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A farewell to charm

| Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Admittedly, I have always held a contrived understanding of leadership. My adolescent mind would conjure images of Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass valiantly mounting his steed, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, FDR delivering his first inaugural address; men who shaped the world in their image. Yet leadership necessitates more than drive and ostentatious charm. It requires empathy. Interestingly, women have always been conspicuously absent from my mental list of heroic figures to emulate. However, this summer I worked in an office entirely composed of women, all of whom taught me the importance of emotional intelligence in cultivating an environment conducive to success. Working for UnidosUs, the nation’s largest Latino Civil rights advocacy group, this past summer compelled me to examine the discrepancy in my imaginings and the actual qualities that make for effective leadership. More precisely, it forced me to recognize how the women I worked with are particularly suited for leadership positions and, conversely, how my preconceived notions of strong “masculine” leadership has been a far greater hindrance than an asset.

On equal footing with grit, the ability to understand and relate to the thoughts and experiences of those around you is a salient ingredient to successful leadership. There’s that popular caricature of the aloof, calculating, cynical commander (Tywin Lannister, Stringer Bell, Plankton …) Yet, studies consistently find that those who display high levels of drive and empathy vastly outperform their peers who merely have one of the aforementioned qualities. This became abundantly clear this past summer. As an intern at Unidos, I felt like everything was tailored to my success. Supervisors would be clear about their expectations, yet supportive in terms of how to reach them. The office, though buzzing with activity, never felt tense but rather a serene veneer of confidence enveloped each cubicle. Everyone felt that management genuinely cared for their growth and that the organization was invested in their professional development. This was evident in everything from the open door policies to the routine offering of snacks and Starbucks. Unidos is an example of how empathy can lead to a much more efficient work environment. However, what made the experience especially revealing was that the office was composed entirely of women.

As one of the only men on the floor, I received a world-class education in tact and diplomacy. Incredibly impressive, hardworking women — Latina women no less — who never hesitated to check my offhand, insensitive comments surrounded me at all sides. “Machismo,” the Spanish word for male chauvinism, is a concept deeply embedded in many, if not all, Latin-American cultures. And yet, though I have never consciously sought to reinforce such an abhorrent tendency, there have always been subtle residual effects of that culture in my behavior. What’s worst, I managed to convince myself that these traits were charming, that it was somehow endearing to have confidence bordering on narcissism. This malady was at its most detrimental in my understanding of leadership. I assumed leadership meant imposing a vision on others with resolute determination and unshakable pride. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of what truly effective leadership looks like. Without a genuine sense of appreciation and understanding, no one will want to be around you, much less follow you.

Real leadership is just as much about kindness and intimacy as it is grit and determination. To that end, the women I worked with communicated honest care for others with considerably greater ease than I can. There was no showboating at the office; an atmosphere of friendly cooperation tamed the competitive drive of each individual employee. The lack of an overbearing confidence is perhaps indicative of a clearer understanding of interpersonal relationships — that adamant zeal for dynamic, visionary leadership must be kindled with emotional support and friendship. This means uplifting those around you through simple, consistent displays of kindness, as opposed to beating them down with commands or arguments. The prominent members of the student body, those most heavily engaged in the Notre Dame community, all have this in common. Their ability to establish intimate ties to their peers and project an aura of congeniality is essential to their achievements. In contrast, my growth has been slow, deterred at all times by pride and social ineptitudes. More than superficial charm, I need empathy.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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