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Leadership Thought #467 – Leaders Should Listen More Than They Talk

Over the years I’ve noticed that it is inexperienced or mediocre leaders who feel like they have to dominate all conversations.  It’s almost as if what anyone else has to say has limited or no value and it is only their opinion that counts.  We’ve all been in meetings where there is that one person who simply will not be quiet and yield the floor to others.  They are also often prone to interrupting their colleagues before they can finish their thoughts and using obvious body language when the center of attention isn’t focused on them. This is bad enough when it is a peer but even worse when it is the actual leader of the group.  Nobody likes a “know it all.”

I have a colleague who is fond of saying that “most people are preparing to talk rather than listening.”  I must admit to catching myself in this mode more often than I would like.  You start to block out or only partially listen to what others are saying and wait for your chance to interject and share your thoughts on the topic at hand.  As a result you often miss important information, repeat what someone else has already said and de-motivate the other party to the conversation to continue engaging.  It is a vicious cycle and ultimately you end up providing a monologue to a disinterested audience.   When people check out on what you are saying as a leader, you are in trouble.

Leaders have the responsibility to foster rigorous debate and dialogue not inhibit it.  Your goal is to make the right decisions and come up with the best solutions.  The more people who participate in this process the better.  The only real way to do this is to ask good questions and listen intentionally to what other are saying.  You need to facilitate the conversation rather than just lead it.  No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  The loudest person in the room is rarely the most intelligent; they just crave attention.  In my experience, a major reason why businesses don’t grow is because the leader feels he/she has to have all the answers rather than building a team of competent professionals and leveraging the skills/experience of those around them.

When I was a kid my mom used to often say, “Less is more.”  It took me way too long to figure out what she meant.  It’s not about how much you say, but what you are actually saying.  And, if you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them.   The best leaders I now pick their spots.  They do their best to take it all in and only contribute when they feel they can add value or need to move things along.  If you are thoughtful about when you speak, people tend to pay attention.  If your ego pushes you to dominate conversations, then don’t be surprised if you find leadership to be a lonely place and continued success a hard nut to crack.

Leadership Thought #453 – Are You Bringing Positive Energy?

I find that one of the most recognizable traits of an effective leader is that they bring positive energy to a room.  You can feel it the moment they walk through the door.  I have been in banquet halls far from the entrance and felt the presence of certain people as they arrived.  It’s almost as if a small electrical jolt works its way through the crowd.  While most of us aren’t blessed with this type of “rock star” aura, we can certainly notice and work on the effect we have on others.  You are either adding energy to the group dynamic or diminishing it. It really is this simple.  Leaders must be a source of consistent positive energy if they want to get the most of out of their people.

Leadership can be hard at times.  Being in business certainly has its challenges.  It’s not always easy to stay positive when you feel like you are in the middle of the jungle trying to hack your way out the tall grass and overcome other nefarious obstacles.  However, this is the choice you made when you assumed the mantle of leadership. If it was easy then everyone could do it (and they can’t).  Whether you have 1 employee or 10,000 they are all looking to you for guidance and inspiration especially when it is hard.  Even when things are going well, you can quickly fall off track if lose sight of the importance of your role and the emotional impact you have on those around you.

A major source of positive energy is optimism but it must be genuine not contrived.  People will pick up on it quickly if you are trying to fake positive feelings about the industry, company, division, leadership team, etc.   Trust me, you cannot “fake it until you make it.”  In addition, it is fairly easy to pick up on whether or not someone likes and believes in what they are doing and the people they are doing it with.  I’ve seen leaders suck the life out a room who feel overly burdened by their responsibilities and not all that excited about their products/services and/ or lacking confidence in their business model or people (including themselves).

All great success stories usually involve an individual or group of people overcoming a significant challenge.  They also involve a leader getting a group of people to see that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Few things are more powerful to behold than a group of people bonded together around a common objective they believe to be worthy of their joint sacrifice and effort.  It’s critical to remember that the end result must always be perceived as a positive one.  Leaders who motivate people to tap into the best of themselves and embrace this opportunity have accomplished great things throughout the course of history.  All fires must begin with a spark.  Every spark is the result of some form of positive energy.

Are you bringing positive energy to your organization?

 

Leadership Thought #430 – Be True To Your Emotions And Allow Others To Share Their Truth With You

In my line of work you know you have tapped into a serious problem when you encounter disproportionate emotion.  There have been many times where I have sat across from someone and literally watched them break down. I learned a long time ago to let the other individual have their moment and not try to downplay or negate their emotion.  You don’t make someone feel better by making them feel embarrassed or disappointed about how they feel.  All of us hit an emotional “brick wall” at times and become frustrated/upset with the rigors of life and work.  We all need people we can turn to let us be our authentic selves, even when this isn’t pretty or easy to watch.

Men are especially hardwired not to show emotion.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched another man fight back their emotional response to something.  However, you can always see it in the eyes which are indeed the “window to the soul.”  Pain and sadness are easy to spot but not so easy to surface (at least initially).  You can only internalize core emotions for so long until the pressure becomes too much to handle.  Unfortunately, men seem much more comfortable with anger which often shrouds these other feelings.  Many of us also self-medicate in a variety of ways to numb our response to a given situation.

True love and friendship often involves the courage to ask the tough questions and then let silence do the heavy heavy lifting until you get an honest answer. You have to keep digging to get to the route cause of what’s really going on with those you care about.  Just make sure you don’t push too hard too soon and let the other person dictate the pacing as long as there is progress.  You also need to model the behavior you would like to see in others and be vulnerable yourself.  It is a professional prerequisite if you have chosen a career that involves helping other people navigate the often tumultuous sea of life.

I’m glad I grew up in an environment where it was okay to be me and not cover up how I was feeling.  My mother and sisters were especially helpful in this regard.  I honestly believe that wars have been started and businesses have been run into the ground by leaders who were unable to find an appropriate outlet for their emotional baggage.  Lack of honest communication and emotional connection certainly ends alot of marriages.  We all “feel” all the time.  It’s just that most of the time we operate on a fairly even keel basis because the stimuli are fairly harmless and don’t require all that much from us.  However, each of us will inevitably encounter situations that challenge our existing emotional capacity. Embrace these moments as growth opportunities rather than trying to avoid, suppress or negate them.  Be true to your emotions and allow others to share their truth with you…it will make your life easier, richer and more meaningful.

Leadership Thought #426 – What Do You Stand For?

What do you stand for? This is a question all leaders should able to answer fairly easily but most struggle with addressing.  I’ve been in many organizations where if you asked the question, “What does this business stand for?” you would get blank stares.  Values are the building blocks of any organization.  Without a common set of beliefs and principles, a company is like a ship without a rudder – adrift in a sea of individual interpretation and situational experience.  It has never been just about making money but how you make your money that matters the most.  And, the how involves many issues such as the way you treat your customers, employees, vendors, the environment, etc.

John Mellencamp has a great line in a song that goes, “You have to stand for something or you will fall for anything.”  Business, like life in general, is full of temptation.  It’s easy to get off track and do what’s easy or convenient at the time, especially when you are facing tough competition and/or mounting financial pressures.  Moreover, greed is an affliction that affects all of us to some degree.  We’ve all heard the saying that “if you want to learn who someone truly is, then give them money and power.” I would add that when people are in pursuit of these two objective they are even more prone to bad or questionable behavior.  There are no good moral shortcuts to success.

A leader’s job is to first and foremost to provide direction and foster an environment that leads to success.  You are constantly on stage and your people are watching your every move. They look to you to decipher what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Like it or not, they also looking to you to help provide some level of meaning to their lives.  We all tend to define ourselves (both positively and negatively) by the groups we associate with and where does the average person spend more time than at work?  As you grow, it becomes harder to simply lead by personal example.  You need to instill and codify core belief and principles throughout the organization to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of the boundaries within which they are expected to operate.  This includes who you promote, reward, and publicly acknowledge.  Every organization needs a moral compass if it wants to say on the right path.

Sadly, many of us are disenchanted by the level private and public leadership we see these days.  Machiavellian tactics are alive and well.  We are exposed to daily examples of individual leaders putting their own personal aggrandizement above the good of the company, stakeholders, country and global community.  In this environment it is easy to become cynical and tempted to succumb to similar behavior ourselves.  Unless, of course, you stand for something more important…and live your life in accordance with these beliefs.

Leadership Thought #421 – Listening Is A Lost Art

A conversation without listening is merely the exchange of two monologues.  If we limit our exchange of information to what we already know or believe, we are limiting our capacity to learn, grow and have healthy relationships.  Almost everyday you witness evidence of public or private figures that really have no interest in hearing what anyone else is saying.  It has become common practice to become intractable in your views and block out any contrary evidence.  In reality, our society tends to reward brashness and poor behavior these days.  Just look at who dominates the airwaves.

I had a wonderful mentor who told me many years ago that you need to “listen until hurts.”  He wisely surmised that this was not a natural strength for me.  I was regularly in a state of always preparing to talk rather than practicing conscious listening.  Unsurprisingly, I often had a difficult time with people who had a different point of view from mine.  It became apparent to me that my confidence quickly became arrogance and smugness from the other person’s perspective.

For another person to have a true connection with you they need to feel like you care about what they have to say.  No one likes to be lectured to.    This doesn’t mean that all opinions are created equal or that facts don’t matter.  However, never discount how stubbornly someone will cling to a position if they feel attacked or threatened.  To be open to alternative thinking, you must feel safe in the relationship. 

Lately, I believe our culture has become so fixated on being right that individually and collectively we can’t accept the premise of being wrong or only partially right.  The American tendency to “one up” the other person is our intellectual Achilles heel.  The whole concept of “exceptionalism” is a very slippery slope.  The truth is that that no one has the market cornered on good ideas or an unblemished track record.  Time and time again it has been proven that heterogeneous groups with diverse points of view make better decisions than strong willed individuals or groups who act in a homogenous fashion.

Listening has become a lost art.  I encourage you to try listening until it hurts. Do your best to be present in and stay focused on one conversation at a time.  Avoid technological distractions.  Strive not to rush to judgment especially when emotionally triggered, but instead embrace the idea of learning from every interaction.  Interestingly enough you will find that people will open up more in front of you and end up lauding you as a good conversationalist.

Leadership Thought #409 – Behavior Reflects Character

Anyone can manipulate words and stretch the facts to suit their short term objective.  However, it is difficult long-term to fake behavior and eventually your words will catch up with you.   Here are just a few examples of what I am talking about:

  • No one likes a bully.
  • Aggressive people tend to trigger a defensive response.
  • Everyone recognizes and dislikes rude and disrespectful behavior when they see it.
  • Who likes to be in a room for any extended period of time with a know-it-all who always has to be right?
  • If we catch people in a lie or think they are lying we tend not to trust them.
  • Cracks in someone’s voice or an unusual change of verbal pitch grab our attention.
  • Consistent low energy becomes a red flag in our perception of someone.
  • Hyper activity is off-putting.
  • We are all ultimately troubled by someone unwilling to make eye contact.
  • If we perceive someone wants something too badly they come across as desperate.
  • Warm and kind people tend to trigger a similar response in return.
  • Thoughtful people encourage us to be more thoughtful ourselves.
  • People who obviously think about what they say before they say it cause us to listen more carefully to what they have to say.
  • Charitable people encourage those around them to be more charitable.

Despite what George Burns says you can’t fake sincerity.   People see through it.  It is the biggest problem we have with our politicians.  We even have one presidential candidate who says he isn’t going to have “fact checkers” take him off message or influence his campaign.   Strong opinions shouldn’t trump fact based decision making.  If you want to get the measure of a man or woman, just look at what they say not what they do.   You can choose to speak out of both sides of your mouth, but you can’t run from your record or lack thereof.  It is also disingenuous to take credit for things you had little do with especially when you are unwilling to shoulder blame in a similar way.  I believe we all know in our gut that people who regularly contradict themselves or say anything to get what they want are potentially troublesome or even worse dangerous.

Style should never trump substance.  A leader should mean what he/she says and say what he/she means.   Most people know when they are being patronized or pandered to.  I am much more interested in what someone believes themselves than being told what I want to hear.  I’m also always open to hearing an alternative point of view as long as I feel the other person truly believes what they are saying.  And, on fundamental important issues, your opinions shouldn’t shift like the wind to suit your audience.  You should also never play to the lowest common denominator to score cheap points.  It should never be just about winning but winning for the right reasons.

An actor’s job is make what is unreal seem real.  A leader’s job is to bring reality to the surface.   He/she should lead by example, bring people together, foster productive dialogue, and chart a positive path forward whatever the circumstances.  If you choose to play the role, then at least do in an authentic manner.

Leadership Thought #407 – Fear Sells, But The Costs Can be Significant

I don’t remember growing up in a fearful society, but I feel like I live in one now.  All you have to do is turn on the TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper and eventually someone will be trying to scare you about something.  We all seem so emotionally fragile and quick to identify an enemy or cause for our concern.  The news media has perfected this art so well that they have helped to perpetuate a more neurotic generation in a time when just about every violent crime statistic and adverse health indicator is down significantly or at minimum on par with what existed when we were children (and our population has grown significantly during this time).  As the saying goes, if it bleeds than it leads.”

The problem with fear is that it often leads to anger and/or disproportionate action.  When you are afraid you tend to retrench and go into protective mode.  You label whole groups of people as dangerous and to be avoided or even worse targeted for preemptive action.  An entire religious group becomes your enemy.  You buy weapons you don’t need and support causes that play to your basest instincts.  You move into gated communities, spend money on expensive alarm systems, send your kids to private schools and narrow your social circles to only other like-minded people.  You fall victim to “us versus them” thinking, always on the lookout for a potential adversary or wrong-headed opponent.  As a leader, you make war rather than navigate the more difficult course of peace.  You accept easy answers to complex issues and let other people do your thinking for you.

We already outspend the next 10 closest countries combined on defense spending.  We are in the top 3 worldwide in the number of people we incarcerate in our prisons.  As a population, we are more heavily armed than any other developed nation by a wide margin.  In a relatively peaceful country, the home security business is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Depending upon the source of information and definitions being used we have a military presence in anywhere from 38 to 135 countries.   Our nuclear warheads can eviscerate the world many times over.   How did things get so out of whack?  When did we lose our sense of context and perspective about real versus perceived threats?  You judge a country and what it values by how it invests and allocates its public and private resources not by the fearful unsubstantiated claims and the lofty rhetoric of its leadership class.

The truth is that the average American has a very low probability of being a victim of a violent crime.  We are much more likely to be harmed in a car crash due to our own reckless behavior.  There are certainly dangerous places in the world, but most of this is localized to certain easily identifiable areas.  Much of the Middle East is still safe to travel and welcomes visitors.   Many parts of the globe still look up to the US and literally millions of people still try to emigrate here each and every year.  Of course, 9/11 was a terrible event and touched many of us personally but it was a relatively isolated occurrence.  Britain, Spain and Israel have been subject to many more terrorist attacks over the past half century not to mention the plight of many developing nations who have been ravaged by civil wars, ruthless dictatorships and countless random acts of violence.  I can understand how people in certain parts of the world feel fearful, but why us?

My cynical answer is that fearful people are easily controlled.  They are also easy to divide and conquer and set against one another.   Power is much easier to acquire when people are afraid, careers are advanced and much money is to be made by those looking to cash in on our collective paranoia.  In my opinion, it is irresponsible for a leader to use fear for political or business gain. His/her job is to give people courage, alleviate their unfounded anxieties, embolden our natural human fortitude and resilience, separate real from perceived threats, solve rather than just identify problems, avoid knee jerk responses to serious issues, not fall victim to lowest common denominator thinking, and rally us around a common positive purpose.  As the saying goes, “it’s easy to make war, but much harder to win the peace.”

Watching the Vice Presidential debate last night, both candidates tried to scare us multiple times with the potential consequences of what their competitor might do or is doing.  I can’t believe that so many of us fall for this nonsense.  When a society starts to worry more about what it can lose rather than what it can build and gain, we are on a slippery slope.  When fear drives our universal dialogue and unduly influences decision making, we box ourselves in rather than broadening our possibilities.  Fear sells, but the costs can be significant and sometimes irreversible.  I’ll leave you with four quotes from men I admire:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.” —Benjamin Franklin

“We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again. If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth New Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times.” — George Washington

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

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