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Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

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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 #362 – Never Stop Learning

Leaders should be in a constant learning mode.  Once you think you know it all give up the reigns of power because you will become detrimental to your organization. While some basic fundamental beliefs may remain true regardless of the circumstances, most of what takes place in business is in a constant state of flux.  Your goal should be to stay ahead of the change curve not fall behind it.  One way to do this is to keep asking questions and seeking answers.  You can never be smart enough.

There is a famous biblical quote that “pride goeth before the fall.”  I’ve see this happen many times with companies and individual leaders.  At some point, usually when there has been a certain modicum of success, the organization/individual starts looking backward for answers rather than forward.  They start to believe what made them great is what they already know not what they proactively decided to learn.  Instead of looking outside for answers they keep everything close knit and inside the organization.  Business is moving very quickly these days.  It’s amazing how easily you can fall behind when you take your foot off the knowledge gas pedal.  There is always some organization lurking around the corner looking to take advantage of your competitive vulnerabilities.

The fact is that the higher you move up and organization the more you are paid to think rather than do.  Anyone can master a particular task given enough time, training and effort.  Deciding what to do and why and how to best allocate scarce resources is another issue altogether.  Decision making should be a thoughtful process not a “seat of the pants” gut driven exercise.  Confidence is never an acceptable substitute for wisdom. You may get lucky and get it right sometimes, but eventually the odds will catch up with you.  Hubris is a very unattractive trait in a leader.  Moreover, having strong opinions without any basis in facts is a waste of everyone’s time.

There is also nothing “cool” or commendable about being knowingly misinformed or stupid.  When I drop my kids off at school I always encourage them to learn something new that day.  When I see them at the end of the day I ask them “what did you learn today?” Personally, I also make it a goal to learn something new every day.  Learning needs to become a habit.  It’s easy to become intellectually lazy and not put forth the effort especially when you live a busy life.  However, if there is one variable that separates the most successful people I know from everyone else, it is there commitment to always getting better and smarter at what they do.  You should never stop learning…

Leadership Thought #342 – Don’t Lose Your Personal Censor Button

As you grow as a leader and start to have some success it’s important that you not get too full of yourself and remain somewhat humble. This is especially true as you begin to do more public speaking.  While you certainly can, it’s not advisable to just say whatever is on your mind and believe you have all the answers.  I’m often amazed how many people forget this fact.   Otherwise smart people who have a lot to share with an audience kill their credibility with unwise or unnecessarily controversial statements.  You have to know when to use your personal censor button.

It is certainly okay to have strong beliefs, but be wary of speaking with a sense of certainty unless you have a strong set of facts to back up your case.  It’s also important to note that if your audience has any level of sophistication it will know that you can usually massage statistics to make your case.  As the saying goes, correlation doesn’t prove causation.  In addition, just because you’ve read a book or two on a subject doesn’t mean you are an expert especially if the author has a biased opinion to begin with.  People will ultimately see through thinly veiled arguments.  Being brash will get someone’s attention but it will also engender more increased personal scrutiny.

Two things tend to get speakers in trouble: speaking in sweeping generalizations and making unfounded personal criticisms. 

We all know that life can be complicated at times and situations and context matters.  To act like your experience or knowledge is applicable in all situations is a foolish position to take because more often than not there will always be exceptions or things you don’t know.   It’s okay to have an opinion, but position it as such not as a fact when it is not.    I wish many more leaders would use qualifying statements when making strong points.  There are very few things any of us could or should speak with certainty about.  For example, how can someone who isn’t a scientist debate the scientific merits of something without the proper training or knowledge to do so?  I also have great difficulty respecting someone who is intractable in their opinions and not open to alternative points of view.  A closed mind is not worth listening to…

I’ve never understood going out of your way to be personally critical of someone else in making your points to an audience.  You can certainly criticize positions you don’t agree with but stay focused on the issue not the person.  How can you ascribe motivations or fault the character of someone you don’t even know?  It’s amazing how quickly people rush to judgment on political candidates from either party without ever truly listening to what they have to say or doing even the most basic research on their past track record.  This has become an especially dangerous strategy these days as people take on more strident political and religious beliefs. 

You never win someone over by insulting them or a person they admire.  You also rarely elevate yourself long-term by diminishing others.  You only create further divisiveness and alienate as many people as you convert to your point of view.  This may sell books and media advertising, but it doesn’t promote progress or successfully address any real problems.  It just feeds your ego which probably should go on a diet anyway.  Be ever mindful of your censor button and USE it.

Leadership Thought #315 – Have You Stopped Thinking?

Most of us prefer to occupy the realm of opinions rather than facts – whether we’d like to believe it or not.  Instead of taking the time to actually prove something or find out the truth, it is much easier to form an opinion based on personal experience, values, attitude, hearsay, etc.  This is especially true in our media where people with strong opinions (often with minimal or no grounding in the facts) dominate the airwaves.   We’ve become a society dedicated to the easy answer and convenience in all things.   It is certainly much easier and self-satisfying (we think) to find someone who represents our own point of view rather than pushes us to grow and challenge this perspective.

Sometimes our own children can be the best teachers.  They have a much simpler view of reality and ask basic but necessary questions.  They all go through a period where the repeated question is, “Why?”  Anyone who’s had a young child has been exasperated by the number of times this question can be asked in a given day.  It also forces the parent to come up with a good answer and can expose your own ignorance about a topic which is not always easy to accept.   However, it’s a good thing because they are trying to make sense of the world around them and how it all works – something we often forget as we get older. 

As they continue to grow, kids will stop accepting what they believe to be lazy or wrong answers and will start to push back and ask tough questions:

  • How do you know this?
  • Are you sure?
  • Is this the truth?
  • Who told you this?
  • How is this possible?
  • Is there another answer?
  • Does everybody think this way?
  • What if you are wrong? 

It is good for children and young adults to become skeptical of what they are being told.  This is how each of us cultivates our own intellectual growth.  Sadly, as we age, most of us become more comfortable with what we know rather than searching for the actual truth, examining facts and challenging conventional wisdom.  We become cynical rather than skeptical.  We also talk more, ask fewer questions, and listen less intentionally.   Critical thinking requires a level of effort and thought that many of us just stop doing.

I encourage you to challenge your current thinking about pertinent issue in your life and other  larger issues that interest you.  Are you leaning too much on your opinions or are you truly interested in uncovering the facts and learning the truth before cementing these opinions.  If an alternative perspective makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why? Mine this mode of thinking for awhile to uncover your own limitations.  Could the other person’s ideas have some merit?  Strive to nurture your intellectual growth instead of inhibiting it.  Once you think you know it all you become an obstacle to progress and social bore.  There is a difference between thinking you are right and proving it.  Your mind is either open or closed – it’s your choice.

Leadership Thought #297 – Avoid The Popular Opinion Bandwagon

Everyone is too quick to jump on the popular opinion bandwagon these days.  Instead of taking the time to understand the facts and make an educated decision about something, it is much easier for most people to just go along with the crowd and follow whatever the media or their particular brand of talking heads tells them to think.   Just because something or someone resonates with you doesn’t mean this is an accurate reflection of reality.  

There are no shortcuts to good judgment and thoughtful consideration.  True leaders can’t just go with the flow or opt for what simply validates their existing preconceptions.  As the saying goes, “whenever everyone is turning right consider turning left.”   It’s important to do your own thinking and draw your own conclusions.  Sometimes the crowd is right, but often it is misinformed and/or just plain wrong.   Intellectual arrogance and laziness are just two sides of the same coin.

Conventional wisdom will only ever get you so far.  The future is created by those who opt to think outside of the box and carve out their own path.  Instead of choosing to see only what you want to see or hear only what you want to hear, I encourage you to be open to alternative points of view and not rush to judgment.  Critical thinking is a key ingredient to a successful life.  Strive to differentiate the truth from fiction even if it makes you uncomfortable at times or requires extra effort.  Stay off any opinion bandwagon until you are certain the proposed ideas are supported by your own objective fact based analysis not merely a subjective need to feel personally validated and/or safe.  And, be careful who and what you follow – it may take you off a cliff.

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