The secret to being a great leader
Teal McAteer (seated, centre) is redefining the way we see leadership, and training a smarter, better generation of leaders. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)
BY Sonia Verma
February 17, 2020
Teal McAteer started out learning about leadership by coaching people who utterly lacked it.
McAteer, an award-winning associate professor of human resources in the DeGroote School of Business, is training a smarter, better, new generation of business leaders — people who are driven to change the world for the better, and who possess keen emotional intelligence, resilience and compassion.
McAteer teaches and coaches future leaders in DeGroote’s B.Com, Integrated Business and Humanities program, MBA and Executive MBA. She also works as a leadership coach outside of her academic commitments, helping struggling leaders who want to learn how to do better.
The key to McAteer’s approach is getting individuals to identify their own strengths and weaknesses in detail, and to create a vision statement about what they want to enhance, and what they should change.
McAteer’s approach to leadership teaching is also at the heart of the DeGroote School of Business’ vision to transform business education.
Here, she shares her insights on how to become a better leader:
Learning how to, and how not to
I am a leadership coach. I work with people who are going through change — voluntary or involuntary — to help them set better goals and figure out what kind of leader they are and wish to be.
When I was in first year of my own B.Com, I had professors who were the best in their field. I remember vividly learning about how to manage performance, how to inspire, how to motivate, how to lead, how to go through change. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but it stuck with me — it was all about people.
After I graduated, I landed a position in relocation counseling and began to understand the world of “fallen” leaders — coaching people who had just been fired.
I was curious about what they lacked, and it always came down to things my professors had mentioned, like emotional intelligence; communication; resolving conflict, managing time, stress and change; dealing with power and politics.
Many of them were high-performing perfectionists, but they had no idea how to treat other people.
They may have been doing things right, but they weren’t doing the right things.
The tough questions
Over the years as a practising relocation counselor, I heard many of my clients share a similar perspective. Sadly, for most of them, it took the loss of jobs, relationships or health for them to look back and reflect on the shortcomings that led to their professional demise.
Many of them wished they had tackled these difficult people-related issues early on in their personal and professional development.
After completing my Ph.D. and becoming a professor at a progressive business school, I had the unique opportunity to start to make this happen. I designed and developed an upper year B.Com and upper year MBA leadership development course that would ask some really tough questions:
- What is my purpose?
- How do I want to be remembered?
- What impact do I intend to have? How can I make a difference?
- What is the gap between my current state and desired state?
You can’t just take courses, you have to look inward and ask, “Am I going to be a leader with the right inner core?” and “What kind of leader do I wish to be in all parts of my life?”
On understanding leadership at a young age
My undergrads are like sponges. The earlier we can help students to understand how leadership works, the higher the probability we will have greater leaders doing better things for the world. It’s a scaffolding that shapes the impact they will have on society.
If we encourage and support our students to make necessary changes early in their careers, this will set them up for greater holistic success and allow them to proactively make corrections before it’s too late.
It all begins with them – their self-awareness and self-management, and then grows into social awareness and relationship management.
Students learn to address areas of weakness instead of avoiding them.
On coaching and teaching
I’m a better teacher because I work in the real world. Every day, I tell the students about my consulting/coaching issues, and they love it, because what I’m teaching them is coming straight from the real world.
Everything I teach coaches them to be better leaders in life — how to deal with conflict, how to approach difficult conversations, how to manage stress, how to handle an unexpected interview question, or a difficult boss, or work/non-work life demands. They’re constantly seeing the connection between the real world and what I’m teaching.
I tell them about my past work in relocation, too. Failure is an incredible opportunity for learning and growth. When someone falls, do they have the emotional intelligence to pick themselves up and redirect their efforts? Or do they just blame everything and everyone else?
People with emotional intelligence never blame their situation. They look inside and say, what can I learn from this? What can I do differently? How can I be better?
On transformative learning
Transformative learning focuses on the relationship between personal change and learning. It involves changing frames of reference, habits, and established patterns of behaviour.
It usually results from a “disorienting dilemma” — a life crisis, or major transition, such as job loss, illness, divorce.
From it, they learn to embrace opportunities, cope with challenges, to lead and to resolve conflict.
In my 12-week leadership development course based on Transformative Learning principles, upper year B.Com students are thrust into a “disorienting dilemma” in the initial three weeks. Students are asked to prepare a self-reflection and six-week action plan in which they define what thoughts and behaviours they wish to change and how they will go about changing them. A second critical reflection piece follows, allowing students to process their transformative journey and learnings.
Students describe the experience as “life-altering” and a professional development opportunity leading to “profound growth.”
My EMBA students undertake a similar process, but over a much longer period and across all four modules of their 18-month program. My IBH students are also required to keep a detailed journal to record thei r transformative learning experiences over their four years in the program.
Interestingly, no matter what age or stage or level of student and/or client, one thing is clear: The only point at which a human will take real action is When the pain of the present is greater than the pain of the unknown.
What you say to yourself is: “I have no idea where I’m going. I have no idea what’s out there. But it looks a lot better than the state I am in right now.”
Taking the roof off
People think their leadership is defined by their professional qualifications. If you ask, “Who are you?” they say, “I’m a surgeon” or “I’m a CEO.” Those are good things, but that’s just what they do for a living.
If you took the roof off the house of your life, where each room depicts a part of your life — family, work, community, friends, etc. — and peeked in, what would you see?
What impact have you made? What are your kids going to say about you? What about your friends? What’s your legacy?
The hope is that when people speak about you, no matter what room of life they are in, there would be consistency in how they speak about your character, what you stand for, your legacy.
When I hit challenges, I focus on what’s most important – the people in my house of life. We are all leaders. For me, what matters is that I help those in my house of life to be the best they possibly can be.
I want to be a positive disrupter who helps people find authenticity. That’s my goal. That’s my purpose. When you lift off the roof of my life, that’s my legacy, end of story.