Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of  The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner. 

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Are you really leading? 

If the last several years have taught us anything about management, it is that being a leader and how to lead must constantly evolve in harmony with larger societal changes. If you’re standing still or not adapting to new realities, then you’re really not leading at all.

Consider “resilience,” a leadership trait we frequently hear about today that wasn’t even on the radar of most executives less than a decade ago. People used to view resilience primarily as an individual trait that equated to toughness or the ability to bounce back from a challenge. 

Today, we view resilience from a much broader perspective – as a centerpiece for success in the modern workplace. Moving beyond personal fortitude, resilience is a force for connecting with people across an organization as everyone moves toward better collaboration, cutting-edge innovation, burgeoning creativity and enhanced agility. As senior executives, we realize that nurturing resilience is more than ticking a leadership checkbox. It is a transformative force that reshapes culture inside a company. 

I raise this point about the changing nature of resilience in relation to two studies that reveal the challenges executives have had in adapting to new workplace realities. Leadership is moving from outdated “command-and-control” styles to ones focused on cultural traits we used to consider “soft,” such as well-being, identity and satisfaction.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson


Just how dissatisfied employees are in today’s workplace is a sweeping indictment against current managerial styles, blinking at leaders like giant neon lights on a dark, moonless night. For example, a survey conducted by Indeed and Forrester Consulting revealed that just 29% of respondents feel they are “thriving at work.” 

Clearly, when an overwhelming majority – 7 in 10 – workers report low or moderate well-being, then we need to look deeper at the causes. The hard question, again, given this finding: Are we really leading? 

Janeane Tolomeo, Indeed’s Work Wellbeing Initiative Lead, explains, “I hope this report moves people to think of work wellbeing as foundational to business performance and society overall…wellbeing leads to success for both individuals and businesses, and more happiness in the world is a win-win scenario.”

Imagine “well-being” and “happiness” being at the top of an executive’s thinking about their leadership even a handful of years ago. It is clear that addressing formerly “soft” topics like these are now essential for great leaders to build thriving companies.

Another recent report, The Positive Business Impact of Genuine Inclusion, which focuses on the financial and professional services industry, dealt another blow to leaders who are not adapting quickly enough to the culture demands of today’s workforce. The study concluded that “positive employee experiences” were directly tied to the “genuine commitments to inclusion and the number of demographic groups represented in organizational leadership.” 

The key word here is “genuine.” Respondents who believed in their leaders’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives reported “a less toxic working environment.” Janet King, Vice President of Research at Arizent, says, “Companies that succeed at taking meaningful actions to make employees of all backgrounds feel included have healthier workplaces that are more likely to attract, retain and get the best value from their employees.”

If the study shows that finance and professional services lack in “positive employee experiences,” then clearly most employees don’t believe in the genuineness of diversity-led programming or see their own identities reflected in their leaders. “Now more than ever, companies need to stay in top condition by doing more than simply hiring diverse leadership,” King explains. “They need to calibrate their actions around DEI initiatives to make a genuine difference for underrepresented employees.”

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What does it mean for an executive to be genuine? More importantly, why should senior leaders take the idea seriously? Let’s start with how the dictionary defines the word: 

  •  gen·u·ine (/ˈjenyəwən/): Actual, true. Free from hypocrisy or pretense.

The two studies reveal that workplaces are overwhelmingly filled with dissatisfaction and mistrust. The challenge facing senior executives is how to authentically adapt to the changing nature of the workplace and meet employee expectations. Let’s face it, these aren’t topics within the parameters of traditional business education. 

The initial steps, therefore, must focus on senior leaders demonstrating their authenticity and genuine concern for employee well-being. For some executives, this might feel like a trip to the dentist, but it is essential in connecting with today’s employees and consumers. Examining the data at hand, leaders must conclude that this culture-led transformation for them personally isn’t a “maybe I’ll get there” idea. Younger professionals are demanding change for the better and if you can’t supply it, they will eagerly turn to your competitors who can. 

Again, the proof is in the research. According to the Indeed/Forrester Consulting report, “As the workforce continues to trend younger, these changes will matter more and more. 97% believe it’s possible for people to be happy at work most of the time, and 88% believe work should provide more than just a paycheck. A particularly compelling figure: 67% of workers agree that wellbeing at work is a right, not a privilege.”

The question remains: Are you really leading? 

The business landscape has shifted beneath our feet as society has confronted unprecedented challenges. It is time for today’s executives to lead the charge, not wait around for more studies that show how dissatisfied employees are. We have to lead better with an eye on the future and how subsequent generations will adapt to and transform the workplace. What I recommend is to work toward a culture-centric managerial style that by its very definition means that the leadership narrative continually evolves in sync with society’s broader transformations. 

“Genuine” effort goes hand-in-hand with the move toward inclusive leadership, a style that prioritizes diversity and belonging within an organization where individuals from all backgrounds feel respected, valued and empowered to contribute to the overall goals. The emphasis on authenticity and genuine care is at the heart of inclusive leadership. 

In this new era, inclusive leadership provides a new mental framework, prompting a profound shift in leadership paradigms. Together, executives and their teams can use inclusive leadership to create cultures that breathe resilience, authenticity and genuine empathy with each team member empowered to embrace change, adapt swiftly and innovate continuously. 

Are you really leading? Implementing inclusive leadership will take leadership beyond “you” as an individual to “we” as a team – a group of leaders across the organization at every level focused on current and future success.

Here’s another question: What are you waiting for? 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. 

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.