Managing conflict and creating psychological safety. The first two traits go hand in hand. I say this from the lens of both conflict and simply managing difficult conversations. I also intentionally put these together as one can rarely be effective without the other.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Laurie K. Cure.

Laurie K. Cure, PhD, CEO and Founder of Innovative Connections, is dedicated to helping people achieve organizational success by enabling them to discover and release their human potential. With over 20 years of experience, strategic planning, organizational assessment, change management, leadership and team development, coaching, talent management, restructuring, and culture development are a few of Laurie’s areas of expertise. Laurie is also a published author on the topics of fear in the workplace, emotional intelligence, organizational development, strategy, and coaching.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

I am a firm believer that our personal and professional lives are one. When we can create integration in our values across both those spheres it leads to greater satisfaction in both. To that point, one personal choice my husband and I made this year has profoundly impacted my leadership: sponsoring a Ukrainian family.

When the war in Ukraine broke out in February of 2022, like many others, we sat in tears. We followed stories of families forced from their homes, innocent lives destroyed for reasons that are incomprehensible and human pain that has become all too familiar. Our world events can often lead to a sense of hopelessness that can be overwhelming. As people (who are also leaders and employees), we are at risk of losing ourselves when we can’t find ways to reconcile our outer and inner experiences. This results from several factors in our lives and it impacts how we show up in the world, including in our work.

In early summer, we saw information from an organization called Welcome.US and learned about the United for Ukraine Migrant Humanitarian program. This opportunity allowed us to more directly participate and support through sponsorship. Our sponsorship allowed us to form a close bond with a family that we assisted with housing, employment paperwork, medical assistance and other tangibles. We also created an amazingly close relationship that has been equally unexpected and extremely gratifying.

It has been a humbling, joyous, difficult and overall life-changing experience. It has called into question some of my foundational belief structures, my ability to be in situations without judgment, the nature with which I sit with people through their challenges and how I reach out and look to others for help and support.

Our life experiences always lead to learning and growth, but there are some that accelerate this process. The last year has felt a little like the autobahn.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

These interviews offer me a fresh chance to consider my journey in this moment, different from last year and from next year, so I appreciate this question.

I have had the privilege of working with some amazing leaders. I do not take lightly that my experience is too often unique. With that said, I would say many of the leaders most inspiring to me right now are people on the world stage. Having read the book, “Mission: Joy — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times” many years ago, I recently enjoyed watching the Netflix special and find Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama inspirational. I appreciate leaders such as Adam Grant, Pema Chodron, Margaret Wheatley and David Whyte. I’ve also been loving reading some old classics like C.S. Lewis for example. I am seeking individuals who can offer me a perspective of hope and depth partnered with strategies for managing a difficult reality. We cannot pretend that our current environment is not challenging, so right now, I appreciate leaders who can allow our human experience to be what it is, yet still carry us forward with light and love.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

My response is going to seem like the one you give during a job interview when asked about weakness and how to turn it into a strength. As I consider this question in light of the last few years, I am finding that my greatest mistake is being too optimistic. I have found myself searching for the right balance between positive and practical; between reality and aspiration. I am no different than any other leader who seeks to display confidence and vulnerability. I know for myself and the leaders I work with, we have found it more difficult the last few years to hold these extremes and be able to be in both places.

As I consider this in terms of the question, the mistake of optimism has been ignoring a reality that I really needed to integrate. In general, this skill serves me (and will serve others) well, but the risk for me is overestimating positive outcomes despite the reality of the situation that needs to lead me to a different conclusion. I have caught on quickly and made adjustments, but not in time to avoid some negative implications.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

My definition of leadership has likely remained consistent over time, but it has become much more nuanced. I think leaders create conditions for people to do remarkable things. For me, great leaders use natural self-organizing systems and an understanding of human behavior to help teams build connection, collaboration, solutions and outcomes.

When I instructed graduate students, a foundational textbook was “The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. One of the primary tenants of their leadership model is a practice called Modeling the Way. It asks leaders to ask themselves:

  • What do I stand for?
  • What is important to me?
  • What are my core values

As leaders answer these questions for themselves, they support their team by creating shared values. This remains a critical step for leaders as they serve as role models, but I have found these questions are undergoing radical shifts right now. Values are changing and people’s core identity has shifted throughout COVID-19. Leaders are not immune from these same changes. While leaders are trying to guide others through an economic environment that we have never experienced, the fallout from a pandemic, social and political unrest, and countless other challenges, they themselves are in a whirlwind.

My definition of leadership now includes the ability of leaders to navigate complexity in a whole new way. Leadership now requires that we figure out how to live in the messy middle. How to balance polarities instead of living on the extremes of either-or. We must learn the skills that help us hold people differently. We are so used to teaching and leading from a place of accountability, results and perfection. Now, we must prioritize relationships and driving to outcomes while focusing on people, which has become equally as challenging as it is important today.

There is a vulnerability we must find. We can’t be afraid to be wrong, we must fail fast and adjust, we must see people in a new light and help others be with each other in supportive ways.

I worked with a team not long ago. They were struggling deeply with each other and their leadership. They were performing, but were tired, felt unappreciated, and struggled to create healthy boundaries with each other…to the point they were creating a toxic work environment. They were trying to figure out how to create equity within the team with hybrid work. They openly displayed their anger in inappropriate ways, and individually, they were feeling lost in their lives. While it would be easy to performance manage the individuals, the leader’s commitment to the team allowed them to reestablish trust and build new agreements. While not everyone was willing to come step in, most were, and the team experienced personal and professional healing.

I use this example to show how leaders will need to operate moving forward. If we truly care about people, we need to support them in much different and deeper ways. The lines are blurring, and leaders will need to show up for their employees and support them as whole individuals, not just workers.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

This is a great question. I think leaders need to release the need to always be prepared. Things are ebbing, flowing and changing rapidly. When we plan too far in advance or get too attached to a “right” way of proceeding, we lose the ability to see other possibilities, to bring in other voices or to change directions as circumstances evolve.

I am not advocating that we abandon planning or stop creating contingencies, but we must be willing to shift gears rapidly and make adjustments on the fly. There is a way leaders need to continue to embrace strategic thinking and be agile to the need for a newly created path. They must know enough about their environment that they can be in the moment and adjust as needed.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Much of our work is helping people lead with a coaching mindset. This means bringing forward skills like emotional intelligence, self-awareness, presence, listening and trust. I have also been highly influenced over the last 25 years by the idea that we are more effective when we lead from our strengths.

When we hone our strengths and lead from our best selves, everyone benefits. I believe in creating environments where people can explore, discover and merge their strengths into their work.

We spend ⅓ of our lives working and our workplace and work should be aligned to who we are and what we enjoy doing.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

My advice: Your success and happiness in the future requires you to let go of past paradigms and embrace a new reality. The things we thought were true about people are shifting and unless we open up and begin to understand this, we will continue to fight against a past that is no longer relevant.

Leaders need to stop trying to control change and learn to flow with the ambiguity. It might mean we have to stop thinking about the right way and choose the best way…the next best step. I also believe it will require us to embrace polarities. Leaders, and all of us really, need to learn how to be “both-and.” It’s not about work-life, money or people, structured or flexible, confident or vulnerable. . . it’s about finding a way to be “both-and.”

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

I remember the days of being a new leader. I almost want to go back and apologize. I remember being so confident that I was making all the right choices yet so scared that I wasn’t.

My first piece of advice is to let go of what you think you know because most often, as new leaders, we really do not know anything. Find mentors and allow people to teach and guide you. Seek feedback from others who you trust (that is an important point) and who you know will offer you a perspective that will take you to a higher level.

I would also say listen to those you are leading and create a safe environment for them to be honest with you about what they need and how they need you to support them.

Finally, I would say trust that others have the answers; you don’t always have to.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Managing conflict and creating psychological safety. The first two traits go hand in hand. I say this from the lens of both conflict and simply managing difficult conversations. I also intentionally put these together as one can rarely be effective without the other.

We have significant issues in our world right now and we seem to rarely agree on any of them. People bring all those issues to work and our work decisions, values, corporate direction — all of this — blend together. Leaders who are not effective at encouraging the right conversations, creating boundaries around those conversations, bringing safety to divergent perspectives, and being able to skillfully have tough discussions will not be as effective.

As a simple example, I was coaching a leader a few months ago. He had a younger employee who was frustrated that they did not get a travel stipend when they worked from home. To effectively navigate this situation, he needed to suspend judgment and have a productive conversation with the employee he could not afford to lose. While his response five years ago may have been to avoid the conversation or express his frustration by drawing a line in the sand, his new response required a discussion about underlying needs, constraints the organization had and how to arrive at a middle ground.

Another example was an organization that had a number of stakeholders who felt entitled to be involved in various decision-making processes. Finding the right balance between appropriate boundaries, while maintaining their engagement with the organizations, required artful conflict management.

2. Building teams. More and more information confirms that employee engagement is built through constructive team environments. Leaders who effectively build teams that are trusting, collaborative, and supportive of another are the teams that achieve results. We will do a lot for people we care about, so creating respectful environments that breed loyalty is critical.

As an example, physician burnout is on the rise. It has been a serious issue for decades but has reached crisis levels. For those physicians who work within organizations where there is strong collaboration, burnout is lower. In our work with physicians, they are given a chance to build their collegial relationships and thereby strengthen their engagement in their work. Leaders who understand this and can manage team dynamics (which is really people dynamics) have a greater likelihood of success.

3. Cultivate relationships. Leaders of the future will be good at handling relationships. While easier for some than others, it is an essential skill for all. As I said earlier, values are changing, employees have different needs and are placing different importance on their work. Our need to operate in partnership with one another is increasing. All these things require us to be in solid relationships with each other. Leaders who are too task driven or who are oriented to individual focus may struggle more to garner a team that produces outcomes.

I am currently working with a leadership team struggling to gain respect with their team members and within the organization. Several leaders were perplexed as to why so many of their direct reports were looking for other positions. Employees felt they were not cared for as individuals. The leader was unconsciously “pitting” employees against each other and not effectively managing the conflict when team members brought their frustration into team discussions. Disrespect was not addressed and competition among the team was encouraged.

Effective leaders will be more successful when they are present, listening, and addressing both individual and collective needs. For this group, we started by creating a safe environment for team members to share their concerns with their leader and one another. They were able to declare their commitments (or lack thereof) and establish behavioral expectations for the group. The leader stepped into a place of developing a one-on-one relationship with each person to create a team environment more effectively.

Negative energy robs a team of productivity and effectiveness. Leaders must position themselves to not ignore negativity and be able to authentically transform it.

4. Get good at acceptance. There is a density right now and leaders feel it in the issues that are challenging them. Things like the great resignation and quiet quitting, are hard to deny, compensate for, or solve. We fight it, we try to stop it, we work to make things different; all because we have never learned to accept challenges and lean into them. There are reasons people are struggling right now and those struggles enter the workforce. The most effective leaders build teams that embrace reality (even when we do not like it) and move forward from it.

I recently observed a senior executive listening to a group of team members share very difficult feedback about the status of a project. Without missing a beat, the senior executive was able to separate excuses from reality, explore alternative paths with the key decision-makers, and reestablish a new trajectory. Acceptance is not about giving up; it’s about understanding reality and adjusting course.

Along the same lines, this skill is also about releasing attachment. We can become so attached to a direction or path that we fight to maintain it. I see this frequently when deadlines are established. We hold tightly to keeping a deadline and never stop to ask if it’s even important.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

That is a doozy. As I said earlier, I am no different than anyone else who is trying their best to be an amazing leader, spouse, parent, child, friend, co-worker… the list goes on. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always be positive, perfect, friendly, helpful, compassionate… again, the list goes on. I think the quote is great in theory. What I would offer is that a masterpiece is not always the beautiful final product. There are many stories of famous painters who only become successful after their death, despite their many masterpieces. All their daily “failures” along the way are the way we make masterpieces.

In our effort to elevate our suffering, we are at risk of missing miraculous learnings. So, when I think of making everyday a masterpiece, I also want to ensure I find beauty in the struggle. To me, making everyday a masterpiece is less about the outcome and more about how I show up in the situations I am presented.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

Legacy is an interesting concept to me. We conduct an activity in our leadership development classes which offers leaders an opportunity to consider this very question. I appreciate the notion of legacy and I also find myself wondering about the relationship between legacy and ego. Is there a way we can do great work in the world, work that matters and makes a difference, without the need for credit? Very few people get a legacy that lasts in history. Most of us have a legacy with people we have impacted on our life journey.

For me, I hope I can teach people that love has a broad meaning and is not finite. I want to be a leader and person who can be right and wrong, sometimes about the same thing. Someone who can be both admired and questioned, both open and non-judgmental to new perspectives and still hold convictions. I want to be someone who says yes and trusts that all the pieces will fall into place.

I believe our individual experience unfolds into the collective, so I want to be very conscious about my impact in the world.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

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Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!