Statue of Aristotle

For Innovation in Leadership, Look to Aristotle

May 26, 2022

Philosopher Peter Critchley once offered that “we all need a place to be ‘somewhere’ where we do more than exist, a place where we live and flourish . . . individuals flourish together as social beings in being associated within larger and richer webs of interdependence.”

With more than two-thirds of U.S.-based employees reporting that the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to pause and reflect on their purpose in work and life, in order to attract and retain the best talent, companies need to become places where people are able to flourish. As we navigate through the pandemic, we are completely rebuilding and reimagining how we show up to work. The majority of companies have now placed corporate purpose at the top of the agenda. Virtual and hybrid workplaces are the way of the future. And as Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill asserts, innovation in leadership is less about deploying better technology and tools, and more about focusing on people and culture.

In looking toward the future, leaders have a new mandate: to become catalysts for progress and co-create a place for people to flourish, have purpose and do their best work. Thankfully, Aristotle has already mapped out a blueprint for how to do this.

In Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.), Aristotle presented the concept of eudaimonia (yoo-die-moh-nee-ah)—otherwise known as “human flourishing” or “a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous.” He offered that eudaimonia is learned and acquired though education, guided practice and good habits, and that it requires a continual effort—or areté (are-et-tay)—in order to close the gap between where people currently are (i.e., not actualizing their potential) and what they are capable of (i.e., flourishing).

Though it may seem like an abstract concept, eudaimonia manifests though concrete actions. Good habits are created by leaders setting clear expectations and exhibiting strong values from the top and ensuring they are felt throughout the organization. Guided practice is shown through mentorship and co-creation in a supportive environment. Personal growth is a cornerstone of achieving eudaimonia and education through professional development and training programs can help us get there.

This also means it is time for a different perspective on leadership. To successfully navigate these ambiguous, unpredictable times while simultaneously co-creating places where people can do their best work, leaders need to embrace experimentation, curiosity, listening and flexibility. It is incumbent on leaders to be open to change and become comfortable with not having all the answers. This kind of leadership requires psychological safety and creating an environment where people can show up and participate without fear of interpersonal consequences. And elevating leaders who challenge the status quo will help set the example for employees and show that innovative thinking and fresh ideas will be rewarded, not dismissed.

Building on Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, below are some additional areas where leaders can focus their efforts around education, guided practice and good habits in order to foster innovation and help their employees flourish:

  1. Be Authentic. It is critical that leaders model how to bring their whole selves to work and create environments where everyone feels safe to do so. When employees see leaders admit their mistakes, ask for help when they need it, and overcome difficulties in plain view, it shows that making mistakes is part of the process of learning and growing. Research also shows that authenticity leads to stronger relationships and higher levels of trust among co-workers.
  2. Encourage Creativity. Uncertain, unpredictable times require new ways of working and solving problems. By having a high tolerance for experimentation, leaders can create a space to incubate ideas nurture an entrepreneurial spirit and help connect the dots. And rather than hand down orders and dictate execution, leaders should guide the focus of their teams and facilitate conversations that allow employees to collaborate and problem-solve together.
  1. Show People Grace. Leaders need to also model empathy and learn how to navigate complex emotions in the workplace. We are still living in disruptive and uncertain times and the levels of emotional trauma people are dealing with are at an all-time high. Show people grace and support them however you can through meaningful and authentic connection. Respect their personal journeys and treat them with kindness – they’ll remember you for it.
  1. Embrace Curiosity. As Alan Watts suggested, “by replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity, we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility.” In times of ambiguity, encourage people to be curious, adopt a growth mindset, and learn how to ask better questions. This approach will generate new ideas and ways for people to achieve their individual potential, as well as the potential of the organization.

On the heels of The Great Resignation, every company around the world should feel the urgency to implement innovative leadership tactics to improve employee experience and business outcomes. Closing the gap between the realities of an outdated workplace culture and helping their employees self-actualize and flourish through co-creating meaningful work experiences will be the difference between leaders that build innovative organizations and those that don’t.

Hanna Grimm contributed to this article.

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