Friday, June 18, 2010

How to Lead

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about leadership. It is all the more important when our leader-in-chief is such a poor leader.

As of now, this is not partisan sniping; it is the general political consensus.

Criticism might warn you not to emulate President Obama, but it does not tell you how to lead effectively.

This morning I was reading some great columns by Robert Sutton about what makes for a great boss. Link here.

Sutton arrived at his leadership principles by interviewing effective leaders and the people who work for them. His ideas are generated from the bottom up.

There are far too many good ideas in his article to cover in a single post. For today I will examine the first quality that makes for good leadership. Which Sutton calls: knowing what it feels like to work for me. He elaborated on this point in a further column. Link here.

Clearly, Sutton is not telling leaders that they need to go around feeling everyone's pain. If this had been yet another call for empathy it would not merit my or your attention.

Since every leader knows that he sets an example for others, thus, that his mood and attitude become the gold standard for his company, he takes time and care to present the qualities that he wants to see more of.

People emulate their leaders. Good leaders know it and behave accordingly.

But that is not exactly what Sutton is getting at here. He has something else in mind: Good bosses, he says: "... devote real energy to reading expressions, noting behaviors, and making constant adjustments to help their people think independently and express themselves without reservation."

This is not just a great leadership skill; it forms the basis for all effective interpersonal communication.

A good leader, Sutton is saying, will constantly adjust his conversation, his attitude, and his comportment in order to be sure that his staff, his employees, even his colleagues always feel that their views are respected. He might have added... to be sure that all those who work for him will be motivated to do their best work.

If you are a leader and no one is willing to give you bad news or to offer new ideas, the chances are very good that you have created the wrong kind of atmosphere in your office.

If a staff member has difficulty talking to you or expressing himself fully then you are probably doing something to make him feel that his views are not respected, and thus, that you simply do not care to hear what he has to say.

Just as conversation is not about expressing your feelings or thoughts willy nilly, regardless of how they will affect anyone else, so leadership is not about giving orders and telling people what you think regardless of how they will affect your team.

You want your team to function optimally, so you care more for the reactions you are eliciting than how it feels to get things off your chest.

Evidently, person-to-person, face-to-face conversation facilitates this aspect of leadership. When you are in someone's presence and are looking him in the eye, you can more quickly tell how well you are doing. If you see that you are losing him, or that he is starting to feel intimidated, then you must quickly revise your conversational tactic.

People who are good at public speaking try to develop this facility. They are constantly reading the audience reaction; counting the number of people who are nodding off or heading for the exist. If they see that they are losing their audience they shift gears, go off script, turn off the teleprompter, and try to engage their audience before it is too late.

Anything less than face-to-face conversation adds degrees of difficulty. It is easier to read the panoply of gestures that you can witness when you are talking with someone directly than it is to grasp the reaction of someone who is talking on the phone, or via email, or texting.

Remarkably, Sutton's advice flies in the face of the kind of conventional wisdom that the therapy culture has been purveying.

Where the therapy culture tells us not to concern ourselves with how we look to others a good leader is constantly aware of how he looks to others.

Where the therapy culture has tried to teach people, under the guise of free association, to say whatever comes to mind regardless of the effect it will produce on others, good leaders are constantly adjusting their speech in order to ensure that their listeners feel respected and valued.

Which means that many forms of therapy are going to undermine your leadership skills... in a very serious way.

So, Sutton tells both actual and potential leaders to ask themselves to ascertain how it feels to work for them. He is not concerned with the leader's knowing how it feels to be in charge, to be on top, to give the orders... but, how it feels to be one of those who is reporting to the boss, who is receiving the orders, and who has just been put down for offering an opinion in a meeting.

This is easier said than done. It reminds me of the experience of editing your own writing.

Bad writers tend to believe that however they feel while they are doing the writing is a sign of how good or bad it is.
They develop a form of self-delusion, in the sense that they ignore the effect their writing might or might not have on an outside reader.

A good writer always edits his writing. He does so by first putting it aside. He needs to break out of the mindset he was in while he was writing. Then, after a time, he can hopefully return to it with fresh eyes. A good writer is a good editor, and being a good editor means being able to read as though he were someone else.

Knowing what it is like for someone else to read your writing strikes me as similar to knowing what it is like for someone else to work for you.

It is an interesting psychological state, an ability to get out of oneself, and to put one's hopes and feelings to the side. And it also involves a considerable level of humility, to say nothing of an ability to tolerate considerable psychological pain.

If you start asking yourself what it feels like to work for you or what it feels like to read your writing, then I promise that you will have to tolerate many moments of pure and utter embarrassment.

Call them cringe-worthy moments, if you like. They are times when you read something that you wrote and say to yourself: How could I have written such a thing? Or, what was I thinking?

When you are a leader, and you start asking yourself how it feels to work for you, you will have many moments when you become positively horrified about how bad you look to outside observers and about all the difficulties you have place in the path of your best employees.

1 comment:

Obsidian said...

Hi Doc,
Two words:

The Prince.

Read it, apply it, you'll become an effective leader.

Clearly, Obama hasn't.

The. End.;)