Humility as a Leadership Trait (HBR)

Want to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be an effective leader and have people follow your direction?

Be humble!

That lesson echoed with me as I read a David Brooks column in the New York Times in which he describes listening to an archival recording of “Command Performance,” a radio variety show originally broadcast on V-J Day. Celebrities abounded but according to Brooks, “the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility.” Victory was welcome but marked with dignity.

Leaders who want to inspire followership, and I use the word “inspire” deliberately, need to demonstrate not simply their accomplishments but their character. Take pride in what you have done, but use it as a platform to bring people together to do greater things, e.g. increase sales, improve quality, or save the planet. Use your leadership for something other than self-aggrandizement.

A sense of humility is essential to leadership because it authenticates a person’s humanity. We humans are frail creatures; we have our faults. Recognizing what we do well, as well as what we do not do so well, is vital to self-awareness and paramount to humility. Here are some ways to demonstrate humility in the workplace.

Temper authority. Power comes with rank but you don’t have to pull it to make it work for you. You can encourage others to make decisions by delegating authority and responsibility. Encourage your people to write their own performance objectives and set team goals. Allow them to make decisions. Your authority comes in the form of imposing order and discipline.

Look to promote others. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman note in their seminal text, First, Break All the Rules, that a characteristic of successful managers is their ability to promote others, sometimes to positions higher than their own. Such managers are talent groomers, they are ones upon whose leadership success of the enterprise rests.

Acknowledge what others do. Few have said it better than legendary Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.” Practice that attitude always, especially when things are not going well, and your team will rally together because they want you to succeed. In short, humility breeds humility.

Can you be too humble in the workplace? Yes. If you fail to put yourself, or more importantly your ideas, forward, you will be overlooked. Chances for promotion will evaporate, but worse you will not give anyone a reason to believe in you. All of us need not lead others, but those who do seek to influence, to change, to guide, and to lead their organizations, need to find ways to get noticed. Again humility comes to the rescue. That is, if you celebrate team first, self second, people will notice what you and your team have achieved.

And once more, let me return to Brook’s column in which he cites a passage from Ernie Pyle who had been killed in action in the Pacific months before in anticipation of victory. “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples.”

In today’s corporate speak we might say we had a diverse team with ample resources and we are thankful for the opportunity to compete. But I prefer Pyle’s closing admonishment. “I hope that we are more grateful than we are proud.”

First posted on HBR.org 9/15/2009

VIDEO: Leader as Craftsman

Craftsmanship is the bedrock principle in the manual arts. We admire artists and artisans who make things with their hands, yet we often overlook craftsmanship when it comes to working with our minds.

So what about leaders? Can you think of leadership as a craft?

Regarding leadership as a craft forces the leader to consider leadership as both art and practice. The practice comes from doing it; the art comes from knowing when to do it. And getting it right most of the time. Just like a fine craftsman.

First posted on Smart Brief on 9/13/2013

Putting the Art of Leadership into Practice (HBR)

For the past ten months or so, I have had the privilege of traveling around North America speaking about what it takes to lead in hard times. Sometimes I joke that if I knew “hard times” would be so popular a topic I would have thought of it sooner; I guess I just needed the economy to cooperate.

Lame joke aside, I can think of few times when the subject of leadership has been more pertinent or its practice more necessary. And I say this with full recognition that part of the blame for the great recession we are enduring rests on a failure of leadership in both the public and private sectors. Those in positions of authority abandoned both the practice as well as the art of leadership. It’s time for us to learn more about both.

The practice of leadership is setting the right example, providing vision and guidance, and doing all that is necessary for people in the organization to succeed. The really hard part, the art of leadership, is knowing what to do, and when, why, and how to do it.

Let me give you an example that was shared with me by Mark Shearon, an executive vice president of TBA Global, an event marketing and communications agency. TBA’s Detroit office had once done good business servicing the automotive industry, but with the recent downturn in automotive fortunes, the office lost a significant amount of business. The easy decision would have been to close the office. But Mark and his team had a better idea that would save jobs. “We wanted to ensure that we kept a Detroit presence since we had been in that community for over 10 years. At the same time, our meeting planning business was growing.”

So TBA re-purposed the office, shifting it from producing events and meetings to doing meeting planning. Furthermore, as Shearon explains, “In Detroit there was a good pool of people with the right skill set for that kind of business and office space is cheaper.” TBA also relocated staffers from other cities and, Shearon says, today has “a buzzing and successful division there.” As this example illustrates, the art of leadership involved saving people’s jobs; the practice of leadership was a sound management decision to create a new use for the Detroit office.

Learning the difference between these two aspects is a good way to get a handle on what is required of leaders.

Practice involves management. For leaders, the administration of responsibility and execution of tasks may not be glamorous, but it is essential. Without a strong attention to detail and adherence to goals and objectives, organizations go awry. At the same time a leader needs to manage not just detail but also people. Managing people involves putting them into positions where they can succeed and supporting them in that effort.

Art involves sensibility. As with so much in life, you need to pick your moments. Not every situation calls for a leader to act; sometimes a leader does more by standing back and letting the team decide what to do. Though, in times of crisis, the leader may need to be front and center, making decisions, providing hands-on advice, and taking action to help get things done. Knowing what to do and when to do it comes with experience, but knowing how to act and the degree of involvement to use is something that cannot be prescribed exactly; it will be perceived by others much as an art form might be.

While there are many reasons to learn more about the art and practice of leadership, there is one aspect often overlooked. Management is a downward process: handling the details. Leadership is an upward process: giving guidance — it is aspirational by nature. For an organization struggling in tough times, aspiration is essential; it gives a glimpse of a better tomorrow, and by extension a reason to slog through another day, week or whatever it takes. And that requires not only practice, but a degree of art to see over the horizon.

First posted on HBR.org 9/18/2009

VIDEO: How to Teach Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness is a word that was common in the lexicon of our grandparents, those men and women who were adults in the Great Depression and had to make do with very little but found a way to not only survive but sometimes thrive.

Resourcefulness is the ability to make do with what you have and to see possibilities where no one else does. Great entrepreneurs possess this ability but you don’t have to be willing to start your own business to benefit from it. Every organization can benefit from it.

Resourcefulness is a trait that many employees possess. It’s up to those in management to put it to good use.

First posted on SmartBrief on 10/04/2013

How to Keep Your Team Loose (HBR)

During his wrap-up comments after the University of Southern California football team beat Ohio State University in Columbus in 2009, Brent Musberger, ABC/ESPN’s long-time announcer, said that he believed that one of USC head coach Pete Carroll’s greatest attributes was his ability to keep his team loose.

Managers can learn something from Carroll’s loosey-goosey sideline demeanor. He prowls the sidelines but is often clapping, cheering, and giving “atta-boys” to his players. USC is a football juggernaut but even talented teams can get caught up in emotional swings, and Carroll’s style helps keep everyone calm, and inevitably, more able to pay attention to what is happening and what they must do.

The purpose of keeping a team loose is not entertainment; it’s a matter of keeping people focused. And that’s why managers — especially those coping with challenging conditions like declining resources, tougher competition, and more demanding customers — can do well to keep their teams loose. Here are some suggestions.

Instill camaraderie. Optimal team performance depends on people pulling together for one another. Camaraderie-building can happen naturally between teammates, but managers can encourage it by creating groups or units of people whose talents complement each other. Injecting some humor into the mix through jokes and gentle teasing can speed the meshing of individuals. Camaraderie builds when people can laugh with each other, not always at each other. (That is, you can tease, but make certain you are available to be teased yourself.)

Get personal. Know your people and their capabilities. The secret to maintaining a loose atmosphere is belief in individuals’ and the team’s ability to perform. Trust that people know their stuff and will execute. Being light and loose with underperformers is not advised. You need to get people in gear before you can ease up with levity.

Coach ’em up. The art of management is putting the right people in the right places so they can succeed. Toward that end, good managers spend their time coaching their people for performance. If a manager has established good rapport with individuals through his light-hearted demeanor, he has a better ability to connect and get them to listen. (Note: too much joking will undercut a manager’s ability to be perceived as serious.)

Make no mistake, too much fun and games is not healthy; it can be distracting and adversely affect morale. (USC lost its game to the University of Washington the following week.) Therefore, a manager must always make certain that people understand the importance of what they do. Treating people as though their contributions matter is critical. Likewise, holding people accountable for results is vital.

Just because work is serious does not mean everyone needs to take themselves or others seriously. You can be light and lively as long as you respect individual boundaries and the culture of work. Keeping things loose is not always easy, but it sure makes coming to work a bit more pleasant. And when people want to come to work, it’s a good thing.

First posted on HBR.org 9/23/2009

How to Develop Your Leadership Pitch (HBR)

Ever see an executive fumble an answer to a question from a reporter, or maybe even an employee? Of course, it happens all the time. There are times when we simply may not want to answer a question, but the key reason for flubs is that we are unprepared to speak. One way to become more articulate is to prepare yourself in advance.

Essayist Arthur Krystal addresses inarticulateness and the power of writing to resolve it in a recent article for the New York Times Book Review. Krystal paraphrases an email interview with Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker and states, “thinking precedes writing and that the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise.” Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whom Krystal also cites, understood this and it’s why he used index cards during a televised interview recorded in the late Fifties about his book Lolita. Nabokov may have looked rumpled, but he spoke eloquently.

It’s a good lesson for every executive — be prepared before you speak. Such preparation is not reserved solely for major presentations; it also applies to impromptu messages that executives need to deliver constantly. I liken these leadership messages to elevator pitches in reference to their brevity (a short ride) but also their importance (selling a big idea).

Leadership is about persuasion — convincing others of the soundness of your point of view. Writing out your thoughts is good practice and I believe that doing so is not onerous because managers regularly script their thoughts in email. Here are three tips for preparing your leadership pitches to be more persuasive.

1. Think it through. Consider the key issues facing your team; it is a good idea to have a short leadership pitch for each one. What the issues are is up to you, but they should reflect the big things that are happening — initiatives, issues, and challenges. Your pitch needs to reflect your reasoning and your point of view as well as why people should support you and your idea.

2. Script it out. Write out your thoughts. This gives you the opportunity to focus on the issue and think about what you want to say. It’s always good to provide a short explanation and then segue into your argument. Leverage the business case for your idea and talk about the impact your idea will have on others and the on the organization.

3. Rehearse it. Yes, it is important to practice your messages out loud. Many executives I have coached practice on their drives to and from work. You might also use a voice recorder (often integrated into your mobile phone) to get used to delivering the message out loud. The recording is for you; no one else need listen. What’s more, as my colleague and consultant Kathy Macdonald advises, you can time yourself. That’s good practice for keeping messages short and tight. (Note: do not try to drive and record at the same time.)

Many of you reading this may be saying, “Great idea, but who’s got time for this?” My response is make time. One executive who helped me learn the importance of leadership messaging is Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s — once judged by Inc. magazine as “one of America’s coolest companies.” As Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s grew from a deli to a collection of food-related businesses, the number of employees grew exponentially. Paul found himself stretched thin as all entrepreneurs do, but he disciplined himself to think ahead to how he could continue providing insight and direction to key employees. He prepared messages in advance so that if he encountered a person he needed to speak to he would have something cogent and coherent to say, not in greeting but in the form of tangible advice.

Preparing your key messages in advance has another advantage. It will help scripting more formal presentations easier because you will have a collection of key thoughts prepared. This will help you become a more fluent and polished presenter. And when you are asked questions, you will have the verbal dexterity to deliver a reply that shows command of the issues as well as an ease that radiates confidence.

First posted on HBR.org 9/30/2009

VIDEO: Don’t Act Like the Smartest Person in the Room

Sometimes it pays to shut up! Especially when you are really smart.

As a bright and capable performer, you will have plenty of opportunities to show what you know and how you know it but one thing you can never do is – show off! People in power don’t like it and people you work with find it annoying.

Smart people who know when to speak up and when to act on their initiatives are a special breed. Don’t squander your opportunities by showing off. Let your cool demeanor speak for you.

First posted on Smart Brief 11/01/2013

 

Three Ways to Remove Ego from Decision-Making (HBR)

When President Barack Obama wrestled in 2009 with the issue of what to do next in Afghanistan, there is absolutely one thing he could not do: Make it personal. That is precisely the mistake that his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson made when escalating the war in Vietnam.

Again and again, as is made clear by listening to tapes of him in the Oval Office, Johnson personalized the war not as the United States versus North Vietnam (or Russia and China), but as LBJ against the world, be it the enemy abroad or those inside his administration and throughout the nation who protested the war.

Let us be clear, personalization is not the same as passion. Leaders need to have conviction about what they do; they need to love their work and the people who do it. That’s passion. By contrast, personalization is the conflation of ego and hubris; it causes a loss of focus because the executive puts what he wants to do ahead of what the company should do. Personalization is the enemy of the business case, and for that reason you should avoid it. So here are three questions that every leader must ask when making a decision that will have significant consequence on the organization.

Click here to read more:

First posted on HBR.org 10/08/2009