One of the dangers of the Unicorn leader myth – particularly pervasive in sport – is that it prioritizes the cult of the individual over the wellbeing of the people being led. In doing so, it sidelines the importance of collaboration, communication and empathy to constructive leadership.
Focusing On Others
In his 2013 Harvard Business Review article, The Focused Leader, Daniel Goleman proposes three areas where leaders should focus their attention in order to be as effective as possible. One of those areas is ‘Focusing on Others’, with Goleman highlighting the power of people-centric leadership.
Executives who can effectively focus on others are easy to recognize. They are the ones who find common ground, whose opinions carry the most weight, and with whom other people want to work. They emerge as natural leaders regardless of organizational or social rank.
The Unicorn leader myth would have us believe that the strongest leaders are able to exercise their superior judgement to operate without any input from – or understanding of – their staff. That particular stereotype paints a picture of an omniscient, self-contained genius who unilaterally uses staff to fulfil his or her own unique vision for the business.
However, the alpha figure portrayed through the concept of the Unicorn leader can be deeply harmful. In practice, it is virtually impossible for a single leader to , no matter how talented they may be. The reality is that leaders should be constantly exchanging ideas, encouraging cognitive diversity, and finding ways to unlock the potential of their people if they want their organizations to succeed. As the Sportsology Research Academy paper on this topic highlighted, without listening to staff and engaging with their ideas and requirements, leaders risk the rapid loss of trust and motivation.
Knowing what employees need to succeed is essential to maintaining their engagement and, as such, enabling the employees’ voices to be heard is crucial. However, hearing that voice is not enough, it must be acted upon even if that only entails saying no while explaining why. A quick way to demotivate staff is to listen to their voice and then do nothing. Feedback is a circular activity and breaking the circle kills motivation.
Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
As our research paper points out, with reference to the book Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, followers tend to demand four basic things from their leaders; trust, compassion, stability and hope. This aligns nicely with the emphasis Daniel Goleman places on focusing on others. For Goleman, this crucial ability for to actively listen to staff and be empathetic towards them (the basis for building trust, compassion, stability and hope) is built upon three different strands of emotional intelligence:
Cognitive empathy – The ability to understand another person’s perspective;
Emotional empathy – The ability to feel what someone else feels;
Empathic concern – The ability to sense what another person needs from you.
These facets of emotional intelligence are key to getting the best out of the people around you and are a means by which leaders can understand how they can best serve their organization, empower their people, and cultivate strong team dynamics.
By developing these skills and making a concerted effort to engage with staff, leaders can transform levels of trust and motivation within their organizations, distancing themselves from the more unhelpful aspects of the Unicorn leader mythology in the process.