The New Era of Invisible Leadership
Humanoids, surviving the pandemic on Zoom, resolve after Buffalo and Uvalde, and a musical spring re-awakening
"Better parted / I see people hiding / Speech gets harder / There's no sense in writing / Help me find a way from this maze / I'm living in another world to you / And I can't help myself." -Talk Talk
We are in a transitional phase of humanity. We interact with artificial intelligence so often that we are almost humanoid. According to Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, "oid" is "a suffix meaning 'resembling' or 'like,' used in the formation of adjectives and nouns and often implying an incomplete or imperfect resemblance to what is indicated by the preceding element." Droid. Celluloid. Humanoid—a more incomplete and imperfect version of ourselves, a devolution from the humans we were at birth and an evolution into beings that cannot fully be. If we aren't humanoid yet, then we are already humanish, living and working within a constant identity crisis.
A decade of remote work followed by the quarantines of the COVID-19 pandemic have rendered leaders less visible in the physical world, and the virtual office has replaced traditional human interaction. What does that mean for those of us in the middle of our careers? We are already taking care of parents and children simultaneously; we have been replaced by less experienced workers; and in the prime of our careers, we are not only less human, but also invisible? Read on to hear my thoughts about where business leadership is headed.
A screenshot of a recent Zoom meeting in which I forgot I was wearing sunglasses (I am vision-impaired, so it's not unusual for me to walk around my house with shades on). My colleagues said I looked like a different person because they had never seen me in sunglasses before.
A world of invisible leaders
In the mid-2010s, years before we left our cubicles behind and the CEO of Airbnb declared "the end of work as we know it," "Invisible Leadership" was a popular concept tied to authenticity and purpose, a descendant of the Field of Dreams mantra, "If you build it, they will come." The thinking was that if a leader had a dynamic personality, they captured the zeitgeist, and filled the room with powerful ideas, people would follow the ideas instead of the human. Later, the human would be heralded as the invisible genius behind the idea. That worked for Oprah, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates decades ago. Today, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk race their phallic spacecraft in the most visible displays of competition and capitalism imaginable, a display that is neither invisible nor selfless in this age of transition from humanish to humanoid. As leaders, shouldn't we be more interested in the humans who riveted the rockets than the iconoclasts who paid to have them built?
I am vision-impaired and worry about the possibility of total blindness in my future. I have spent a lot of time imagining a life that's invisible to me. Yet, until the pandemic changed the way most of us do business, I did not imagine a scenario in which I might be invisible to others. I landed in an executive role days before the world shut down due to COVID-19. I was a stranger trying to coalesce a team around my big ideas in online meetings. My coworkers could not become familiar with my gait or the rogue cowlick on the back of my head. Without an office, we did not argue over who splattered curry in the low-wattage kitchen microwave or praise the person who brought donuts to meetings or complain about the guy who delivered reports to our desks from the hall printer as an excuse to chat. (Here's the definition of a printer, in case you forgot.) Everyone was helpful and friendly, yet between Zoom meetings, there was silence, loneliness, and a Groundhog Day repetition that made time feel nonlinear. This was merely the fault of the pandemic, but it completely transformed my view of invisible leadership.
An invisible leader is more than a leader who works primarily online. Invisible leadership means a willingness to shed any identity that doesn't work for the whole. It is an evolving process. For example, a previously quiet leader on your business team may suddenly become a wise sage on Zoom; a well-known community member may begin to make trouble during presentations in order to get attention; other teammates will adapt to or rebel against the new skills needed to lead invisibly. Human faces inside Brady Bunch-style squares on laptop screens cannot command a room with their booming voices or wave to friends across a crowded restaurant. This is why CEOs, elected officials and celebrities were photographed unmasked during the pandemic, regardless of their political affiliations: their influence relied heavily upon the physical recognition that sets them apart from others. Tomorrow's leaders need new ways to interact and engage with others, and the future of work will depend upon collaboration more than ever before. Invisible leaders must place mission and work goals ahead of their own ambitions, employ Servant Leadership, and limit egos to a parameter of 440 x 440 pixels. The new invisible leadership looks more like carpentry than wizardry, and we need to prepare toolbelts instead of wands. Only those willing to share their talents and abilities with humility will succeed.
As summer 2022 approaches, I feel more empowered to use my gifts without fanfare in both the physical and virtual worlds. I learned that I have a lot of work to do to become a better leader, and I understand that others will not value me until I value myself; I found out that I am a social person but not an aggressive networker; I realized I am comfortable with speaking on a physical stage but not always comfortable speaking up in online meetings. Despite a huge amount of personal growth, I lost a part of myself during the pandemic, a humanness that I promise never to let go in the future. As I move forward into a new role soon, I hope others begin to see that leadership comes from a place deep within our human souls. Working together with that belief in mind we can unlock the power of invisible leadership.
Will Buffalo and Uvalde be the final straws?
I cannot say much here without becoming enraged and engulfed in sadness, and this newsletter is not the place for me to expound on how much I dislike the conflagrant mix of guns, "patriotism" and religiosity in our country. I am taking the personal and political actions I believe are necessary to bring about significant and lasting change to the American gun problem. I hope you are, too.
The Best of My Week: Spring Awakening and the Jubilee Concert
It's already summer in the South, but I did not want the last bright greens to slip into their browning without a musical tribute to a favorite season. So, please enjoy this playlist of tributes to the vernal beauty around us.
Spring Awakening: Those You've Known
If you are a music fan and looking for a fantastic documentary to watch, check out Spring Awakening: Those You've Known on HBO. It's a MUST-WATCH, behind-the-scenes love letter to the Tony-winning musical written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater that captures the pain and pleasure of making art. This will make you run right out and grab those last few tickets to Lea Michele's upcoming solo show at City Winery Atlanta. And don't forget to look for a cameo by Amadeus star Tom Hulce.
Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee: The Concert
Antimonarchists, I hear you, let's table that discussion for now. One thing we can all agree upon is the massive influence of British rock music over the past seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II's "reign." The spectacle yesterday used projections to capture 70 years of royal fashion as well as the Queen's image which has appeared on stamps and currencies around the world. Queen, Rod Stewart, Duran Duran, Elton John (via video), Craig David, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and others joined international stars from across the commonwealth as well as Americans Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alicia Keys, and Diana Ross. It's available on BBC iPlayer as well as various clips from YouTube. Happy searching!
Have a great week and stay safe.