Leading with grace

04 November, 2019

Inspire, mobilise and transform with the quiet power of gracious leadership

A quality strongly associated with great leadership, yet often overlooked, is grace. This is a powerful way for leaders to win the hearts and minds of their teams. It’s difficult to capture “grace” in words, but to put it simply, it denotes a brand of leadership that is caring, composed and quietly confident. It implies an unwavering commitment towards the success of colleagues as well as the organisation, along with a deep self-belief in one’s ability to lead.

In an interview with Skip Prichard, executive coach John Baldoni identifies the role of grace in the leadership journey:

Purpose begins – as many have said – with our why. Purpose is the answer to, “What gets you up in the morning?” From purpose comes vision and mission. Vision is an aspiration; it is our becoming. Mission is our doing; it is our building. And here’s where grace enters the picture. Grace is our how.

For example, you can be a hard-driving individual consumed with achieving a vision and mission and all that goes along with it. You may achieve success; your goals may be fulfilled, but when you step back, ask yourself, “How did I do this? With people, or in spite of people?”

So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can draw on the power of grace to connect with their teams positively and create a culture of compassion and respect in the organisation.

In Grace: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us, Baldoni highlights the five key attributes of leading with G-R-A-C-E:

Generosity. An attitude of abundance and sharing – the opposite of a scarcity mindset, where leaders hoard power and resources. When you give freely, you inspire others to respond in kind.

Respect. Assuming the best in other people and trusting them. When you welcome diverse players and divergent views with dignity, you create a space for true collaboration.

Action. Making things happen by bringing out the best in people and mobilising them. Positive action brings grace to life.

Compassion. Concern and care for others. All grace flows from the core desire to connect with others and be of service to them.

Energy. The ability to drive people forward. A positive spirit that forgives imperfections quickly and without holding grudges.

Another aspect of grace is fluidity. Think of the way dancers and athletes appear to move effortlessly – in spite of the fact that they’re working incredibly hard at all times.

Like graceful artistes and sportspersons, graceful leaders also move through the world with a sense of ease and elegance, which come from being deeply centred and comfortable in one’s own skin.

Inclusion is another component. At the 2017 graduation ceremony at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dean James Ryan said it was Eleanor Roosevelt who taught him the true meaning of graciousness:

At a dinner she was hosting at the White House, a guest mistakenly drank from his finger bowl.  To spare him any embarrassment, Eleanor immediately drank from her finger bowl, and then the rest of her guests followed.In this small gesture, Eleanor showed that graciousness is not about good manners or following etiquette, as is sometimes thought. True graciousness is about empathy and inclusion-about making others feel welcome.

Here are seven suggestions for leading with grace:

1. Be authentic

Grace can be learned and developed, but it can’t be faked. Being genuine and at ease with yourself is crucial for this kind of leadership – that’s what makes it somewhat mysterious and difficult to define. Authentic leaders know who they are and understand their own strengths as well as vulnerabilities. They’re not afraid to share their true selves at work. If you put on a mask at the office, your colleagues will instinctively be able to sense the deception, making it difficult for them to connect with you meaningfully or trust you.

2. Let your ego go

We’ve all encountered insecure leaders, the type who can’t admit their own mistakes or feel threatened when their team members start rising in the organisation. It’s difficult for such a manager to inspire respect or loyalty among their colleagues. In the article,Leading with grace, Jude Miller Burke explains why gracious leaders are quick to correct their own mistakes and groom others for success:

Because they are mission driven and focused on results, these leaders don’t have a problem admitting that something is wrong when the results are less than expected. They put the organization ahead of their own self-interest. And, because authentic leaders focus on long-term shareholder value, they see the wisdom of training people to assume higher levels of responsibility in the company. This step doesn’t threaten their egos because they know that bringing promising people along makes the company stronger in the long run.

3. Be compassionate

Compassion means approaching people from a place of kindness and a belief that everyone’s time and skills are valuable. The idea is to create win-win scenarios (where all parties win) rather than zero-sum situations (where one party wins at the expense of another). Instead of using authority or financial incentives alone to drive team members, a gracious leader frames goals as collective, exciting and beneficial for all.

When you lead with compassion, the wellbeing of employees isn’t an afterthought; it takes priority on a day-to-day basis. Acknowledge your team members’ feelings and be as flexible as possible in times of personal difficulty, such as the illness of a loved one. Other times your colleagues need grace are when they make mistakes. Instead of unleashing your anger or turning your back on them, offer forgiveness and a way forward. A leader’s role is to lift people up, not beat them down.

4. Provide feedback

While gracious leaders praise their team members’ contributions, they also work to improve their performance – without feeling apologetic about it. Remember, providing constructive feedback, guidance and necessary training is rooted in kindness. Turning a blind eye to poor work and failing to hold people accountable, on the other hand, will ultimately harm the person. Grace requires leaders to use tough love and hold their teams to high standards, while still being compassionate – a delicate balance.

5. Find your centre

You’ve probably come across the phrase “grace under pressure” or “grace under fire”. Quiet confidence during troubled times, a hallmark of grace, comes from within, as explained in 2 Powerful Practices For Women Who Want To Lead With Grace by Martha Genlaw:

The trick is to be fully centered. It is from this center we bring forth the full scope of our confidence and gifts. When we project this confidence – even in the face of chaos – we create a certainty in anyone within our range. It is up to us fully in our hands to offer this sense of stability to ourselves and to those with whom we work and manage.

Everyone can derive strength from the quiet resolve of leadership during tumultuous times. So, how can we draw on our inner reservoir of composure? Genlaw explains that grace has a physical component. Breathing exercises, for instance, can help you get centred in a way that intellectualizing simply cannot. Be it breathing deeply from the lower belly, placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth to calm the brain, or lengthening your exhales…find a breathing strategy that works for you and practice it in times of uncertainty.

6. Demonstrate courage

Grace is powered by values and conviction. It means working for the good of your team members and organisation, even when you’re under pressure to take an easier, more convenient path. In How Leaders Lead with Grace, John Baldoni elaborates:

Grace reveals character, the ability to act for what’s good, rather than what’s expedient…people with grace have the inner strength necessary to stand up for what they believe, especially in times of adversity… When a leader senses injustice, the instinct is to do something to ameliorate the situation. That sentiment fueled by a concern for others emerges from grace.

7. Begin with yourself

Gracious leadership begins with the self, not with how others behave or respond. How am I doing as a leader? Am I respectful? Do I genuinely want my team members to thrive? Do I help them feel confident while also providing necessary feedback? Am I capable of forgiving mistakes – other people’s as well as my own? Do I believe in my own ability to lead? These are the questions you need to start with in your quest for gracious leadership. As Chris LoCurto says in Leading With Grace:

It is your job as a leader to make your team successful, not the other way around. Their job is not to come in and make you successful, their job is to come in and be successful at something that you’ve hired them for.


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