The Real Magic Of Leadership

My daughter and I love to watch movies together. Since she is currently home for the holidays, we recently watched “Encanto” (we love Disney movies), and I was intrigued by many aspects of the story. The most relevant one for me involved the matriarch of a magical family and the way her leadership impacted all the other family members. If you have not seen the movie, there will be spoilers here, so be warned.

In Encanto, the whole Madrigal family is endowed with special magical abilities. Abuela Alma (the matriarch) works overtime to remind her family that they have been given a special gift which they must protect and share. One granddaughter (Mirabel) does not have any special abilities, and she feels inadequate compared to others in her family. However, Abuela Alma’s fear and insecurity that they will lose the “gift” causes everyone around her to feel inadequate; they are just hiding it.

Leadership is about defining and communicating reality. I’m not talking about creating a reality that defies natural laws, rather I’m talking about putting the things around us in perspective and reminding everyone of our capabilities as a team. That’s the good part. The difficult part is that we can only define the reality around us in relation to our own understanding of ourselves. Self-awareness is the key to leading well, maybe the key to leading at all.

People who think leadership is about aggression, self-confidence, and competence are missing the bigger picture. Study after study shows that the two most important leadership behaviors are sensitivity and being articulate. If our role as leaders is to communicate effectively, then we must be able to accurately determine how other people perceive us. Abuela Alma didn’t realize that her fears and insecurities were negatively impacting everyone around her. She thought she was being strong and protecting the family from what she was afraid of, but in doing so, she failed to understand what they were concerned about.

Knowing ourselves isn’t about being master of our domain; it’s about truly understanding how our behaviors are perceived by others. If you want to be an effective leader, find out how other people see you. Self-awareness comes first, but it is only one of several components necessary for emotional intelligence. After self-awareness come social awareness (empathy), self-management (restraint), and relationship management (social skill).

I’ve written a lot about empathy. Empathy is often melded with compassion, but they are really two distinct things. Compassion almost always carries action with it. You are stepping into a situation and reducing or relieving the hurts of others. Empathy is simply understanding and sharing the feelings of others. Empathy is essential for leadership. Without social awareness we will often project our own feelings onto others and misinterpret their behaviors. 

In Encanto, Mirabel tries to tell her abuela what is going on, but Abuela Alma thinks she is trying to compensate for not having any special abilities. She is projecting her own dependency on the “specialness” of their family onto Mirabel and completely missing the obvious signs that something else is wrong. Leaders who lack empathy are missing a crucial skill that unlocks the perception and viewpoint of those around them. We need those insights to serve well.

A leader’s self-management is the shock absorber in the organization. When the tire and wheel on your car hit a bump, the spring compresses to allow the wheel to be displaced. Without restraint, the wheel would then travel an equal amount in the opposite direction. The shock absorber (misnamed, as it is really a dampening element) suppresses the reaction to the initial movement. Ok, what does that have to do with leadership, you ask?

When a leader over-reacts (or under-reacts), human nature causes the others in the organization to respond with inappropriate amplitude. In other words, our responses and behaviors set the tone for the rest of the organization. If we are harsh, others will be harsher. If we are complacent, others will be less proactive. What we allow or do in moderation, others will allow or do with greater magnitude. We are the shock absorber that keeps things from bouncing too much.

Finally, a leader’s ability to manage relationships determines the distance they can lead their team. The saying, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” is about relationship management. Being able to help people work together, including working with us, is how leaders take their teams the distance. Relationship management isn’t about manipulation or control; it’s about building bonds and communicating to help others change, grow, develop, and resolve conflict.

At the end of the movie, after losing their “gift” and all that went with it, including a magic house, we see the truest leader in the group, Mirabel, bring the whole village together to build a new home – less perfect and without the magic, but still wonderful. It is in this moment that Abuela Alma finally understands and appreciates how everyone contributes and has value. It is also in this moment when the leadership of a young girl restores the magic gift to the Madrigals. Real leadership isn’t magic; it’s just hard work. Learning to see yourself honestly and through other’s eyes, developing empathy and restraint, and becoming adept at helping others become their best selves isn’t complicated, but it is difficult. Leading well isn’t a destination; it is a journey—progress, not perfection. When we lead relationally with self-awareness, empathy, and restraint, we unlock the special abilities in the people around us, and that looks a lot like magic and certainly like The Kimray Way.