Matterness: Leading by Making Others Matter More

Every New Year inevitably brings a fresh wave of optimistic resolutions. We’re definitely going to eat better this year—no more flour, or sugar, or salt, or trans fats, and definitely no fructose. We’re going to exercise every day while simultaneously reading big books on important topics. And we’re going to volunteer to be a class parent. Oh, and we’re determined that this is the year when we’re going to lead all of these resolutions, the last one is the one with the best chance of succeeding, if fearlessness is redefined properly.For too long, discussions of women and leadership have focused on a leadership style that is counterintuitive and counterproductive for many women. We think we’ve got to look, sound, and act tough to get ahead in a man’s world. In copying the men sitting around the table, we learn to talk more than we listen, take more credit than we give, and try to control everything and everyone as much as possible. For many women, this means pushing a big boulder of burdensome expectations up a hill every day. It is an exhausting way of acting.There is a better and more energizing way to lead. I call it Matterness. The essence of Matterness is making other people inside and outside of your organization matter more, in order to make them heard and become problem solvers, ambassadors and co-creators. Working this way spreads out the work, and ultimately makes work feel better and more aligned with our fundamental human tendencies to be generous, kind and empathic. And it makes us fearless, because we are no longer alone and can tackle big problems and become more innovative, working with rather than at the people around us.When women lead with Matterness, they see the benefits. One such leader is Megan Kashner, who started Benevolent as a way to help low-income people matter more in the world and regain their dignity. People tell their own stories on Benevolent’s site—of the restaurant worker who can’t afford his required uniform, or the single mother who needs basic furnishings for her apartment—and ask for help to gain traction in an unforgiving economy. These stories are heartbreaking in their simplicity and humbling for readers, and people respond immediately with a generosity of spirit and donations. Other women with a passion for making other people matter more are Michèle Flournoy, who made it to the top of the Department of Defense while emphasizing flexible work hours, and Joan Blades, who runs MomsRising, which celebrates the work and lives of other women and enables them to tell their own stories.Here are three steps for putting Matterness to work:

  • Get in conversations with people. Being in conversations with people online and in person begins by asking questions rather than broadcasting messages. This is not a task to be outsourced or delegated to line staff. Leaders must be in conversation with their constituents in order to experience what their efforts mean to other people. This is relatively easy now with the variety of social media platforms that can be used to host conversations. Not every suggestion has to be acted upon, but every comment deserves a listen.
  • Turn staff and customers into co-creators and problem solvers. We are living and working in networked environments where people are connected to lots of other people. Not knowing the answer to every question isn’t shameful; it is simply human. Leaders need to become facilitators who can engage lots of other people in helping to solve problems. This is the way to turn passive staff and customers into active problem solvers invested in the long-term success of any effort.
  • Stop trying to control the uncontrollable. The essence of being fearless is letting go of uncontrollable things. Trying to control every message and messenger is both exhausting and a waste of time and energy. We need to stop spending so much time worrying about what could go wrong and focus on what is likely to go right. It does seem scary out there where the whackadoodles and wingnuts live, but there is a much bigger cost, personally and professionally, of hiding from the world. Leaders need to step out into the world with the assumption that most people are smart, generous and willing to help—because they are and they will.

Focusing on Matterness spreads out our work, infusing it with more humanity and less fear. This is how to make work and life energizing and fulfilling, not soul-sucking. We have a huge opportunity to fundamentally upend our traditional notion of leadership as a certain way of looking, dressing, standing, and speaking, and to focus on the people and things that matter most. Real leadership isn’t about doing something different; it is about being someone different—someone who uses her natural strengths to make other people more confident, stronger, and heard.