Emma Sharma, Founder and Principal of Swallowtail Group, encourages leaders who wish to be successful and impactful to not be afraid of getting “into the weeds” with their teams and those they wish to influence.
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“You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.”Philippians 2:5-7)
Strong leaders understand the importance of relating well to those they lead, including embracing aspects of different cultures and learning what matters to those they seek to influence.
Throughout my career, I have been responsible for closing major, multi-jurisdictional transactions and negotiating with people in many different geographies, cultures, and tribes. To be successful, I have learned to adapt my style and approach in a way that builds bridges of trust and respect across divides. In 2008, to close a critically important deal, I spent Christmas Day at the offices of a major Indian conglomerate in Mumbai. My willingness to be there (bearing appropriate gifts) on an important holiday, dressed in a saree and listening to the frustrations of our customer won their respect; so much so they not only swiftly agreed to every one of our outstanding dealbreakers but also arranged for the hotel in which I was staying to create a traditional Christmas dinner menu with the interesting addition of masala-infused eggnog (#donotrecommend)!
To be successful, we need to be willing to step into the world, or the shoes, of those we want to influence.
Jesus came to earth as an ordinary man because that’s what it was going to take to fulfill His mission – one that would change the destiny of mankind. Leaving Heaven in all its splendor and glory, where He enjoyed “equality with God” (Philippian 2:5), seems crazy through human eyes; yet He humbled Himself anyway. Think about it: the Roman authorities would have thought twice about killing a powerful warrior. If Jesus had presented Himself as a glorious God or a glittering King, the Jewish people (when asked) would probably never have swapped His life for that of a condemned murderer. And if Jesus hadn’t died, where would we all be now?
Additionally, Jesus optimized the good He was able to do while He was on earth by immersing Himself in the society and culture of the day. He was more effective in challenging hardline religious thinking and prejudice towards gentiles precisely because He was a Jewish man whose knowledge of the scriptures from a young age astonished many (Luke 2:47) and who nobody would have expected to think so differently. His parables were carefully crafted to be very relatable to His audience: stories of servants and masters; fishing and lost sheep; Samaritans (despised gentiles) doing good deeds. By spending most of His time among the poor, the outcast, the demon-possessed, prostitutes and tax collectors, rather than with wealthy religious leaders in the temple, He didn’t just talk about the good news of salvation for ALL, He lived it out before the eyes of anyone who could see. His very ‘everyday’ appearance made His miracles even more extraordinary – there was no ‘flash and pop’ to explain what was happening. It really did force those watching Him to ask: ‘Who is this man?’
So, the message is clear: to be an effective leader, get alongside those you seek to influence. Understand them, embrace aspects of their culture, cross the divide. With one important caveat, which is to remain faithful to God and the principles by which He calls us to live our lives. We want to win the respect of others without ‘going native’. One of the major themes of the Bible is that we are to live ‘in’ the world while being clearly identifiable as disciples of Jesus.
When I worked more regularly in parts of the world where corrupt business practices were usual, it was vital not to embrace every practice even in the name of cross-cultural assimilation. Being able to distinguish between an acceptable gift and something so lavish that it could be perceived as a bribe, was an important skill to develop especially if you wanted to stay out of jail! When we lived in the Middle East, we would respect the traditions around Ramadan and refrain from publicly eating and drinking during daylight hours. We would enjoy the wonderful hospitality of an Iftar feast. However, we would not join in the mosque prayers or worship Allah in some misguided attempt to not offend our hosts.
The Bible provides us with so many examples of God’s people successfully navigating different cultural norms in order to lead well but without compromising important principles. In Daniel 2:48, we see Daniel appointed “ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his [the King’s] wise men”. However, Daniel had refused to eat the King’s food and was healthier for it and, later, he continued to pray faithfully out of respect to God in breach of local laws and survived! Joseph, as number two only to Pharoah, changed his name, outward appearance and took an Egyptian wife yet he never forsook God or His people. Esther’s 180 days of beautification prepared her to be Queen and live in the royal court, yet she spoke up at great personal risk to save the Jewish people from destruction (Esther 7:3-4). The King’s respect for her was evident as it was not guaranteed that he would grant her wish for an audience with him or attend the banquets that she prepared.
Embracing different cultures and gaining the respect of those you serve therefore requires wisdom. However, we also need to be bold in loving those who are not like us especially when we are called to lead them. Regularly reminding ourselves that God created ALL the earth and everything in it, that ALL people are created equally in His image, can be helpful when we’re tempted to think we have all the answers or that our way of doing something is ‘the right way’. God intentionally created an unbelievably diverse and interesting world. From personal experience, it’s not always easy, especially when you encounter those whose lifestyle choices are the very opposite of what God intended or who might seek to do us harm for our faith. However, Jesus paid the price for ALL on the cross and we are called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and this requires us to step outside of our comfort zone in the name of love if the message we carry for Him is to be heard.
Emma is the Founder and Principal of Swallowtail Group and a global business executive known for her entrepreneurship, strong empathetic leadership style, courage and skill in taking on messy challenges. Emma has a proven track record in complex organizational transformations and a natural talent for pulling together high value creation teams. Additionally, Emma’s passion for organizational design, psychology, and development led her to pioneer mentoring and leadership development initiatives for fellow executives and senior managers throughout her career. Emma has a growing reputation as a solid and passionate advocate on mental health issues that impact the workforce, especially at executive leadership levels.
Emma is very active in the community, both nationally and locally. Recently, Emma was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University, serving as a thought leader on industry matters. Emma serves actively on the Board of 4word, a national, faith-based non-profit that supports women in the marketplace in growing with confidence to meet their full potential. Previously Emma served as the President of the Board of Trustees of an influential non-profit in Northern Virginia for six years and worked for several years as an ambassador for two global non-profits providing micro-financing for women in developing nations and addressing human trafficking issues.
Outside of work, Emma is a devoted wife and mom to two young children and an active member of Holy Trinity Church, McLean. Her hobbies include a passion for travel, learning about great food and wine, music (she is a classically trained soprano), movies, and reading.
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