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Roméo Dallaire and Marie-Claude Michaud advocate for benevolent leadership, or ‘leadership beinveillant,’ an approach where leaders are encouraged to admit their mistakes and show vulnerability.Chen Zeng

In 2015, Marie-Claude Michaud did something revolutionary in her workplace: She demonstrated that vulnerability is a strength.

As a civilian working with the Department of National Defence for over 20 years, Ms. Michaud had previously conformed to the leadership style that was expected in a patriarchal, hierarchical and predominantly male military environment.

“I had to adopt a man’s behaviour to be accepted,” says Ms. Michaud, former executive director of the Valcartier Military Family Resource Centre, an organization that offers services to military families around the world.

After assignments in Afghanistan left her exhausted, Ms. Michaud took an eight-month sick leave and spent that time reimagining what it means to lead. She came up with a people-first approach to leadership that prioritizes mental health and well-being in the workplace.

Ms. Michaud says the changes she witnessed in her team after she implemented the new leadership style were profound. There was a greater respect for authority because she talked about her own mistakes openly.

“My team was no longer afraid of talking about their mistakes because the fear of retribution was gone,” says Ms. Michaud, who later laid out her philosophy in her 2021 book, Leadership Without Armour: The Power of Vulnerability in Management. “It was extraordinary.”

When Ms. Michaud shared her own vulnerability, people in her team began openly sharing their mental health issues. Sick leave was destigmatized. People that previously avoided leadership positions began seeking out advancement.

“It takes courage to show that you are vulnerable,” she notes.

It’s a philosophy Ms. Michaud shares with her husband, Roméo Dallaire, former Canadian senator and lieutenant-general, UN adviser and human rights advocate. Mr. Dallaire’s influential book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, detailed his experiences as a general during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and his subsequent battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms. Michaud and Mr. Dallaire deliver workshops on what they call benevolent leadership, or leadership “bienveillant.” (Mr. Dallaire notes that the English translation isn’t quite right. “There is no English word for ‘bienveillant,’” he says. “‘Bien’ means good, and ‘veillant’ means vigilant.”)

As Ms. Michaud and Mr. Dallaire see it, with leadership bienveillant, leaders are empathetic, open, vulnerable and place people’s well-being at the centre of everything. There’s a reciprocity between manager and employee that boosts motivation and self-esteem, leading to talent retention and healthy employee engagement.

Rejecting sexist workplace culture

Coined in 1990, employee engagement is the idea of people deriving meaning from their work and feeling supported in a psychologically-safe environment.

It’s often in short supply in the modern workplace, particularly since the advent of the pandemic. Gallup recently reported that employee disengagement in U.S. workplaces was 69 per cent before the pandemic and rose to 74 per cent by March 2021.

Here in Canada, mental health-related disability rose by two per cent over the first few months of the pandemic, with women continuing to experience more mental-health issues than men, according to Statistics Canada. Another recent study from Sweden found that women are 41 per cent more likely to take a leave for stress-related disorders.

Meanwhile, much has been written about the dearth of women in leadership roles in Canada.

Ms. Michaud notes that many of the women attending her workshops have said they feel the same pressure she did to lead in a stereotypically “male” way. “We still have these old codes we have to crack,” she says.

For Mr. Dallaire, systemic sexism is at the root of today’s unbalanced work force.

“In the military, the construct is this: When a leader falls, the next in line takes over and keeps going. It’s a very cruel part of our philosophy,” says the former commander of UN peacekeepers.

“It’s autocratic, egocentric, action-oriented and forgets the cost to human beings, and we see that in so many organizations. We just saw that with Bell Media and Lisa Laflamme.”

Mr. Dallaire spoke out through social media after CTV news anchor Lisa LaFlamme’s abrupt departure from the network, which led to allegations of a sexist, ageist, and toxic culture at the television news outlet.

Reports that suggested Ms. LaFlamme’s contract was not renewed because she chose to let her natural silver hair grow out over the pandemic have been denied by Bell Media and CTV.

For Ms. Michaud, terminating an employee because she decides to go grey reflects a leadership that is outdated.

“When [Lisa Laflamme] went silver, it sent such a strong message to all women in Canada that when you’re in a leadership position, you can be yourself and be respected not for your appearance, but for who you are, for your intelligence, your courage, your competencies,” she says.

“What is sad,” adds Mr. Dalliare, “is that firing someone – because that’s what this is – for such a reason targets human beings as if they have no value.”

A leadership revolution

Ms. Michaud says that Canadian workplaces have a lot to lose if they are not places where women thrive. “If we don’t have more women at the top in positions of leadership, we won’t be able to recruit and retain because it’s an unbalanced system without the diversity offered by all genders.”

In addition to a willingness to be vulnerable, leadership bienveillant means nurturing employees and helping them see that there are ways to grow together as an organization and as colleagues, she says. Mr. Dallaire adds that it’s about leaders “treating others the way you’d like to be treated.”

Ms. Michaud says people were already looking for more empathetic leadership when she implemented changes at her organization in 2015. Today, the men and women who attend her workshops are moving away from the previously gendered style of decision-making, especially the younger generation, she says.

Having realized they lost the feminine elements of themselves when adapting to male-dominated board rooms and executive spaces, these women have decided to change their ways, Ms. Michaud says. Some men, too.

“I think there’s going to be a revolution. Something like #metoo. What’s the old saying? If you want something done, find a busy woman to do it,” she adds with a laugh.

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