We can’t define leadership in today’s society without talking about the heart. While many antiquated models of leadership focus primarily on task and outcomes, the most effective leaders today understand that we are all human and all have a need to feel heard, valued and cared for.
Picture this: Hartford in the 1980’s…. a young boy whose single mother worked two jobs to make ends meet and support the family was often found at his grandmother’s house on Knot Street, Wethersfield, where she lived with her two sisters while their third sister lived within walking distance up the road. He was a spoiled, sweet little boy who was raised by the Golden Girls. Okay, they weren’t the “real” Golden Girls – Blanche, Sofia, Dorothy and Rose -but they were four of the most kind, gentle and loving souls, and I was that little boy.
If you remember that classic sitcom, you may also remember that those four women shared a cherished friendship. While they gathered around their kitchen table eating cheesecake and discussing their problems, these women demonstrated a love that uplifted and encouraged one another, the same way that my grandmother and aunts uplifted and encouraged me. They lived the tenets of the Golden Girls’ theme song and taught me to do the same:
“Thank you for being a friend. Travel down the road and back again. Your heart is true; you’re a pal and a confidant.”
Over the past decade I have worked with hundreds of youth in the Hartford region, both as an educator and a program director. I have had the great pleasure of watching my students grow and develop; and I realize that unconsciously I draw on the lessons I learned from my very own Golden Girls: to care deeply for each and every person and to find ways to show them how important and special they are. I strongly believe in making people feel like they are the center of my universe because that practice was modeled for me.
Kouzes and Posner’s Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership™ – the backbone of all the leadership development and consulting work I do, describe how effective leaders achieve extraordinary results. Encouraging the Heart is one of the five practices and involves recognizing individual’s accomplishments, showing confidence in them and loving them. When I demonstrate this practice, I see a profound impact on my students. Without encouraging their hearts, these students’ self-protective walls and barriers would never collapse. What opens youth up to hearing and learning is showing them, first and foremost, that I care about them, I believe in them, and I am there for them.
This practice is just as relevant in the workplace. Jim Kouzes closes all his correspondence with the words, “Love ‘em and lead ‘em” because he understands that encouraging the heart is essential if leaders are going to be effective in motivating others to achieve their full potential and help organizations achieve their goals. Numerous studies make it clear that recognizing their good work and accomplishments motivates people and increases their engagement in their organizations. People want to know they matter, that their work is appreciated, and that their co-workers and superiors value and care about them.
Picture a world where every leader demonstrates care, compassion and encouragement, where people are united through love. The Golden Girls’ theme song says it best – the road we travel together symbolizes the relationships we build with one another. That road may be rough and rocky at times, but in the end it is the mutual respect and caring we show one another that supports us on our journeys.
I believe that it is our job as leaders to help make the road of life more beautiful through acts of loving kindness. Encourage people’s hearts as the Golden Girls and the women in my family did. Show everyone how exceptional and talented they are. They will thank you for being a friend!
Andre Santiago is a senior program director at Leadership Greater Hartford.