The Leader Who Plays Together

I was young, still starting my career as a manager, when I experienced a moment I will never forget: during a meeting organized to make critical decisions, my boss, the person who was supposed to lead everything, stood up and left the room, saying:

“I don’t agree with this vision. I’m out. You guys discuss this with the vendor and figure it out.”

And then he really left. He abandoned the meeting and never got involved with the matter again, leaving the task of managing a not-so-trivial situation in the hands of his young team.

That disappointment contributed to my formation as a manager by teaching me what not to do. The perplexity my manager caused me, arising from what I assessed at the time as a momentary lapse, mixing weakness with negligence, made me promise that night that my teams would never go through a similar experience.

Despite this surreal moment, I often say that I was very lucky because I had extraordinary bosses from whom I learned a lot simply by observing what they did. Many of them became my mentors and helped me become the leader I am today.

These mentors, who implemented significant changes with their teams, had common characteristics that I usually encourage members of my team to incorporate.

Empathy and Compassion

Good leaders understand the importance of the human aspect in corporate dynamics. They know that people are not machines, that they vary in behavior, and are subject to all sorts of interferences. I often tell my teams, “We all have the right to have a bad day every now and then.” To be concerned about a sick family member, sad about a romantic disagreement, or any other aspect that takes us out of our typical behavior. And when that happens, not only me, as a leader, but everyone on the team, should respect it.

Respecting this situation doesn’t mean being condescending, complacent, or accepting just any kind of behavior. It simply means understanding human nature.

Good leaders know that no two employees are alike, and getting to know each one well is a sign of respect. If the boss can combine this understanding with empathy, the effect on the team is magical: they feel supported. And a supported employee works more intensively, for longer hours, and is happier.

Leaders who care about and understand the feelings and concerns of their team members are better prepared to provide meaningful support. And for younger team members, what they seek most in certain moments of change is nothing more than a little bit of support.

I remember another manager of mine who often passed by the project room at the end of the day. He would arrive relaxed, in a good mood, and talk to everyone, moving from desk to desk:

“Hi, how are you? Is your daughter feeling better? Is the fever gone?”

And from this informal conversation, we would move on to work-related matters:

“And the new interface? Did you show it to the CFO? Did he like it? No? Okay, I’ll talk to him tomorrow and help you, leave it to me. I’ll understand the situation better and let you know,” he said while taking notes on a notepad.

The effect of a leader’s simple empathetic presence on the motivation and confidence of a team is impressive. Just 30 minutes on a late afternoon are enough for the overall sentiment to become positive.

Recognition and Feedback

Celebrating the efforts of team members and providing constructive feedback are essential for their motivation and improvement.

Recognition is a basic human need. Even as children, we require  recognition from our parents. At school, recognition from teachers is fundamental. And, at work, it is imperative to have recognition from bosses and leaders.

The need for recognition is not a matter of pride, weakness, selfishness, or a sign of immaturity, but one of the fundamental pillars of self-esteem. Through it, we mature and advance emotionally, personally, and professionally.

Recognizing team members doesn’t require much time. Just thirty seconds at the end of a weekly meeting to say:

“I am very proud of the work and dedication of the team. I know we have challenges, and the journey ahead may be difficult, but I am happy to face this project with all of you.”

These moments, which may seem simple at first glance, create what we call team spirit. But beware, never lie or “sugarcoat” things. It’s essential to be genuine and honest. If you inundate the team with false compliments, the effect will be the opposite.

Of course, nothing prevents a leader from recognizing the team in a more impactful way. One of the coolest recognition initiatives I took part in was when we sent an envelope to the whole team to be opened with their partners. Inside, couples found a message that said:

“We know that our project has demanded a lot from our team, with long working hours. We also know that this impacts not only our employees, but their families, too. We wanted to thank you for your support as we move forward with this initiative essential for our future. As a token of our appreciation, we are sending you this gift card so both of you can enjoy a dinner, with everything paid for by us, at the restaurant of your choice. With our eternal gratitude. Sincerely, Project X Team.”

Our intention was for everyone to experience a five-star dinner at the restaurant of their choice. It was essential for employees to spend time with their partners and relax a bit.

The reception was extraordinary. We received notes from grateful couples saying they had never seen anything like it.

Trust and Honesty

Trust is the foundation of solid leadership. Leaders who are honest and act with integrity inspire loyalty in their teams and encourage the same behavior from everyone else.

In this sense, it is important to practice honesty not only with the change team, but with the entire organization. This covers the most junior as well as the most experienced employees, including external entities such as vendors.

An honest leader has the right to expect others to behave the same way. On the other hand, a leader who deceives and misleads employees gradually loses the respect of their own team.


Supporting team members during a change process involves giving them autonomy, encouraging their ideas, and preparing them for growth and development opportunities. Trusting team members with responsibilities and delegating tasks according to their abilities promotes a sense of ownership and motivation for which there are no substitutes.

In this process, the leader must be prepared to deal with various types of behavior. From those who want to embrace opportunities immediately, with great energy, perhaps even without being fully prepared, to those who are reluctant to do the same.

Conflict Resolution

Effective leaders are skilled in dealing with conflicts and ensuring a harmonious environment.

One frequent reason for conflicts is disagreement about priorities and the struggle for resources. In a large project, this can range from a training budget to the allocation of physical resources. In a project with aggressive goals, where the  pressure for results is palpable, sometimes a small problem is enough to create a conflict of great proportions.

Situations like these cause the team to rely heavily on their leader. What team members expect is for the leader to listen carefully and be clear about the next steps and how decisions will be made. They want the leader to be honest, direct, and receptive. They want the leader to be fair in their words and actions, and not favor cliques.

Teams accept decisions that go against their desires, as long as they understand the reasons that led the leader to make that decision and the rationale behind it. For each type of conflict situation, it is up to the leader to decide what actions to take to minimize the impacts. An effective leader knows how to choose the correct approach, using the experience gained in their career.

Conflict resolution is a great opportunity for a leader to demonstrate their value to the team and thereby gain their respect and admiration. A study conducted in 2011 showed that leaders who handle conflict situations well can use it as a platform for coaching, influence, and establishing group identity (Zhang, Cao, Tjosvold, 2011, Linking Transformational Leadership and Team Performance: A Conflict Management Approach). Their work shows that conflicts serve as an opportunity to create team spirit, unite everyone around a common vision, and align the group toward a larger goal.

Vision and Inspiration

Vicente Gonçalves and Carla Campos make it clear in their book, HCMBOK, The Human Change Management Body of Knowledge, that establishing a purpose for changes is fundamental for people to accept them and work to make them become a reality. We, humans, need this reinforcement and clear, understandable reasoning behind certain initiatives.

Purpose brings clarity and gives significance to everything that happens in the project. Purpose creates meaning and drives everyone to do what is necessary to achieve the team’s goals.

When we understand the purpose of a project, we begin to love what we do, and the result is work of a much higher quality. The Purpose at Work Global Report from 2016 concluded that 73% of people who work with a clear purpose are happier in their jobs.

But purposes are subjective and stem from self-awareness. They depend on local culture, and their understanding varies from generation to generation and from person to person. In this complex and fascinating human scenario, the role of the leader is fundamental. It is up to him or her to be the conductor of the project’s purpose and to understand when and where a message for reinforcement is necessary. It is his/her privilege to fine-tune the message for each team member so that it can be easily understood. This is perhaps the noblest mission of a leader because it deals directly with the human aspect of the project.

Flexibility and Adaptability

The world may not have changed as much between 1950 and 2000 as it has in the last 10 years. Our surrounding environment, technology, and human behaviors change at such a pace that what was perfectly normal a year ago is already obsolete.

The topic of the hour is artificial intelligence, or more specifically, generative AI, which is now within reach of everyone. Suddenly, there are huge possibilities for productivity gains while entire classes of workers find their jobs threatened.

The truth is that significant changes will continue to happen, but now, it is expected that they will occur more frequently. In the past, we had inventions like the wheel, the compass, the Gutenberg’s press, the engine, the light bulb, antibiotics, transistors… All of them were creations that changed the course of society. Today, we have artificial intelligence, and in the future, there will be other innovations with equal or greater impact.

These same shifts occur in projects, with due proportions. Changes within the project are inevitable and even expected. It would be surprising if they did not happen.

Research confirms that adaptation is imperative. Adaptability is the set of skills that gives leaders the ability to choose a new path, a new approach, as things change around them.

The inability to adapt is one of the most frequently cited reasons for failed projects. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most common reasons for the stagnation of careers for managers and leaders.

Emotional Intelligence

There are countless definitions of emotional intelligence. One that I like states that it is the set of skills that include empathy, motivation, self-awareness, self-regulation, and social behavior.

But the definition that had the greatest impact on me says emotional intelligence is what makes you care for others more than you care for yourself.

In the beginning of your career, it is crucial to be sure that you are doing a good job. However, as you climb up to a leadership position, the outcome of your own work becomes less relevant. What matters at this stage is ensuring that the entire team performs well and produces high quality work.

This transition is not trivial. The skills that make you an excellent professional are not the same that will make you a great leader. As a leader, you need to be inquisitive, curious about people, and find a way to inspire them to improve. In other words, “you must care for them more than you care for yourself.”

By doing this, you create high-impact teams and projects and increase your own employability. In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report, emotional intelligence was listed as one of the twelve most required skills for contemporary leaders.

Effective Communication

In 2004, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, banned PowerPoint presentations in the company. From then on, it would be necessary to present structured narrative memorandums in meetings. Those who could not use language well would have problems. The goal, he later revealed, was to force executives to think more about the power of communication.

It is virtually impossible to find a great leader who does not know how to communicate effectively. You can be an extremely creative leader, full of ideas, but if you cannot convey your vision to the rest of the team, you will not achieve your goals. In modern jargon, you will not have followers. And a leader without followers ceases to be a leader.

Great leaders study communication at all levels. From conducting a podcast interview to developing a presentation for a thousand people or communicating effectively in remote meetings, all are critical skills in the modern world.

One of the characteristics of good communicators is the power of simplification and synthesis. Complex ideas, long sentences with erudite words, and technically challenging concepts cause enormous cognitive tension. The message receiver spends more energy deciphering what is being said than analyzing the content of the message itself. They feel inferior because they cannot understand what is being said and begin to resent the communicator.

Gianmarco Armenia, in his 2013 thesis “Lazy Thinking: How Cognitive Easing Affects the Decision Making Process of Business Professionals”, shows that individuals under cognitive stress have great difficulty making decisions. In these situations, people lose the ability to think concisely and automatically, like when we calculate 1 + 1, and start allocating enormous mental effort, which is common when we perform something complex, like calculating 23 x 47. An audience exhausted by complex messages tends to take shortcuts, and one of the most common is to say, “No, let’s not do that right now.” They use any justification to interrupt communication processes that require a lot of attention.

It is clear that good communicators take on the task of simplifying complex messages and concepts, taking this burden off the receiver. A good communicator uses common words and short sentences, seeking ease of understanding. Presenting ideas simply does not mean writing or speaking poorly. On the contrary, it means that your arguments are more persuasive because they are easy to digest.

Always seek to humanize the message. One way to do this is through metaphors. Research shows that the general public loves metaphors, finds them amusing, and believes that they give the speaker an aura of intelligence.

Knowing how to express ideas is only one part of good communication. The other is knowing how to listen, something we rarely train. Just notice how there are numerous public speaking courses on the market, but I have a hard time finding one on listening.

Knowing how to listen is an art that mixes with empathy: it is about thinking and seeing the world at the rhythm of the other person and making an effort to understand the point of view expressed by the other party. It is beneficial to admit that, no matter how hard we try, no matter how willing we are, understanding the world through the perspective of others is difficult indeed.

Juan Arana Cobo, retired professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, performs an exercise with his classes that reinforces this point. He asks students to exchange glasses. Those who wear glasses take them off, and those who don’t need them wear the glasses of the colleague next to them. Naturally, everyone ends up seeing poorly. He then puts some scenes on the monitor and asks the students to describe what they see. It’s difficult. Some students come closer to see better. Others move away. Others squint to get a better focus. The central point is that everyone needs to make an additional effort to simply “see”. Professor Arana creates a tangible experience about how everyday life reinforces the thesis that we only understand the world if we analyze it through our own lenses and perspectives, because seeing the world this way is much more comfortable. On the other hand, seeing the world through the lens of others requires additional effort and dedication, as the students have just discovered. Professor Arana then presents the similarities between truly seeing and truly listening, central aspects of communication.

Understanding the perspective of others requires effort and focus. A good leader always invests time and energy to understand what is being said and, most importantly, the emotion with which it is being said.

Many times, discomfort with a change process is linked to feelings, insecurity, and low connection with the purpose. Creating a space for interaction through honest conversations between leader and team members sometimes completely changes the engagement level of the team. Their perception of inclusion in the change process and their relevance as collaborators stimulate the feeling of belonging that propels them toward a desired future state that everyone wishes for.

By Nelson Ricciardi HUCMI USA

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