What does it mean to be a "new" leader?
Leading a purpose-driven workforce requires a new way of thinking. Hamza Khan, future of work expert and author of "Leadership, Reinvented", joins the Ag Future Podcast to discuss what it means to be a "new" leader and why leaders need to practice a healthy sense of empathy.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Hamza Khan hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
Tom: Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.
Are you searching for that first job or already working and in the process of changing jobs? How can you put your best foot forward? I'm Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, (and I’m here) with Hamza Khan, an instructor at Ryerson University, where he teaches courses on digital marketing and social media, and he is (also) co-founder of Skills Camp. He's the author of "Leadership Reinvented: How to Foster Empathy, Servitude, Diversity, and Innovation in the Workplace". Hamza Khan, welcome to Ag Future.
Hamza: Oh, my pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me, Tom.
Tom: Given the daily bombardment of external influences in our world today, do you find that people can sometimes become disconnected from who they really are?
Hamza: Absolutely. There are so many different technologies to stay abreast of, changes in algorithms, trends on social media. It becomes really overwhelming. I think what I see happening — especially with my students at Ryerson University but also professionals — is that they start to emulate different accounts online and different public personas thinking that that's who they are. They're trying to fake it until they become it, but they arrive at the conclusion, inevitably, that who they've become online is inconsistent with who they actually are, and they go through a bit of a crisis.
Tom: I was going to say, that could be unhealthy.
Hamza: Absolutely, and I've gone through that myself. I think, in the early stages of my career, I was emulating a couple of people, behaving as they behaved online, thinking that this would be commensurate with the version of success that I was hoping to achieve personally and professionally, only to get there and realize, “This isn't me. This doesn't feel true to who I actually am.” So, I'm in the process right now of transitioning how I present myself online, and it feels a lot better. I feel like I have a healthier relationship with social media as a result.
Tom: What are some important consequences of this disconnection, especially where job hunting and starting a new job are concerned?
Hamza: I think they would be the same as perhaps lying on your resume. If you take it back to how people were applying for jobs before the internet and social media and digital lair became the primary way in which people apply for jobs, I think this would be akin to saying on your resume that you did things in your last job that you didn't actually do or hamming up your credentials, perhaps. What ends up happening is you end up in the job, if you're able to get your foot in the door, and then there's a disconnect between what you promised and what you're actually delivering, and this becomes very glaring to your employer. That could lead to loss of opportunities. That could lead to resentment brewing between yourself and your manager and your co-workers and, in the worst-case scenario, you getting let go from the job because you can't actually perform at the level that you promised.
Tom: How do we go about shedding this cloak of inauthenticity about ourselves and get back to who we really are?
Hamza: I'm glad you asked that question. This was the ethos of my talk here at (the) Alltech ONE (Conference) in 2022. It was four words that were at the heart of my presentation, which is what I'd like to share with the listeners of the Ag Future podcast. Social media doesn't have to be overwhelming. You don't have to focus on creating content and creating this polished product. Whether it's a podcast like this one, whether it's a YouTube video, whether it's a blog post, be true to yourself and just focus on doing things and telling people — those four words: do things, tell people.
The listeners of this podcast are already doing pretty impressive things. I've spent the last 48 hours here in Lexington, Kentucky, talking to the ag industry, the agri-food industry, the global agri-food industry, and I'm just in awe of the incredible things that are being done by the listeners of this podcast, by this community. The work that's being done is remarkable. You just need to document that work. Don't focus on, again, creating this polished content. Just document the things you're already doing. Do things, tell people.
Tom: Just an aside: I don't think I've been around so many smart people in one place.
Hamza: From all over the world. I've talked to people this morning from Dublin to Japan just doing some groundbreaking, cutting-edge stuff. It's truly impressive, truly inspiring.
Tom: Well, being one who is true to themselves might seem like something that all of us should strive for, of course, but is this especially critical to the success of people who are in leadership roles?
Hamza: I think the stakes are the highest for people in leadership roles. These are people who are responsible for shaping the culture of an organization, and by that, I mean (the) things that they reward, tolerate and punish. It's like the three elements of organizational culture. If they aren't true to their values, then they can lead their companies askew. We've seen this especially in the last, I'd say, decade, and increasingly during the pandemic. The magnifying lens has been on leaders during the last two years. How leaders reacted in the first couple of months and then in the months that followed during the pandemic was very telling.
There's this misconception that during times of crisis, leaders step up. But actually, what happens is they sink back to the level of their training, preparation, character and values, ultimately. So, leaders who were faking it, leaders who were saying one thing and behaving another way, became very evident for everyone to see during the first couple of months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think that that trend has carried on.
Tom: What does it mean to be a "new" leader?
Hamza: What does it mean to be a “new” leader? Great question. The style of leadership, I would say, that has characterized the last 100 years was very much rooted in ideas that were popularized and forged in the first and second Industrial Revolutions. There's one theory in particular known as the Theory X style of management that was quite popular. It assumed that employees are lazy, that they lack intrinsic motivation, that they need to be micromanaged. I can understand (that) there were circumstances in the first and second Industrial Revolution that would have led leaders to optimize for that style of management. We're talking about a heavy focus on the military context, a heavy focus on rapid industrialization. But those things, they're not as true, and they're increasingly less true today, especially in the age of knowledge work, remote work, flexible work.
What new leadership looks like is the opposite of that. It's Theory Y. It's assuming that employees can manage themselves, are intrinsically motivated, do want more things beyond compensation. They're looking for purpose. They're looking for meaning. They're looking for consistency with values. The last two years have made this very clear for us, that a shift is happening, and you're seeing this at every level. I think we're even seeing it right here at (the) Alltech ONE (Conference). Look at the ethos of Alltech, "Working Together for a Planet of Plenty." They have a focus on ACE: animals, consumers and the environment. In order to be a leader for this new era of work that we've stepped into that prioritizes sustainability, that prioritizes the planet, communities, it's going to require a new leadership, as you said, and that new leadership puts people first. It puts the planet first. It puts communities first, and it prioritizes those things over profit.
Tom: Sincerity is always the best alternative, isn't it?
Tom: Well, I know that you once raised eyebrows with a TEDx talk.
Tom: It was titled "Stop Managing, Start Leading."
Tom: Some came away inspired and validated. Others were kind of insulted. Tell us about that experience.
Hamza: Wow. I feel like I now have the permission space to recount the story. The day after I delivered that TEDx talk, which was very well-received by my peers, by people within my generation — so Gen Y — but also leaders from older generations, Gen X, and boomers, even, that were keen on shifting their leadership perspective. What happened the very next day after delivering that talk (was that) I got summoned to my boss' office and I got reamed out. He said, "I can't believe you did this. You should have run this by me. This is embarrassing. I need you to go and do an apology to every one of my peers" — this is his words — "every one of my peers who was insulted by this message, because you're essentially sparking a bit of a revolution" at the organization that I was working at at the time.
I'm glad I didn't apologize, because here we are five years later, and this talk has just blown up. It's taken a while for the message to catch up and synchronize with the zeitgeist. I get messages every single day from people who are telling me, “Thank you so much for saying that. You've put in words what I've been feeling, and especially during the last two years.” Again, thinking back to what I said earlier, leaders sink to the level of their training, preparation and values. They were able to learn, during the duress of the pandemic, that their leaders were actually prioritizing profits and prioritizing the mission over their needs, not seeing them as employees, not seeing them as people first. There was a time, Tom, where I was starting to lose faith in the message that I delivered back in 2015 to 2016, but now, I believe in it more than I did back then.
Tom: I think it now perfectly fits with the ethos that we're functioning. Maybe the pandemic has also softened our views of management and leadership to the point where it has reintroduced a sense of humanity.
Tom: In keeping with that, how important is a healthy sense of empathy?
Hamza: Oh my goodness, it's one of my core values. It's a value that I recommend every leader listening to this or people on the leadership track to embody. Lead with empathy. Empathy is the ability to see with someone else's eyes, feel with their heart, to stand in their shoes, to assume another's perspective. Radical empathy takes it a step further and develops attunement and understanding and perhaps even compassion with people who disagree with you. That is more important now more than ever.
I love to quote the former chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch — which is, by the way, the only company from the 1917 Fortune list that is still on the list today, let alone even in existence as a company from back then. He said if the rate of change on the outside of the organization exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. I'll say it one more time. If the rate of change on the outside of an organization exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. The only way for a leader to develop true harmony, true attunement with changes on the outside and changes on the inside is by listening with an open heart, by asking the difficult questions.
As a founder of a few companies, and as a leader of a company now, I'm sometimes afraid to ask tough questions. I'm sometimes afraid to hear feedback. It's my primitive brain — my lizard brain, if you will — trying to protect myself, trying to protect me from the negative feelings that will come from asking questions like, “What's working? What's not working? What could I be doing differently? How do you feel at this organization?” But that which we most need to find is often where we're least willing to look. Empathy will really help you to do that in an honest, humble and human way.
Tom: Following up on that, it would seem to me that it would make sense to also take a healthy look at our own pride and ego in these situations. These sound like the characteristics of what we call a servant leader. Is that appropriate?
Hamza: Absolutely, servant leader. I understand that that term can be quite problematic for some listeners. I have received criticism about that, but that's what it's described as in the literature. It does have its roots in the Christian faith, the Christian tradition. The idea of servant leadership is a beautiful one. If I can rephrase that for some listeners over here, it's simply this: leading from behind. Not being this top-down, aggressive, authoritarian leader, but actually stepping behind and encouraging the people in your employ to level up.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my career — and this is leadership advice in hindsight — was from Allan Grant. Shout-out to Allan, if you're listening to this. He said to me on my first day of my job, "Hamza, your job is to write yourself out of a job." Just imagine that, in my very first day of a job. I'm like, "So, sir, what are we supposed to do here?" He said, "Write yourself out of a job." I scratched my head and I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Well, if you do that correctly, you will document processes. You will create succession plans. You will train the people around you sufficiently to run the organization without you. If you do that, the consequence won't be that you'll be let go. You'll actually be given more responsibility to do the same thing for other parts of the organization."
I didn't understand him at first, but I trusted him. I wholeheartedly stand by that. That's my approach now with any organization that I'm fortunate to lead, which is I make people around me better than I am. I don't want to be the smartest person in the room. I don't want to be the most capable person in the room. I want to be the harmonizer. I want to be the conductor. I want to see the connection between seemingly disparate parts, bring it together, and then make it better than anything that I can contribute to the organization. That's the essence of servant leadership: It's making people around you better in every way than you are.
Tom: Isn't that really, in the end, frankly, more fun and satisfying?
Hamza: Deeply more fun, deeply more satisfying, and it requires a paradigm shift. If there are any leaders listening to this right now who are open to the messages that Tom and I are talking about here, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid, because there's a good chance, if you think that putting the needs of the people before the needs of the company is a bad idea, I hate to break it to you, but you might be trapped in a fear cycle. You might be trapped in a cycle of thinking and doing and ways of being that predate you. It didn't start with you. Again, these are remnants of the first and second Industrial Revolution, (which was) a very different context, a time when we were playing a zero-sum game, but we're not playing a zero-sum game anymore.
My experience here at Alltech has really cemented that for me. Working Together for a Planet of Plenty, that presupposes so many different things: working together, collaboration for a planet, working for something greater than yourself that has a wider timescale than you, and plenty. This is abundance. This is sustainability. This is regeneration. The world we're moving into is a world that's very different than the one that we've been optimized for. It comes back to your point, Tom, about humility. It comes back to your point about subduing your ego that you alluded to earlier.
I've had to make this transition myself. I grew up at a time when — let me be frank. The things that I was taught about management early in my career just wouldn't fly today. I won't say which organization. I was taught by one of my leaders — and this is going to sound terrible, and I apologize if this triggers anybody — but I was taught a technique for how to give employees rope to hang themselves. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this in a work environment? Why are we being taught these Machiavellian, sadistic techniques to get rid of people, whereas what we should be doing is asking, “How can we help people? How can we elevate people? How can we raise them up and build them up?” So, I'm really glad that the pandemic, the portal opened up by the pandemic, has closed on the types of leaders who subscribe to the Theory X style of management, who might have optimized their style to become what's known in the literature as a dark triad leader. This is a narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic leader. I think the floor below them is getting smaller.
Tom: The essence (of what) we're talking about here, that employer-employee relationship and environment, is trust.
Hamza: A hundred percent.
Tom: Once you're satisfied that you have been honest with yourself about your character and your personality, how important is it to make a firm commitment, to always stick to being that person going forward? And how difficult is it?
Hamza: It's very important to do, but it's also very difficult to do. You will stumble. You will make mistakes. I can't tell you how many times I've had to revise my personal values while trying to navigate an organization. I would start an organization and it would have value A, B, C, D. But then halfway into running the company, I'd realize, “This is actually inconsistent with who I am and where this company should be going.” So, in front of the staff, I would have to say, “I've been going through a bit of a rediscovery process. I'm trying to become better as an individual.”
An organization is a collective. It is a manifestation of the shared values of everyone in the organization, usually influenced by the leader. So, I've accepted that it's a messy job. It's an evolving job. I take solace in the idea that you can't always make the right decision, but you can make a decision and then make it right. So, give yourself permission to figure this out as you go. We're all figuring it out as we go.
Tom: Well, we're in the era of remote work now, thanks to the pandemic. Do you think working from home, as so many are now, might be having the effect of helping us shed inauthentic behavior and actually change the ways we present ourselves?
Hamza: I think so. One of the things I was really delighted by during this transition — a silver lining throughout the pandemic, I suppose — is (that) how we build trust in an organization came back down to the fundamentals. I think office centricity created a system or perpetuated a status quo which is a continuous decision to reward people based on things — perhaps superficial things, in hindsight, like their timeliness in the office, showing up at a certain time, making themselves available, the optics of appearing to be busy, and then the serendipitous connections that they would have just by virtue of their proximity to different leaders in an organization, whereas real trust is built up. Evidence supports this time and again. Real trust is built up in an organization by saying you're going to do something and then actually doing it on time and under budget.
What the pandemic has allowed people to do in taking a step back and working remotely is put the emphasis back on the work, back on the results and less on the superficial optics. That was very, very encouraging for me to see, and I hope that that, in organizations, has reset expectations from the leadership and has made people feel like they don't actually have to pretend to be productive. They can just be productive, and that can be the truest developer of trust in an organization.
Tom: Hamza Khan, an instructor at Ryerson University and author of "Leadership Reinvented: How to Foster Empathy, Servitude, Diversity, and Innovation in the Workplace". Thank you so much for spending time with us.
Hamza: My pleasure, Tom, and thank you. These were excellent questions. It was a real honor to be on this podcast.
Tom: I really enjoyed it. For the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.