Eileen Fisher and the Personal Side of Leadership

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How much personal growth should leaders expect of their staff or themselves? Is it fair to ask employees, as a condition of fitting in to the organizational culture, to embrace personal growth for themselves? And what should senior leaders do to help people move in the right direction?

In a new video from strategy+business, “Eileen Fisher on Leadership: The Personal Side of Organizational Change,” we see a CEO wrestling with these questions. The founder of the eponymous fashion line, which boasts more than US$300 million in annual revenues and more than 300 retail outlets in 12 countries — as well as more than 60 Eileen Fisher retail stores — has introduced workshops and conversations aimed at the personal growth of employees. The company needs a high level of individual capability and commitment from its employees to reach its goals for global expansion, product quality, environmental sustainability, and suppliers’ working conditions. But Fisher has realized that she can’t demand personal growth from her employees without demonstrating it herself, which also means openly tackling some of the difficult relationship issues that have built up over the years in this 1,200-person company.

Eileen Fisher on Leadership: The Personal Side of Organizational Change

The founder of the apparel company talks about how much personal growth leaders should demand — of employees and themselves.

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To accomplish this, the company uses an exercise from “social presencing theater,” which can be seen in the video. Employees arrange themselves as a kind of living sculpture that represents their perceived relationships with one another. Employees glean insights from the ways they shape their positions in the exercise, and Fisher says this tool has changed her own attitudes about her relationship to the staff.

“We have all this research on emotional intelligence,” says Arawana Hayashi, a choreographer and meditation teacher associated with the Presencing Institute, who works closely with company leaders (and who designed and conducted the social presencing theater exercise seen in the video), “but there’s very little research on the knowledge held within the body. When we ask people to pose in a way that evokes their work relationships, it brings that knowledge to light.”

Arawana Hayashi: “We have all this research on emotional intelligence, but very little on the knowledge held within the body.”

The takeaway: If you are an engaged leader of a company and a supporter of your employees’ personal development, you are asking for — and thus making — a commitment that goes beyond the purely transactional. It may require you, as a leader, to make the same kind of whole-person commitment that you are asking others to make.

In an idealistic company like Eileen Fisher, this commitment is particularly important. If your company is facing questions similar to those posed above, you will find this video valuable.