“Facing the ugly truth”. Physical, mental, and emotional pain is still undesirable, “ugly”, stigmatized topic in the business world. Leaders usually struggle to deal with situations when anxiety or depression are mentioned.

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 Olja Aleksic.

Olja Aleksic replaced the concept of traditional leadership support with concepts of leadership mediation (resolving visible and invisible conflicting interests in teams), philosophy (there is always wisdom to be comprehended), philology (narrative is both, enticing and makes sense), and invention (there is always a next level for creation).

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?

Thank you, Karen, this is a great moment in time to have this reflection and to talk about what you already described perfectly in the interview series introductory. We truly are living in the Renaissance of Work and the project I am in the middle of is precisely about painting this new portrait of true leadership. To expand the vision of what is possible for leaders.

When I say true leadership, I am referring to the pioneering, visionary, innovative nature of leadership. I am referring to the thoughts, words, and actions of a leader that steps into uncharted territory. I am referring to the leader that inevitably thinks, talks, and acts in a different than expected way.

This is the leader that seemingly has no relatable role model among existing portraits of leaders, no relevant concept of in-depth support to lean on, and no potent enough inspiration or stimulus to engage with.

While in fact, all over the globe we have people from the most diverse academic, corporate, start-up, and entrepreneurial environments, even public figures, that are a true inspiration when it comes to leadership for innovation. If we know what to look for, we will see that those environments operate in silos, unable to see that they are part of the entire ecosystem and miss the opportunity to leverage what their deep interconnectedness provides.

Imagine what would be possible for future leaders if they would have access to this immense repository of wisdom. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to create (alternative to existing, predominant, outdated) new space in which transformative support can be experienced.

And precisely that is my creation, vivid in my visionary mind, that is my uncharted territory and what I am excited about both professionally and personally.

I spend my days experimenting between different concepts of leadership support, and that goes from one-off team retreat activities that provide more of a McQueen’s fully immersive runway show type of experience (I know, I know, I am lucky to collaborate for a decade with most diverse, audacious and talented individuals); over including principles from Gestalt therapy into the broken formula for mentoring and onboarding processes in hybrid and remote environments; all the way to explore different modalities of continuous support through mediation for innovative teams.

I chose to build my business as an ecosystem which means that I don’t lean on permanent employees but rather on pop-up micro teams made of perfect-for-the-project collaborators, which allows me higher flexibility, wider range, and deeper impact.

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

When I started climbing the corporate leadership ladder, I made sure to get all the training, all the best practices, all the newest tools and techniques, and methodologies. Imagine my surprise when I started uncovering, day in and day out, that what I was learning, reading, and hearing about leadership is completely different from what I was experiencing.

Indeed. It all made sense and it all made me feel more empowered, equipped, and ready.

To set goals, and expectations, run effective meetings, translate strategy into actions, give feedback and reviews, and manage projects while driving change and developing myself and others, and being proactive, pitching ideas and initiatives. To communicate in an impactful way, to design programs for underperformers and for talents, and to make strategic and tactical moves. To execute and direct, analyse, report, and present.

It all made sense, until the moment I would try to implement it. Sophia (Sofija Jovicic), my superior, was the leader that influenced me the most because she painted an alternative portrait of leadership that made sense for me, in practice, not just in theory. She was there every day for me to help me put things into perspective, connect the dots and reflect on the why when choosing priorities and making decisions.

My work today is part of her legacy, she showed me how to bridge the gap between theory and practice and that is why I know exactly how disoriented leaders of today feel, how the pressure shows up in most unexpected ways and I know that leading in times of permanent uncertainty is not a post-pandemic legacy but it has always been a differentiator between true leaders and those who are simply not.

I love the fact that Sophia’s name means wisdom because it reminds me every day of how much it really takes to create that body of knowledge and experience. And in order to be perceived as wisdom, it takes really a lot.

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 biggest leadership mistakes came from the expectation that others will heavily criticize, judge, and reject my authentic ways of thinking, showing up, and speaking up.

I have always been aware that I neither look like, express myself like nor impact others like typically portrayed leaders. I have always been aware that my educational, professional, and personal backgrounds do not portray typical authority figures.

Hence, I have always been ready to be excluded, my opinions to be challenged, and my solutions to be disputed. To that extent that I would exclude myself first. Under the perfect excuse.

It took me some time to get over myself and my bruised ego and to stop missing opportunities for the sake of myself and others.

Once I started appreciating, integrating, and owning my atypical ways of being and leading, I started requiring the same from others. Which resulted in creating a whole new leadership standard.

And only when I reached that level of maturity, in which I don’t compromise on integrity, I was capable of experiencing the true privilege that comes with leadership.

And I discovered that between my teams, collaborators, superiors, peers, clients, partners, and friends, I am actually surrounded by highly sophisticated, brilliant, and intricate human beings; open-minded, trustworthy, creative, forward-thinking, complex, polymath, multi-passionate, avant-garde, neurodivergent.

My biggest leadership mistakes came from the conviction that others will not accept me as I am. While, in fact, we, as leaders, are the first to reject our own parts that do not fit the familiar image. Which, consequently, means that we will reject the same in others. And that’s how we build mediocre teams, rather than exceptional ones.

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

To me, being a leader today, in essence, is exactly the same as it has always been. Leading in times of uncertainty has always been the ultimate leadership test of mastery. What changes over time is the predominant narrative, the image of desirable leaders, and the circumstances under which leaders operate. However, I believe that the concept of true leadership transcends the limitations of time and place.

With that said, when I think of the narrative, desirable leader, and circumstances of today, I think of Alice in Wonderland. Hybrid and remote working environments accelerated technological advances and the speed of global changes placed business operations in alternate realities. Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland seems to be the one that understands the rules of that particular alternate reality. To be the leader now means to ask the question: Who creates, who understands, and who is oblivious to the “rules” in alternate realities they operate within?

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?

The biggest legacy leadership behaviour that is neither valuable nor relevant, especially in the context of leading for innovation, is focusing so much on what is known in personal development as “areas of improvement”. The magical question here is: This is my area of improvement, according to whom?

I would argue that one of the most controversial examples of this is the pressure on leaders and their teams to speak, write, and communicate in certain ways in order to be effective.

My collaborators know that I often need to write extensively in order to weave the thread of new concepts I would like to open up for discussion. That’s how my brain works. One of my collaborators reflects with me on that in our chat exclusively by recording voice messages (due to dyslexia she doesn’t prefer writing and uses text to voice reader to receive information); while another collaborator thinks in images and often sends photo collages. Great storytelling, concise presentation, and powerful communication skills are absolutely an advantage, my point is that is not a critical prerequisite for effective leadership. The priority for leading innovation is to invest time into establishing the most effective flows of communication, rather than in attending the same training. With limitless opportunities to connect with people with such diverse backgrounds and experiences and ways in which produce our best work, insisting on having a one-size-fits-all communication standard makes very little sense to me.

The impact that we all as leaders want to make is a by-product of the shared experience we create for each other.

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

Building stronger relationships. When I look back, I see that I collaborate today with people I worked with a decade ago. In another business environment, on another project, with another agenda. Great teams don’t just happen, they are built over time, and when I mentor leaders, I heavily focus on expanding their capacity to build teams that are going to stay with them from one project to another, from one venture to another, from one alternate reality to another. And that requires significant investment (of time, commitment, content) into a shared experience that builds those relationships.

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?

I can relate to this as well, I am not immune to creating my own playbooks as I progress and succeed, and inevitably they become outdated sooner or later. That is why I had to let go of my own expectations of what consistency looks like. The pressure that comes from that previous experience that daily consistency is how results are achieved started to be more detrimental than useful for me and others. So, I redefined what consistency means for us today.

In a nutshell, there is no way around it for leaders stuck in past playbooks, radical adaptability is not just a buzz phrase. It is an entire concept of how businesses of the future progress.

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?

As leaders, we face the challenge to let go of the need to be loved, liked, and agreed with. With each leadership role, all our relationships inevitably redefine. We discover that what we believed is the truth about our peers was just one side of the coin.

Sometimes in our teams, we are going to have family, friends, more experienced and senior colleagues, our former mentor or directing manager, sometimes we are going to have a single mother that is an underperformer, a cancer patient, a war refugee and we discover that the decisions we can sleep with are not maybe the best for everyone involved.

What we also discover is that what we believed is the truth about ourselves was just one side of the coin. And we need proper support in order not to give up at this stage.

As innovators, we face the challenge to bridge the gap between what our visionary mind sees and what our team believes. With each attempt to do so, we discover that it is more difficult, frustrating, and way messier than we could imagine. No training can prepare us for this, it is highly individual how we are going to navigate these challenges.

As human beings, we face the challenge of maintaining our integrity with every micro decision we make. All the little frictions will have a cumulative effect if we don’t have someone to show us what to pay attention to.

Therefore, my best advice for first-time leaders is to find a mentor to help them with the above. And to be open-minded in choosing their mentor, the biggest support can come from an unexpected source. It can even be a family member or a friend, it can be a book they will revisit and reflect on over and over again. How is this applicable to my situation? This will allow them to take full ownership of their leadership development.

What is important is that mentor also reminds them every day what a privilege leading people is. It is an opportunity to be part of building dignified working environments. And I deeply believe it is worth doing it right.

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.

Just recently we hosted an event in which we represented the top traits effective leaders in the field of innovation exemplify. These leaders are consistent in:

  1. “Lifting the mediocrity veil”

The veil analogy is a reference to the still predominant image of the ideal, conventional, and desirable leaders. The ones that walk in a certain way, talk in a certain way, act in a certain way.

Effective leaders in the field of innovation resist the pressure to oversimplify themselves; which would mean simplifying themselves to such an extent that a distorted impression is given.

They don’t just reproduce relatable business narratives; they produce their own authentic narrative and infuse it into the company’s culture.

2. “Cutting through the noise”

In fast-paced environments, it is easy to stay in the feedback loop that is focused on not-so-good, good, and maybe better. Instead of intentionally focusing on great. Great teams are built, they don’t just happen. During our event, we represented this in a form of a potion bottle.

Effective leaders in the field of innovation require the highest levels of integrity during everyday communication and feedback that is constantly given and received.

They know the exact micro-dosage that makes a difference between feedback that weakness the team and the one that strengthens it. More often than not, this means that these leaders are willing to open highly uncomfortable “the elephant in the room” topics for discussion.

3. “Facing the ugly truth”

Physical, mental, and emotional pain is still undesirable, “ugly”, stigmatized topic in the business world. Leaders usually struggle to deal with situations when anxiety or depression are mentioned.

But effective leaders in the field of innovation know that such speed and uncertainty and adversity will inevitably stretch everyone’s capacity, including theirs. So, they don’t shy away from this challenge and are willing to find ways for creating safe environments for everyone.

Sometimes that will mean shifting priorities, but they are ok with that. Because they already incorporated these “unexpected” situations into their long-term strategy.

4. “Claiming the virtual space”

Most effective leaders in the field of innovation know that virtual space, hybrid and remote working environments, require the highest levels of virtuosity.

They invest time and energy in reaching those heights. Without physical proximity and with a variety of digital, artificial mediators between them, leaders and teams struggle to find balance in this world that requires de-familiarization.

Effective leaders help their teams break preconceived notions of how businesses of the future will operate and help them adjust. Work-life balance still feels out of reach; however, effective leaders are ready to create space and normalize support from third parties (mentors, consultants, coaches).

5. “Collaborating with dramatically different”

The most effective leaders in the field of innovation know the value of kaleidoscopic minds and they are very willing to take time to understand the specific requirements that their collaborators with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia might have.

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

Allow me to answer in the words of Anaïs Nin: “I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”

In a world of extremely short attention spans, in which not taking “too much” time is a virtue, where one-liner and one-pager and one-minute content is the way to go, I make sure to create time each day to consume, appreciate and produce long, comprehensive, in-depth content forms. I am also known for taking more time in everything I do, from having my coffee, eating, walking, conversing with my clients, and spending time with my dogs, friends, and family to what I read, listen to, think, and reflect about.

I believe that by being very intentional about taking time, leaders create more stable environments, make better decisions and deepen their impact. Which is a great way to create a masterpiece.

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

I’ve been thinking about the legacy I have already left by now. And when I look back, I have a really long track record of mentoring individuals and teams that did not choose specifically me to be their mentor, disrupt their daily routine, influence their performance, and focus on their personal development and self-reflection. As being chosen only by a decision maker, I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours in the middle of that perfect storm that comes from resistance, scepticism, and discomfort.

If we translate this experience into the business language, we would speak about the long game of educating the market. The catch-22 here is that an unmet need is there and we know it, however, there is a very precise moment in which solution, in this case, transformative support, is going to be accepted. I’ve seen it on an individual and organizational level again and again.

Which gave me unparalleled preparation for the very unique opportunity we have now. What we know is that leaders of the future need new concepts of support. Few, rather than many, leaders are actually aware of this need. Which means that we are to be very intentional when it comes to painting this new portrait of leadership. And I am very intentional about producing this alternative concept of support, specifically for the innovator, pioneer, visionary. Because that is the leader that is aware, ready, and the one I know the best.

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

Your readers are welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn and continue the conversation.

Olja Aleksic | LinkedIn

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