Leadership and the space between the notes

Background: This past week I came across several interesting articles and interviews that connect to our exploration of the followership/leadership dynamic. The articles approach very similar concepts from very different perspectives. The first of these, by Paul Zak, explores leadership through the lens of neuroscience and Zak’s findings about the connection between a brain chemical, Oxytocin, and trust. Note: Not all researchers on the effect of Oxytocin agree with Zak’s findings.  The second article is by Marcel Schwantes.  While it approaches the development of leadership from a very different perspective, I think you’ll find the similarities striking.  Enjoy.


Building trust is one of the strongest levers you have for improving team performance. There’s actually a simple formula for building the trust your team needs.

 As I was working my way through the items in my inbox, this quote grabbed me and led to Zak’s fascinating (and, for me, challenging) article. Zak has spent considerable time and research on the exploration of improving performance, largely in the business sector. While the experiences that I’ve shared in previous posts about the concepts of leadership and followership have been drawn from my readings and personal experiences in visiting schools and coaching school leaders, Zak approaches his work from the perspective of neuroscience and scientific study.

What caught my attention was his focus on the concept of trust. You may recall that in the components of leadership that I’ve shared, trust (also referred to as the “circle of safety”) occurs as a result of honest (even “fierce”) conversations and the development of caring relationships. These behaviors serve as a basis for the decision to follow the vision and purpose shared by “the leader”.

The results of Zak’s studies can be roughly summarized as follows:

…trust is a powerful lever to improve economic performance because it reduces the frictions that occur when individuals interact. If I trust you, and you are trustworthy, we are an effective team… (italics mine)

Zak’s work reveals that the presence/synthesis of Oxytocin correlates with the motivation to cooperate (trust) and he asserts that a culture of such trust can be created by constantly attending to and monitoring what he considers to be the building blocks of trust – i.e, such building blocks increase the levels of the desired Oxytocin.. While some of his scientific colleagues disagree with this connection between Oxytocin and trust, I was more interested in identification of the building blocks that he identifies as facilitators of trust.

Note: As a frequent guest on national TV, Zak has apparently developed a flair for the dramatic as demonstrated by managing to use the acronym, OXYTOCIN, to help us remember his building blocks.

  • Ovation(recognize those who meet or exceed goals)
  • eXpectation(design difficult but achievable challenges and hold colleagues accountable to reach them)
  • Yield(enable employees to complete their work as they see fit)
  • Transfer(facilitate self-management in which colleagues choose the work they want to do)
  • Openness(share information broadly)
  • Caring(intentionally build relationships with colleagues)
  • Invest(promote personal and professional growth)
  • Natural(behave authentically and ask for help)

What are the results? Zak reports:

My group collected a representative sample of 1,095 working adults and our analysis revealed that those working in companies in the top quartile of organizational trust, compared to those in the bottom quartile, had 106% more energy at work, were 76% more engaged, and reported being 50% more productive. High-trust companies had one-half the employee turnover of low-trust companies, with employees at these companies telling us that they enjoyed their jobs 60% more and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.

Trust matters, a lot.

 The second piece that caught my attention on leadership comes from Marcel Schwantes, the Principal and Founder of Leadership From the Core. The article, published in Inc., is entitled “5 Obvious Signs Someone Has True Leadership Ability (Ask Any Employee)… It’s what every employee on the planet wishes and hopes for in a boss.”

This one is as easy a read as Zak’s is challenging. I urge you to read it. It’s quick. Schwantes approaches the issue of leadership through the analysis of behaviors of very successful leaders. His focus is on effectiveness. In my terms (borrowed from Sergiovanni) he focuses on followership, how it’s built, and the results which flow from such a dynamic. One can get a pretty good idea of where Schwantes is headed when, early in the piece, he notes that very successful leaders…

… are often referred to as servant leaders, conscious leaders, authentic leaders, or transformational leaders. Whatever you call them, one thing is for sure, their helm releases discretionary effort across an organization… The secret comes down to three words People over profit.

Schwantes offers a variation of Zak’s 8 building blocks. Think about the components of leadership that we explored previously and how each of Zak’s building blocks and Schwantes’ skills/dispositions connects to things like conversations, relationships, circles of safety, willingness (maybe even eagerness) to follow.

Here’s Schwantes’ list about successful leaders…

  1. They spread joy and drive away fear – They create the environment where people look forward to coming to work, where people look forward to interacting with colleagues, and where people feel appreciated by the leader whom they know cares for them and takes care of them.
  2. They provide employees with meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging – Echoing Dan Pink’s findings on motivation. Schwantes cites the work of Adam Grant, Give and Take, who reports that when people feel a sense of purpose in their work, they are happier and more productive.
  3. They foster a learning spirit within the organization – He asserts, “People development is not a separate retention activity enforced by HR. It’s ingrained in the mindset of servant leaders.”
  4. They build trust that leads to business outcomes – Trust is a pillar of leadership.
  5. They are open and honest in how they communicate – Schwantes includes a quote from Melissa Reiff, CEO of The Container Store (ranked #49 on Forbes list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For), “…nothing makes someone feel more a part of a team than knowing everything has been communicated to them”.

And So…

As I’ve watched these recent posts on leadership unfold and evolve, I realize that in some ways, what has emerged is a bit of a rubric for leadership self-reflection. But I also had an experience this past week that reminded me that this is still incomplete.

I had the chance to listen to an NPR interview with a group of world famous musicians who had collaborated on a new collection. The interviewer asked an interesting question, “What is there that draws you to do these kinds of collaborations?” The answer fascinated me when each of them responded that it was the opportunity to learn. The interviewer then followed up with the request, “Can you give me an example?” It may have been Yo-yo Ma (my memory isn’t that good) who responded, “I was reminded of the importance of tender spaces… the spaces between the notes. I know it but when I heard it in the playing of my friends, I relearned the importance.”

“Tender Spaces” what a concept!   I immediately thought of the constant flood of news about the direction and actions of our new leadership in Washington. Regardless of what position you hold in the back and forth, what is conspicuously absent is the presence of any “tender” spaces… times of silence to allow us to look at the views of the “other” to find ways to connect. This may be wishful thinking in the context of national politics; however, it is not, and cannot be, wishful thinking in our work.

This is a week when the nation annually honors educators, teachers and principals. This has not been an easy time for anyone in education, regardless of one’s place on the pecking order. In some ways the honoring it feels a bit hollow to me.

But it can be a time when we create a bit of tender space… space to reflect on what it’s might be like to be in the shoes of others… the administrators who seek to lead us, the teachers who struggle with ever changing and more oppressive regulations, the kids whose lives are filled with moments which often eclipse the importance of school… space to reflect on how the stresses of everyday life may have eaten away at our sense of compassion and empathy. Imagine if we each took a bit of time and asked someone “what’s it like to be you right now?”

If nothing else in this post resonates, please take just a bit of time to create a tender space for someone.

Be well

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