem to have forgotten that all organizations are beholden to a typical life cycle:
- Introduction: An organization is born and experiences an immediate surge in attention and success.
- Growth: As the organization finds its place in the external environment, it surges and evolves.
- Maturity: Once it achieves a sort of equilibrium within the landscape, its growth tapers off.
- Renewal or Decline: The trajectory of the organization always approaches an inflection point—one where it must renew the cycle of die.
This process looks different for every organization. It could be long and drawn out, like the demise of Kodak in 2012; it could be relatively instantaneous, like the bankruptcy of the XFL in 2020; or it could lopsided, like the slow rise and rapid fall of WeWork in 2019.
In all cases, failure to self-disrupt directly correlates with an organization’s complete failure. No institution, regardless of how big or successful, is immune to this. Littering the seabed of history are the empathy hulls of corporate, government, and social enterprises that didn’t plan to change as necessary or change the plan when necessary. But this is an avoidable fate. Enter the modern leader, who can introduce the sort of thinking and perspective necessary to disrupt and renew an organization before circumstances demand it.
Who is a leader you admire?
I’m in awe of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. She is the personification of the values of servitude, innovation, diversity, and empathy—the four values, which, when operationalized and maximized, enable an organization to succeed and journey across the chasm of time. Ardern is human-centric, change-friendly, self-disrupting, and values-driven. She is the manifestation of the most powerful idea at the centre of my talk: “change before you have to.”
Register by April 8 to reserve your spot. Attendees will be entered into a draw to receive one of three signed copies of Khan’s newly released book, Leadership, Reinvented: How to Foster Empathy, Servitude, Diversity, and Innovation in the Workplace.
About Hamza Khan
Hamza Khan is a multi-award winning marketer, best-selling author, and global keynote speaker whose TEDx talk “Stop Managing, Start Leading” has been viewed over a million times. He is a top-ranked university educator, serial entrepreneur, and respected thought leader whose insights have been featured by notable media outlets such as VICE, Business Insider, and The Globe and Mail. He empowers youth and early talent through his work as Managing Director of Student Life Network, Canada’s largest and most comprehensive education resource platform, which reaches over 2.7 million students. From TEDx stages and international conferences to MBA classrooms and Fortune 500 boardrooms, Hamza is invited regularly to deliver keynotes and workshops around the world. His clients have included some of the world’s most dynamic companies and organizations, including PepsiCo, LinkedIn, Deloitte, PwC, Trivago, and over 100 colleges and universities. Learn more at hamzakhan.ca.
This Elevating Career Success event is proudly sponsored by the UTSCAA and U of T’s affinity partners, Manulife and TD Insurance, through the Pillar Sponsorship Program.