Learn to follow: one CEO’s expert advice on leading a team (not just managing it)

After meeting Christine Souffrant, you’d probably call her a leader. And beyond that, a leader with vision. But ask Souffrant about the term “leadership,” and she has a different reaction.

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“I think people glorify it too much. It’s the hardest thing ever,” she begins. “You have an obligation. A responsibility.”

Souffrant is the founder and CEO of Vendedy, a social enterprise that connects street artisans directly with consumers via mobile technology. The company aims to stop the exploitation of artisans by wholesalers who purchase items cheaply and sell at a huge profit.

Prior to starting Vendedy, Souffrant worked in banking where she found the true meaning of leadership. “In order to lead you have to be able to follow,” she begins before going back to the experience that brought her to this powerful realization.

“When I was promoted for the first time, I didn’t see it coming until it happened,” explains Souffrant, who says her branch within the bank was “not gaining traction, not fulfilling the sales quota.”

Smart cities means smart citizens. I’m tired of communities not being included in conversations.

“I walked into a team full of hostility. These were people two times my age, with two times my experience,” remembers Souffrant, who was promoted to manage their branch of the bank. “But they saw me grinding it out with them. I followed and humbled myself.”

And sure enough, they started hitting their numbers. “They felt appreciated.” She emphasizes appreciated, making you realize that this simple thing is often overlooked by management.

“Friends and people who work with me today say, ‘You inspire because you lead by example,’” Souffrant says with modesty. “There’s a difference between leadership and management. People with ‘manager’ in their title often think they are leaders. But it’s only once you understand where people are coming from that leadership becomes part of the process.”

She elaborates on the last point. “If people turn to me and say, ‘What do you think we should do?’ I reply with, ‘What do we collectively think we should do?’”

This approach has earned Souffrant the “leader” title—a label given to her by others, not by herself, and best exemplified by the story of how she founded Smart City Weekend in Dubai. The weekend was born out of an event that Souffrant attended with CEOs from around the city. She left the event thinking, “How is Dubai creating a smart city if citizens aren’t being part of the vision? You can’t just announce to citizens, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” she explains.

Souffrant pitched the idea to Dubai ports to bring the conversation to citizens. “Let’s let citizens compete on projects and help you with this,” she told them. When she was ignored, she just did it herself, sending emails to her network and hosting an event with top CEOs that included open sessions with people in the community. “Smart cities means smart citizens,” she emphasizes. “I’m tired of communities not being included in conversations. You get a lot more insights from hearing the people you serve than dictating what they need.”

And listening to the people around her is what makes them call Souffrant a leader. Not a manager.