Ready for the three-second E-test? Here we go.
With your index finger, trace the capital letter E on your forehead. Actually go do it.
How'd you do? Did you pass the test?
Assuming you have a basic level of literacy, my guess is you were able to correctly trace it out. Nice! But, sorry, that's not the test. The real test is how you traced the letter. Let me explain.
So you started with the long vertical line of the E. Good. Now, the real question is, in which direction did you trace the three short horizontal lines? To the right? Or to the left?
If you traced them to the right, you formed the shape of the E in its correct orientation. But here's the catch. That correct orientation is from your vantage point, not from somebody else's. If you traced the letter towards the left, you formed the incorrect Ǝ shape. Incorrect to you. But correct to somebody else who may be watching you trace the E.
It means more than you think.
It's an indication of selfishness versus selflessness
Psychology professors Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer devised the simple but telling trick to get at leaders' behavioral tendencies for selfishness versus selflessness. What they found is that those leaders who traced it the right way (from their view) had a greater degree of self-orientation. And those who traced it the other way around for others' viewpoint had a greater degree of other-orientation.
A person with high self-orientation is likely to promote aspects of the self. This self-focus bias is captured by people's strong agreement to statements such as "I often do my own thing" and "I enjoy when I outperform others."
A person with high other-orientation is likely to promote aspects of others and to prioritize relationships with close others in their life. This other-focus bias is captured by people's strong agreement to statements like "The well-being of my colleagues is important to me" and "I would sacrifice a task/activity that I enjoy very much if my teammates did not approve of it."
The type of leader you are (and want to be)
Psychologists have confirmed that the E-to-the-self tracers tend to be more often men, American, and in more senior positions. While the E-to-the-other tracers tend to be more women, European and/or Asian, and less senior. But these patterns, I suspect, are bound to change in the near future.
The landscape of leadership is changing. What was a slow burn for the past decade or so has recently caught fire and given way to what we call the human leader, or perhaps more accurately, the humane leader. Concepts like servant leadership and authentic leadership have been around for a while, but it took a pandemic and the associated reinvention of work to force organizations, both big and small, to really question their models of leadership.
What we're noticing is, to lead effectively and be good at one's job, leaders needn't make the trade-off between being competent and being caring. You can do hard things in a human way. You can be good at your job and be a good human being. It's not either/or. It's both/and.
Backward E's for future leaders
Here's my hypothesis then. As organizations continue to reinvent themselves, and as leaders are forced to either go along for the ride or get bucked off, my prediction is that we'll see more E-to-the-other tracers (other-oriented folks) and fewer E-to-the-self tracers (self-oriented folks).
But there's work to do. There's still a large sample of bad bosses out there whose ego-fueled motivations have them seeing everything from their own perspective and achieving gains at all costs, including their people. This "high-performing" rationale worked for a century, but it's on its way out.
Here's some advice as the story of leadership continues to change and your own story changes with it: You may think you're doing things backward, but remember that it probably looks the right way to others.