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Leaders often want to be seen as flawless, unflappable, even a little imperious. From John Sweeney’s perspective, that just means they’re afraid.
“The word we use is that leaders are in a mind-set of fear, which can show itself as being concerned with status, being distant and aloof. We want to go to a mind-set of discovery.”
Sweeney owns Brave New Workshop, and if you think that’s a comedy theater, he says you’re right, “but if you ask our banker, we’re a corporate training company.” More than half of its revenues come from helping companies become more nimble by teaching them the tenets of improvisation, which asks for some vulnerability.
“One of the terms that’s really strong now is servant leadership,” Sweeney said. “We’re proponents of leading amongst people, not at people.”
Sweeney stressed that self-deprecating humor isn’t comedic.
“It’s not standing up and making fun of yourself, but realizing the power of humility and taking yourself a bit less seriously in front of the people you lead,” he said. “It’s getting rid of that old organizational chart based on hierarchy.”
While it’s hard to quantify the impact of a charmingly disparaging shtick, Sweeney pointed to research showing that companies with a “servant leadership” mind-set deliver returns of sometimes twice the value of more hierarchal companies.
‘Fish out of water’
Sokolowski, director of public relations for the Mounds View School District, also runs his own communications business through which he does the videos. His two worlds came together this month with a video featuring the district superintendent, Dan Hoverman, trading places for a day with a student. Antics ensue on the dodge ball court, in the lunchroom and on the bus.
“I needed to think about leading at a different level,” Hoverman said. “There’s the suit-and-tie level,” but also a way to show that he’s “a kid at heart.”
The video was made as a fundraising tool for student scholarships, but the long hours of filming revealed added benefits.
“I was able to spend a lot of time with the kids, leading to all sorts of discussions. I know a lot more about how they think about things.”
Hoverman has been in the district for 39 years, and superintendent for the past seven, so he’s a well-known personality. “Yet I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the staff, complimentary about the fact that I was willing to do this.”
Sokolowski believes that leaders who lighten up build credibility. “It buys you goodwill, and a level of understanding between employers and employees. Doing the ‘fish out of water’ thing may break down a wall.
“It’s like when you’re a kid and seeing your teacher at McDonald’s and being incredulous that she’s eating a cheeseburger,” he said. “We tend to put people in boxes as kids. Do we carry that over to adulthood? It’s a little bit jolting, but a whole lot refreshing.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185