new leaders

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Henry Kissinger is famous for saying that one of the most difficult things for a young leader to do is to “speak truth to power;' to go up the power gradient with information that is contrary to what the hierarchical, authoritative, and referent position believes to be true.

There is inherent organizational danger when communicating things to a leader that they may not be seeing:

  • You could be rejected, which leads to embarrassment.

  • You could be dismissed, which leads to self-doubt.

  • You could be humiliated, which leads to isolation.

  • You could be discounted, which leads to demoralization.

Alternately, there is huge upside in communicating to a leader what they are not seeing in the moment:

  • You could be celebrated for the input.

  • You could be included in the decision-making process.

  • You could be honored for your courage.

  • You could be valued for your contribution.

Whether a reality or a figment of our imagination as a young leader, “speaking truth to power” can be overwhelming. This is the risk tension that the young leader must face.

Receptivity of the Leader

No matter the current stage of our leadership journey, we have all been there at some point and can relate to emotion of the young leader when faced with the risky decision to “speak truth to power.”

However, it could be argued that the senior leader has even more at stake.

Unless they create a safe environment in which others feel the freedom to share, the senior leader runs the risk of missing key information that may never find its way to them. With that in mind, much of the burden falls on the senior leader to create an atmosphere that mitigates the risk for the young leader.

How are you doing in this area?

5 TIPS FOR CREATING A CULTURE THAT HEARS

Here are my top 5 tips for leaders who want to improve their chances of hearing the information they need in order to make informed decisions and lead well:

  • Slow down your cadence.

    Most of the leadership mistakes I have made were because my world was moving too fast and I did not slow down in order to see more possibilities. The faster I went the more convinced I became that I was right, and the further away I got from the truth. Take a deep breath, count to 10, sip a warm beverage, pray, do whatever you need to do in order to slow your pace.

  • Become curious.

    Suspend your need to be right and work really hard to understand an alternate position. Before you jump to a conclusion or shoot down an opposing opinion, spend some time to discern the message they are bringing to you.

  • Always say thank you.

    You would be surprised how often I observe leaders who turn and walk away from an interaction without expressing gratitude. Very rarely, if ever, is their intent to be unkind or degrading, however, the pressure of the moment takes the brain to the next thing rather than allowing them to focus on being fully present in their current interaction, with awareness and sensitivity to the needs of the relationship. Researchers at USC found that simple acts of gratitude provide benefits ranging from feelings of reward and satisfaction to simply helping people to hold on to their humanity. Try the simple act of saying “thank you” more often and see how it might contribute to more open communication.

  • Spend time reflecting.

    At the end of your day, take the time to review. Play back the interactions you had with others, resisting the temptation to become defensive. Ask yourself questions such as, I wonder what they were really trying to ask me? Why did I feel such a strong need to defend myself? Why did I feel such a strong need to exert power in the moment? What unintended consequences could my actions have? Be honest with yourself as you learn and grow from the challenges and successes.

  • Do the inner work of developing your soul.

    Psychology data says you are as intelligent right now as you will ever be. Your personality is fully formed, so you know if you are extroverted or introverted. You have most of the skill you will ever need. With that in mind, what is your next step in development? Could it be that you need to work on developing the soul of your leadership?

HOMEWORK

Pick one of the 5 tips above and work on it every day for a week. For example, in every personal interaction and every email you send, say “thank you." Work on making your attitude heartfelt, and let me know what outcomes you see. I’d love to know how these tips contribute to more open communication within your team or organization.

Are You Listening to This Voice In Your Leadership?

Every leader needs a voice who will speak truth to and help them see things that are not obvious. Henry Kissinger is famous for saying that one of the most difficult things for a young leader to do is to “speak truth to power;' to go up the power gradient with information that is contrary to what the hierarchical, authoritative, and referent, position believes to be true. We have all been there at points and felt the emotion of that moment. There is inherent organizational danger in communicating things to a leader that they are not seeing in the moment:

  •  You could be rejected which leads to embarrassment
  •  You could be dismissed which leads to self-doubt
  •  You could be humiliated which leads to isolation
  •  You could be discounted which leads to demoralization

The young leader has information that someone in a decision-making position needs to hear, and is frozen in the moment by these potentially negative outcomes.

The other side of the proposition is, all things being equal, there is huge upside in communicating to a leader what they are not seeing in the moment:

  • You could be celebrated for the input
  • You could be included in the decision-making process
  • You could be honored for your courage
  • You could be valued for your contribution

Whether a part of reality or a figment of our imagination as a young leader “speaking truth to power” can seem overwhelming. This is the risk tension that the young leader faces. Some of the mediators that go into the “speak truth to power" equation are:

  • Culture of the organization-What is the level of freedom that truly exists for information sharing?
  • Young leaders' personal-risk tolerance-Where do they fall on a spectrum between “wary” and “adventurous”?
  • Receptivity of the leader to feedback-What is the historical behavior elicited when contrary opinions have been shared?

Receptivity of the Leader

I think we can all pretty easily agree that the young leader when faced with a decision to speak truth to power, has a burden that can feel like wearing a shirt made of lead.

However, as more senior leaders in organizations, how much of the burden falls on us to create an atmosphere where much of the risk is mediated for a young leader? How much of the responsibility is ours to create the environment in which others feel a freedom to be able to share?

I argue that much of the speaking-truth-to-power-dichotomy rests not in the hands of the deliverer but the receiver. And yet the senior leader is the one who often times has the most to lose by missing key information that was never brought to them. In the fast-paced, get it done now, microwave culture that organizations exist in today many of us cave into our survival reptilian brain that tells us to do whatever we can to survive.

Many times these environmental and personal factors are not acting in our favor. As leaders, we have to put effort into creating a persona and a culture so that the voice we need to be able to hear in our organization comes through.

5 Actions you can work on today

Here are my top 5 tips for leaders who want to improve their chances of hearing all the information they need to hear to be able to make an informed decision:

  • Slow down your cadence-Most of the leadership mistakes I have made were because my world was moving fast and I did not slow down to see more possibilities. The faster I went, the more convinced I became that I was right, and the further away I got from the truth. Take a deep breath, count to 10, silently sing a familiar tune very slowly (I like; “Row, row, row, your boat), pray, do whatever you need to do to slow your reality down.
  • Become curious-The practice is to suspend your need to be right or heard and to work really hard to understand the other person's position. Before you jump to conclusion or shoot them down because of what you know that they don’t, spend some time to really discern the message they are bringing to you.
  • Always say thank you-So before it feels like I am your mom or kindergarten teacher, just hear me out. You would be surprised at how often I observe leaders in interactions where they turn and walk away without expressing gratitude. I don’t think it is an intent to be mean or degrading, the pressure of the moment takes the brain to the next thing rather than finishing the relationship with the current interaction. Researchers at USC found that simple acts of gratitude provide benefits ranging from feelings of reward and satisfaction to just helping people to hold on to their humanity.
  • Spend time reflecting- At the end of your day take the time to review the day. Play back the interactions you had with others. Resist the temptation to become defensive and ask yourself questions like:  I wonder what they were really trying to ask me?  Why did I feel such a strong need to defend myself?  Why did I feel such a strong need to exert power in the moment?  What unintended consequences could the action I took cause?
  • Do the inner work of developing your soul- The psychology data says you are as intelligent right now as you will ever be. Your personality is fully formed, so you know if you are extroverted or introverted. You have most of the skill you will ever need. So what is your next step in development? Do you need to work on developing the soul of your leadership?

If any of you would be interested in joining a group on what it means to develop the soul of the leader send an email to Info@DrScottLivingston.com. My assistant will coordinate a time for us to talk about your interest and what a group like this will look like.

Homework:

Pick one of the 5 Actions above and work on it every day for a week. For example, in every personal interaction and every email you send, say “thank you." Work on making your attitude heartfelt and not rote. If you try any of these let me know how they go for you, I would love to hear.

What Advice Would You Give to This First-Time Leader?

As a part of my personal morning routine, I try really hard to spend at least 30 minutes in reflection, meditation, and prayer. I have been using a book recently to assist me in this quiet time called “40-Day Journey with Parker Palmer." The thing I like most about Palmer’s writing is the powerful way he provides insight into paradox. For example:

  • The inner life and the outer life
  • The darkness in the world and the light in the world
  • Action and reflection
  • Strength and weakness
  • Living while dying and dying while living

My mind has been in a couple of places this past week and my morning quiet time has proven quite valuable for me. My quandary has been a paradox of sorts between leadership and management. Reflection, meditation, and prayer, if done in the early morning, can have a profound impact on how you see your day, your week, and your world. If you do not currently use this leadership tool, I really recommend giving it a go and see how it might change your world.

The Story

My youngest son Greg and his beautiful wife, Sylvia, spent the week after Thanksgiving with my wife and me at our home in Florida. Their trip to the sunshine state had several purposes:

  • Vacation - Greg has been working for Enterprise Car Rental for a year and had earned some much needed “PTO" (paid time off).
  • Thanksgiving - As much as possible, we wanted our immediate family to celebrate the holiday together (we were missing our daughter and her husband this year who are spending a year in Madrid, Spain teaching and traveling).
  • Promotion - Greg recently accomplished a major feat! After only a year at Enterprise he passed their rigorous management training program and will go back to central Ohio as an assistant branch manager. He has really worked hard for this promotion and, at age 23, Kim and I could not be more proud of Greg’s effort and accomplishment.

One of the things that Sylvia and Greg wanted to do on vacation was to spend a day at the beach. One afternoon we all got in the old Kia Sorento and headed over to Melbourne Beach. While we were sitting and enjoying the sun, sand, and ocean, Greg made the statement, “It is interesting, up until now at Enterprise it has been all about me and what I do to perform. When I go back to work next Tuesday I will have 3 other people who will have a say in my performance.”

The Paradox

Many of you who have been in leadership for a while may remember that moment when you had this same realization. Some of you are new to leadership and may be experiencing this same thought and feeling. Some of you have been in leadership for a while and may just be waking up to this seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

How can something be totally about me and not about me at the same time?

This is one of the intriguing things about leadership. Perhaps it is the tension that exists between management and leadership. Perhaps it is the tension that exists between task and relationship. Perhaps it is the tension that exists inside of both task and relationship, for each of them have a “what about me?” and “what about my followers?” component.

The Advice

As we sat on the beach, Greg turned and said, “You know, Dad, you should blog about that. I think a lot of people new to leadership would like to know what to be thinking about as they get started in a transition like this.”

So, never being one to hold back when asked to give an opinion, here are the questions that were on Greg’s mind that day and what I came up with as a response:

  • How do I motivate the people on my team when I am not around? Some of my team is remote so I don’t see them every day. 

    So I think this answer is two-fold. First is to find highly motivated people like yourself. There is only so much external motivation a leader can provide. If they don’t have a high internal motivation, then something is wrong and they need to find some other method of self-actualization. No amount of external motivation, even big bonuses, will give them the satisfaction in work they desire. Having said that, if you have someone who is self-motivated, the best thing I know to do to motivate someone is to care for them. Show compassion. Really listen and give them ways they can solve problems. The ultimate goal you are striving for is that when you are not around, they would say “I wonder what Greg would do in this situation?” That is leadership!

  • How do I know when to manage and when to lead? 

    Leadership is about the team! Find out who they are. Find out what they like. Really work to get to know them. Let them know you will have high expectations for performance, but ultimately caring for the customer and the employee is what you are there for. They will do amazing things for you if they know you care about them and that you have their back as best you can as a first line leader.Management is about the process. It is organizing and planning. Be as transparent as you possibly can about “why” things are the way they are. Most managers focus on the “how." Really dig in and explain the "why" so there is understanding about the processes. Don’t just tell them what to do, show them how and then explain why. 

  • How Do I Organize the Work? 

    Work with your supervisor (leader) on this one. Get advice on best practices they have seen. Seek out a mentor who has been really successful in your role. Each organization will have its own secrets to success. There is nothing like a good mentor when trying to figure out organization. When they share advice, implement it! Give it a fair try! It is frustrating as a mentor to give advice then have someone not take it and show up for the next meeting with the same question, or worse, having failed because they thought they knew better than to take the advice of wisdom.

  • What is the best way to give feedback & build trust? 

    The best way to build trust is to keep your word. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you declare you are going to “win” and have really high standards then you need to hold everyone on the team accountable for performance. You cannot have different standards for performance. You may have to make individual decisions based on circumstances but never have different standards. As far as feedback goes, my experience is people want it straight. They don’t want it sugar-coated. They don’t want 3 positives and then the “negative bomb." There are three steps I follow for feedback: 1. Give the situation the event occurred in. 2. Give the observed behavior they exhibited. 3. Give the result you observed. This is feedback. If you want them to change, coach them on what they could to in that situation, what the desired behavior looks like, and what result you expect. Ask them how they could do it differently next time to obtain a better result.

  • How do I achieve balance in my life?

    One of the conversations I have with many of my clients is, “all work and no play makes Jack/Jill very dull."  I don’t really ascribe to the "how to balance life" equation. I see life much more as flow and energy. What gives you energy and what sucks the life out of you. For all of us what we really control is our time, and to a lesser but equally important domain, our health (both physical and spiritual). Ensure as a leader that you find ways to revitalize yourself before, during, and after your work time. Make sure you have good positive thoughts going into your brain first thing in the morning and eat something for breakfast. Stay active during the day. Pay attention to the relationships you care most about. Never, ever, ever take them for granted. You will be tired and tempted to be isolated when you get home at the end of a long day. If so, how can you reenergize yourself so that those relationships you care most about at home feel as valued as your customers and your employees? Find your energy flow. No segment of your life gets all your focus.

Some of these answers could have been much bigger and broader and probably deserve some context. If you have thoughts on how you would answer these I would love to hear them. Why not leave a thought as a comment on my site?  If you send me an email that is cool, too, and with your permission I will post your comment on the site for you. I really do think a lot of young leaders have questions like this. Let's create a “Leadership Wisdom” forum that can serve as a repository for their leadership questions.

Homework

You have two assignments this week. The first is to provide your comment and leadership advice to the above questions. There is nothing like experience weighing in on questions like this. The second is some intentional personal reflection.  If you are not spending time in personal reflection in the morning, I highly encourage this discipline. Take 30 minutes with a spiritual book (I like using the Psalms or Proverbs from the Bible) or a book by a spiritual leader (I love using work by Parker Palmer and Ken Boa), and find a short passage that takes less than 5 minutes to read. Then spend the rest of your time reflecting on what the reading means to you. If you decide to implement a practice like this, I would love to hear how it is going for you.