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Employee Engagement and the Avocado Leader

It’s true. Leaders do come in all shapes and sizes. But avocado? Here’s the “scoop” – and no, it’s not guacamole!

An avocado leader is defined as one that is soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Empathy, authenticity, and adaptive leadership styles are all great, in theory, but in practice, the expectation for leaders can be unrealistic. Why? Because most leaders are incentivized by business metrics, including growth and revenue, and not by their level of empathy and self-awareness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a catalyst for leaders to more often display their ‘softer side. For example, during Zoom meetings, leaders have a better chance of getting to know their colleagues’ personally – learning about hobbies, home life, and preferred interior décor and meeting employees’ their pets, spouses, and children.

Along with the rise of the avocado leader, the pandemic has created some positive effects. Research shows a 63% productivity boost, 57% better collaboration, and 55% improved efficiency (Jepsen 2020). Avocado leaders have helped their teams perform well during this tough year. They’ve also helped newly remote employees feel more included.

However, employee burnout, mental health issues, and pushback from employees who value their privacy are just a few of the downsides that cannot be overlooked.

Here are three ways to start harvesting the avocado potential of your leaders.

1. Set clear expectations. There needs to be a balance between ‘the hard’ – business acumen, results-focus, and ‘the soft’ – empathy and emotional intelligence. Avocado leaders know how to create an environment that encourages employees to share their ideas, but it is not at the expense of business priorities. These leaders know how to skillfully ask for change if the employee disagrees, they can explain the business rationale behind it.

2. Train leaders to manage the hard with the soft. If your managers are great on the business side but lacking in soft skills, invest in the professional development they need. When your leaders can comfortably demonstrate empathy, authenticity, and emotional intelligence, both your employees AND your business win.

3. Create a safe environment. Because you’re holding your leaders accountable for their relationships with their team members, you must give them the space to express their views, concerns, and struggles. By encouraging transparency, leaders can learn what behaviors they need to prioritize over the rest.

The art of leadership requires balance. If a leader is too soft, they will never get executive-level buy-in or investment. If they are too hard, they build a culture that inhibits psychological safety, growth, and innovation. Use these ideas to help your leaders become more like avocados.


As an award-winning speaker, podcast host and author of ten books, Lisa Ryan, CSP, works with organizations to keep their top talent and best clients from becoming someone else’s. Learn more at

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