Why walking in a teammate’s shoes can make you a better leader

October 5, 2020 | By Sophie Hares

When Sydney-based Mastercard Advisors management consultant Jun Zhang flew to Qingdao, China, to spend Lunar New Year with her family at the height of China’s COVID-19 outbreak, she found the city in full lockdown and people scared to leave their apartments.

After a week shut indoors, she finally took the advice of her parents, who urged her to return to Australia, where she lives and is relatively safe. As she boarded the last flight from Qingdao to Sydney, Zhang burst into tears at the thought of leaving them to face the crisis alone.

“That was a decision that I never, ever want to make, ever again,” Zhang says. “The challenge was to say, sorry, I'm leaving for a safer place and I'm leaving my parents behind.”

Back in Australia, the atmosphere was relaxed compared to the suffocating situation in Qingdao. Zhang grabbed the chance to settle back down into work for the first time in weeks, and with a new focus: Before her China trip, she had been in New York taking part in The HOW Institute for Society’s fellowship program, which is designed to teach leaders how to take a more ethical, people-centered approach to business — leading with integrity and respect, ultimately empowering those around you.

At one of the NXT-GEN Fellowship for Moral Leadership events, top-tier corporate and military chiefs told participants how they employed moral leadership skills to quickly make bold, often life-changing decisions. For example, the former head of a mining giant explained how she prioritized workers’ health over profit when she quickly decided to shut down a huge mine over safety concerns.

Empathy is the cornerstone of moral leadership, Zhang says. It’s important to take time to discover the challenges people face in their lives outside of the office. And if people are reaching their full potential, their teams and ultimately their companies will benefit.

“What happens in our personal life day-to-day is impacting our performance at work a great deal,” she says. “If I don’t try to put myself in my colleague’s shoes … that’s a failure from me.”

Sitting in Sydney after her upsetting departure from China, she realized that the difficulties of 2020 actually presented her with the perfect opportunity to put her learnings into practice.

An Italian colleague of hers had been chosen through a companywide ambassador program to spend three months working in Sydney. The associate managing consultant with Mastercard Advisors lives in Bergamo in Lombardy, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy. And while he hadn’t been showing it to his colleagues, he was deeply worried about his family back home.

Drawing both on her decision to leave Qingdao and the moral leadership course, Zhang spent time with her colleague to better understand how concerns for his family were threatening to affect his work. She helped walk him through his options as he deliberated whether to finish the posting he had worked so hard to get, or to return to his family.

“We could resonate with each other,” Zhang says. “The feelings he had were exactly the same as how I felt when I was in China. He probably felt that I was a sounding board.”

Eventually, he made the decision to return to Italy two months early, sending Zhang his heartfelt thanks and a selfie of himself wearing a face mask as he boarded the plane.

Part of the program since 2018, this was the first year Mastercard sent a global cohort to learn more about the tools — purpose, inspiration, patience and reflection — that are integral to guiding moral leaders and advancing humanity.

“In the past, leaders were chosen for what they could deliver, but tomorrow’s leaders will be defined by their good judgment,” says Ajay Banga, Mastercard’s chief executive. “Never has moral leadership played a more important or challenging role in defining the success of a company.”

Pressure is increasingly mounting on companies to ensure they “do the right thing” rather than just “do things right,” says Zhang, noting the support corporations have shown for racial equality and slowing climate change in recent months.

“Especially in today’s climate, having that moral compass is hugely important,” Zhang says. “2020 is a critical year and it’s a test for moral leaders.”

Sophie Hares, Contributor