Leadership is often portrayed as a macho activity by a swashbuckling executive knocking heads, screaming out orders, and taking no prisoners.
The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Effective business leadership is more like drinking a glass of lemonade, stepping back from the chaos, really thinking about what needs to be done and why and who needs to be communicated with and in what sequence to talk with them.
If you’re obsessed with drama and creating theatrical performances, then I think you should stick to performing on a stage. If you want to be an effective business leader, I encourage you to have a glass of lemonade, relax, stay calm, and really think about what is best for the organization.
Change is constant.
That’s true, but there’s a big difference between a major change and a temporary change, and it’s important to know which one you’re dealing with.
A temporary change is when something is different for a short period of time and then things go back to the way they’ve been for a long time. My twelve-year-old son, Ben, broke his pinkie a month ago. Tomorrow the cast comes off. And he’ll be back to his usual constant physical activities.
When your business deals with a temporary change, even a really painful one, you can deal with it and then go back to the old ways of doings.
However, a major change means that after you deal with it something will be significantly different on the other side. This requires great leadership and perseverance and innovation. These times of major change, which Andy Grove called inflection points, are opportunities for you to make your lasting mark as a leader.
What are you dealing with today? Is it a temporary change or a major change? Be prepared to deal with both situations.
Imagine a graph with outcomes listed on the vertical axis and your activities listed on the horizontal axis. Your outcomes might include a variety of important business outcomes, errands that need to be accomplished, a better relationship with your children, a better relationship with your spouse or significant other, relaxing time, your relationship with certain friends, staying on top of emails, attending meetings to stay informed, your physical fitness, and other stuff. Then prioritize your desired outcomes both on the work side and on the personal side by ranking them.
Now place a dot for each activity you did in the past week next to the outcome it was meant to impact in a real way. Go through every activity you did and force yourself to place a dot somewhere on the graph.
Repeat this process for three more weeks.
At the end of the month look at where the activities you actually did showed up on your graph. Are you crowding your activities around your most important outcomes, or are the things you are actually doing crowding around low priority outcomes? If you use a scattershot approach, you may feel like you’re tremendously busy, but you’re not moving the needle forward in terms of improved outcomes on any of your most important desired outcomes.
Then decide where to place your activities over the next month. And repeat the process. Did the reality of what you actually did match up with where you want to be placing your activities?
My son, Ben, fractured a bone in his pinky a few weeks ago, and the doctor put a cast down to near his elbow. Seemed a bit much to me, but then I learned that it was close to one of his growth plates, and since he’s 12 years old they wanted to be extra careful. I didn’t realize that a person has growth plates in multiple places in his or her body and those plates allow the person to grow later in life.
Then it hit me that we all have leadership growth plates in our body. Sometimes we need to be faced with a certain set of circumstances for our leadership capacity to be stretched and to be put into motion. Sometimes we need an opportunity to step into in order to demonstrate our ability to influence other people.
If you have an employee who has not yet demonstrated great leadership skills, you might just want to be patient. The person may very well have leadership growth plates inside waiting to emerge. See if you can’t put that person in situations where they can step up as a leader and influence how other people think.
I’ve seen CEOs who were remarkably good communicators. They listened with compassion and offered insights in ways that other people could consider them and reflect on them. I’ve also seen CEOs who were boorish and brutal toward other people.
I’ve seen front-line employees communicate clearly and with confidence and go the extra mile in ways that left other people feeling astounded by their kindness. I’ve also seen front-line workers who were so basically rude and demeaning that they left other people wondering how they could keep their jobs.
Effective communication is not based on title.
The primary drivers of effective communication are respect for other people and a desire to demonstrate respect for them when talking with them. If those two things are in place, I think you will find the other person being a great communicator regardless of his or her title.
Here’s an embarrassing, but true story with what I hope is a valuable lesson or two for you.
Last fall my wife, Barb, and I decided to wash the glass panes in our night lights outside of our garage and our front door. In cleaning them we accidently broke one of the panes. So we decided to leave out the back pane for the light outside our front door. We figured it was under the overhang and it wouldn’t get wet.
A few months later we noticed there were some twigs inside the lamp, and we realized that a bird was building a nest inside the lamp. We thought that was cute and funny. A few months later there were hundreds of twigs inside our lamp and we figured the bird was going to lay some eggs there so we didn’t want to bother it. Of course, we just had to remember not to turn on the light because that might hurt the bird.
One rainy night my neighbor came over to pick up his daughter. So I turned on the outside light to talk with him while our daughters wrapped up their night together. After about five minutes of chatting he said, “I smell something burning.” I ran to check the stove and the toaster oven, but they were off. He said, “No, it’s coming from out here.” I immediately remembered the nest, and it was starting to burn. I turned off the light, undid the lamp, and took the nest out.
What we thought was cute and funny could have burned our house down.
What in your organization do you think is cute and funny? Is there someone who gets teased all the time and everyone thinks it’s all cute and funny, except for the person being made fun of? Is that person’s anger simmering underneath in a way that can ultimately damage the organization? Do you have a cute and funny supplier who seems to be the absent-minded professor, but who is really making customers mad by always being late? Do you have a cute and funny habit that is really hurting your career, but no one is willing to tell you?
Watch out for something that is cute and funny, but is really very dangerous.
A great friend of mine was telling me he was reading the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. This is Frankl’s story of being Jewish and surviving his torture in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. My friend said the statement that resonated the most was when Frankl said that the one thing the Nazis couldn’t take away from him was how he chose to approach any situation. In the end, quite literally the only thing he had left was his ability to choose.
Later in the same conversation, my friend told me about coaching his son’s high school club soccer team. The team was playing in College Showcases so college coaches could watch the boys play. Some of the boys had already decided not to play college soccer and weren’t trying their hardest. So my friend gathered the players together and told them that it wasn’t about playing college soccer. He said the games were just another opportunity to do the best they were capable of doing. He told them that every activity is another opportunity to challenge yourself to be as good as you can be. He said to them that each of them had the ability to choose to either play to the best of their abilities or not to. The choice was theirs.
After I got off the phone, I realized the connection between these two parts of our conversation. We all always have the ability to choose our attitude and how we approach a situation. Do we complain that the world is unfair, do we put in a mediocre effort just to get it over with, or do we strive for excellence in the situation regardless of whether the outcome will enhance our future?
You get to choose.