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Responsive Leadership: Needed Now More Than Ever


by Jackie Jenkins-Scott, author of “The 7 Secrets of Responsive Leadership: Drive Change, Manage Transitions, and Help Any Organization Turn Around 

The leadership question is top of mind for many people here in the United States and throughout the world. The idea that leaders are trustworthy, honest, and can be relied on to operate in the best interest of the public, the employee, the student, the parishioner, or even the shareholder has been shattered. No matter what industry or organizational structure — business, politics, nonprofit, religious, entertainment or sports—examples abound where leaders have violated their trusted role and experienced a public downfall. As a result, confidence in our leaders and the institutions they lead has diminished, sometimes to the point of no return.

In these fast paced, ever-changing, turbulent, and most stressful times, a major challenge that all leaders face is how to reduce skepticism and build greater trust and confidence in their role, their decisions, and in the organization they lead. Mark Sanborn wrote about six warning signs of why leaders fail: a shift in focus; poor communication; risk aversion; ethics slip; poor self-management; and lost love. Responsive Leadership can be an antidote to failing leadership and the foundation for building and sustaining organizational trust and confidence.

What is responsive leadership?

Responsive leadership focuses on the people — the humanity — within the organization to achieve organizational success. Often leaders are described by action words such as “results-oriented, innovative, driven and visionary”. Sometimes leaders are described by what they believe leaders do and how they approach their role, such as the systematic leader (leaders who use and rely on a set of methods and management tools) or the servant leader (a leadership philosophy in which the main role of the leader is as servant). Responsive leaders may employ these and other techniques, skills and actions all in service to a deep understanding and appreciation that the people within the organization underpin the organization in both triumph and crisis.

Over my many decades in leadership roles, reflecting on my own development as a leader, talking with colleagues, and reading and studying leadership, I have come to believe that there are four essential attributes that drive the responsive leader. My selection of these leadership attributes was affirmed during a conference of corporate directors when over dinner, a few of us had a discussion about the attributes of strong and effective leaders. I call these attributes “The Big Four”.

Curiosity: The Desire to Continuously Learn.

Curiosity will play a critical role in steering an organizational transformation, creating a new product, innovation or better understanding the competition. With a curious mind, the leader will seek knowledge and understanding from a variety of sources including outside experts, subordinates, peers, experts, and trusted advisors. By leading with curiosity, the leader will instill in the organization culture of continuous learning, a respect for and value for deeper understanding. A culture of continuous learning will bolster organizational creativity and innovation.

Empathy: The Ability to Feel and Appreciate Other Human Beings.

The ability to understand feelings of others will keep us in touch with our own feelings as the organization tackles problems and finds solutions. Empathy is considered foundational to workplace cooperation and productive collaboration. In many work environments people must work with other people in order to be successful. Empathy will keep leaders tuned into the impact that the dramatic changes are having on the people around and in the organization. Regardless of leadership style, many executives would agree that empathy is a basic and very important quality of a successful leader. The ability to demonstrate empathy during crisis and challenging times will also help build trust and confidence in the leader and the decisions they are making.

Humility: A Sincere Regard for the Reality that We Cannot Go It Alone.

Never underestimate the power of humility. Humility reinforces our curiosity in others and the world around us. Humility opens the door for a leader to have the courage to surround herself with the very best, people who are highly competent, and perhaps even smarter than herself. With humility, we know that we can learn from others, fully aware that “I” do not have all the answers. Employees will often respond most effectively to a “humble” leader. Another key ingredient to building trust and confidence in the leader and the organization.

Resilience: The Capacity to Recover, to Keep Going Forward in the Face of Adversity.

All leaders face adversity at some point in their careers. Some of the hardest challenges to resilient leadership is rebounding from a setback. An important and necessary key for the resilient leader is “not to take it personally”, sometimes very hard to do.  Recovering quickly from what you perceive as a failure and perhaps what everyone around you perceives as a failure can accelerate your own personal recovery process and as important, it can provide the ability for accelerated organizational growth and continued development.

I believe each of the Big Four attributes — curiosity, empathy, humility, and resilience — are integral to responsive leadership and responsive leaders are needed today more than ever. Do you incorporate the Big Four in your leadership? And is it effective?


Jackie Jenkins-Scott is the author of “The 7 Secrets of Responsive Leadership“. A nationally recognized leader with more than three decades of experience in executive leadership positions in public health, higher education and corporate and non-profit governance, she is widely acknowledged as a transformational leader, helping individuals and institutions achieve high performance and strategic results.  She served for 21 years as the President of the Dimock Community Health Center and 12 years as the President of Wheelock College.