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Toronto-based ‘swagger coach’ Leslie Ehm says that swagger isn’t about arrogance or egotism; it’s about unshakable confidence stemming from competence.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

When Morgan Klein-MacNeil first landed a senior leadership position at the bank where she worked, she had three go-to shirts set aside for days she would speak in front of her large team.

They were specifically chosen to cover the hives that covered her neck and chest.

“My body was literally rebelling against the fact that I needed to talk to a large group of people that worked for me,” she says. “I felt like, ‘Oh, they’re going to find me out. Everyone here knows more than I do and I’m supposed to be their boss.’”

Ms. Klein-MacNeil was in her twenties when she landed her first executive position and she tried hard to lead like her peers, all of whom were at least two decades older than her. It was a white shirt, navy blue suit (and mostly male) crowd she was trying to emulate, and it just wasn’t working. Colleagues told her she came off as stiff and inauthentic and that it was hard to connect with her.

Then, she was chosen to take the company’s technology leadership program alongside a group of 20 other high-potential leaders with Leslie Ehm, a professional coach, trainer, speaker and author in Toronto.

Ms. Ehm, a self-described “swagger coach,” says Ms. Klein-MacNeil immediately stood out. She was very young, small and blond – and super ambitious.

“But I could see how much she was fronting,” says Ms. Ehm now. “She was putting on this extra super-tough exterior because she felt like that’s what she had to do to bark with the big dogs.”

Ms. Ehm notes that swagger isn’t about arrogance or egotism; it’s about unshakable confidence stemming from competence. “You don’t let the world rock you from your truth and your centre,” she explains. “That is what true swagger is.”

Back then, Ms. Klein-MacNeil seemed to be struggling to find her centre, and Ms. Ehm worked hard to breech that impenetrable surface.

“Once I saw who she really was, I was like, ‘There it is. That’s who you are and what you’ve got. That’s what makes you powerful,” she says.

Ms. Klein-MacNeil realized she didn’t have to hide that she was a millennial and could talk and direct her staff like one. Jeans replaced suits. Authenticity replaced stiff formality. Ms. Klein-MacNeil went on the become the company’s youngest VP.

A shift from bombast to compassion

Angela Payne, co-founder of LeedHR in Toronto, isn’t surprised to hear stories like this one. When it comes to leadership, the corporate world is beginning to shift away from a bombastic, hierarchical, paternalistic style to one that embraces community, compassion, caring and empathy, she says.

Women are driving this trend, particularly over the last couple of years, adds Ms. Payne, national board president at Lean In Canada. Through the pandemic, female managers were more likely than men to check in on their team and offer support to prevent burnout, likely because they were dealing with the same challenges themselves.

“The new dynamic and the old establishment are like two tectonic plates that are coming into each other,” says Ms. Payne. “They are shifting – and if organizations want to stay relevant in this uncertain future they’re charting, they’re going to have to reward alternate leadership styles.”

Rachna Clavero, senior director of strategic growth and innovation at Kinectrics in Toronto and long-time nuclear energy expert, couldn’t agree more. Often the only female executive in the room, she says empathy is a strength that allows her to connect with her teams and manage more effectively.

“Until you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s very hard for you to understand what motivates them,” she says. Coming out of the pandemic, companies will have to become more adaptable and flexible.

“This is where those empathetic leaders who are really in tune with their staff will excel at retention, keeping employees engaged and having an optimal workplace,” Ms. Clavero says.

Embracing authenticity

Confidence doesn’t hurt either. Rola Dagher, global channel chief for Dell Technologies, has got that in spades, saying it’s easier to feel self-assured when you know you bring value to conversations and can make a difference.

“Be yourself because everyone else is already taken – I’ve always lived that motto,” she says. “Being me has helped me get where I am today.”

Ms. Dagher notes that a willingness to combine confidence, vulnerability and authenticity helps others feel they have permission to tap into those same powers themselves.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Dagher was at the company’s Dell Technology World conference in Las Vegas, but rather than striding down the conference centre halls in heels as she would have in the past, Ms. Dagher donned runners and sat on a scooter. She gave her trademark impassioned speech on the stage from the scooter too. For months now, long COVID has affected her mobility. But rather than back out of the event, she embraced it.

“I was not embarrassed to be on a scooter, in a wheelchair, wearing runners and casual pants. I felt so good,” she says. “Because you know what? We can change the trend.”

The message got through. The next day at the conference, a stranger wheeled over to her in her own scooter. She revealed that she had multiple sclerosis and had been too embarrassed to use one until she’d seen Ms. Dagher. The woman said that her team convinced her to grab one saying, “If Rola Dagher is on a scooter, you can be on a scooter.”

“Talk about inspiration,” says Ms. Dagher.

Ms. Klein-MacNeil is also working to change the perception of what a leader is as she becomes more comfortable being transparent and speaking with her own voice. She conducts calls with her whole organization at least once a month, even hosting live Q&As where she has to give answers on the fly.

“There’s nowhere to hide there,” she says. “That’s as authentic as it gets.”

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