This is advice I have given to many senior leaders because it shows a sense of humanity and openness, even transparency. It brings people to them because it shows that the senior leader does not have all the answers.
But does this advice apply to those in middle management and below?
The answer is yes, but! Leaders who understand their limitations but know how to solve problems are those that senior leaders look to give greater levels of responsibility.
Many managers have received this directive from their bosses when preparing to present an idea. Ronald Reagan was famous for asking for one-page summaries and today many executives follow that example. It is good practice because it challenges the petitioner to reduce his idea to its barest essentials as a means of ensuring understanding as well as developing a platform for advocacy. This methodology is something that I have coached executives to ask for as well as to develop for themselves.
While it is good practice, it does have a serious drawback: In the effort to shrink the argument there is a tendency to reduce salient points as well as obstacles to neat bullet points. By doing so, we eliminate complexity and avoid nuance, both of which may be necessary to full understanding of the issues.
Let’s say two competitors form a strategic alliance to develop and market a new product. This occurs routinely in the pharmaceutical industry. On the surface it may look good because two companies can pool brainpower and resources and improve efficiency. However, a look beneath the surface we may uncover other issues related to customer satisfaction, vendor issues, employee collaboration, other competitors and perhaps regulatory issues. None of these issues by themselves, or even taken together, are enough to kill the alliance, but it is easy to see that reducing discussion of such an alliance to bullet points could be flawed because the context behind each point may be overlooked.
Striving for clarity in a summary memo is essential, but managers need to ensure that they are hearing the whole story. So when issues are significant enough to affect the outcome of the enterprise, you must take steps to take to ensure that the decision-maker receives a full picture rather than a side view.
Set the context. Make it known that you want your team to consider the big picture. Talk about the environment in which you operate and the competition you face. Make it clear that you want your people to consider multiple variables when they research their pieces of the picture. Stress that you do not want opinion; you want facts that support as well as disprove your argument.
Judgment, writes Schumpeter, the business columnist for The Economist, “is too often missing from leadership studies.” The reason is that it is a topic too hard to quantify with metrics but as the Schumpeter column notes, “[J]udgment is what matters most.”
The problem is that too much reliance on the facts can lead one up a blind alley, especially when the assumptions that generate the facts are faulty. As Colin Powell once noted, “Experts often possess more data than judgment.”
Judgment is critical for success so managers need to trust their instincts as well as well as the facts they evaluate.
Getting behind an idea means imbuing it with our conviction and our passion. Such commitment is vital when pushing for an initiative or suggestion that you think is important to implement. This enthusiasm also helps you bring others to your cause. But it can also be your worst enemy when someone, such as your boss, pushes back.
Since you are so enamored of your idea, your instinct is to protect it as you might a child. (Just think of the common phrase, “This project is my baby.”) Big mistake! This puts you on the defensive.
When you face criticism you need to defend yourself without being defensive. The latter opens you to additional criticism because very often defensive will provoke negative behaviors such as lashing out or shutting down. You become caught in the moment and the niceties of polite discourse go out the window. It is fine to be passionate but you want to avoid becoming overly passionate, that is, unwilling and unable to listen to others.
Maintaining an even keel in the face of skepticism or even hostility is a vital attribute to leadership presence, the kind of aura that you need to radiate if you ever hope to instill followership. And when people are whaling on your ideas it is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. The challenge is not to overreact and to separate personality from ideology. Here’s how.
That could be a lesson contained in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy when we see characters who find themselves in difficulty because they have strayed from their moral center.
Today, the term “bright shiny objects” is used in reference to organizations that cannot formulate a strategy, or if they do develop one, they fail to adhere to it. As a result such companies end up chasing after things that on the surface look appealing but upon investigation prove to be untenable.
Bright shiny objects are distractors. As such they belong in the realm of fables not in the corridors of management.
In times of crisis people always look for inspirational leaders. What makes for inspiration is subjective, but there is one common element when speaking about leaders who inspire: they have a strong leadership presence.
By presence we mean “earned authority.” That is, people follow your leadership because you are a proven quantity, whose credibility rests on your having gotten things done. Every leader must aspire to demonstrate presence in order to inspire; this is a theme I explore in my new book, 12 Steps to Power Presence: How Leaders Assert their Authority to Lead.
Let me outline a few key points:
Know the score. Executives who talk a good game may appear to have presence but what they really have is a silver tongue. If you seek to inspire, you need a deep knowledge of the situation. Communication that directs people to strive for big goals must be reinforced with a process and with information that support achieving those goals, otherwise it is just empty rhetoric. Leaders with presence know their business.
Radiate command. A leader with presence wears authority like a well-tailored suit. Others notice the good fit and feel comfortable in her presence. A leader who cannot radiate authority is one that will struggle to create followership. Authority stems from strong self-awareness; leaders with command presence are confident because they know what they are capable of achieving by themselves and through others.
Leaders can sometimes communicate more without words than with them. What matters is poise and conviction.
That came to mind as I watched Kevin Bacon’s performance in Taking Chance, an HBO movie based upon Lt. Col. Mike Strobl’s moving account of escorting a slain Marine, Lance Corporal Chase Phelps, to his final resting place in Wyoming. While Bacon has the lead role, it seems he has no more than 10 pages of dialogue to deliver and most of that in one to two sentences at a time. Without the benefit of words we see the compassion he bears for the young Marine, the conflict he undergoes because he is not in combat himself, and the strong bond for service he carries.
What Bacon’s performance reminds us is that a leader need not always use words to convey meaning; non-verbal cues often say more than words can ever do. Unfortunately, too often non-verbal cues are displayed to the wrong effect, that is, to display distraction, disregard or even distaste. Those in charge, especially those in very senior positions, must be careful not only with their words but with their body language. Here are some suggestions.
Relax your facial muscles. I once worked with a talented engineer who had a real affinity for teaching others; it was something he enjoyed doing. But since he was new to his firm, people didn’t know him and when they saw him they would see him in his office with his face scrunched up and seeming very intense. His body language said, “Stay away!” In reality he was deep in concentration but with people he could be engaging. He worked on reminding himself to relax his facial muscles. When he did so, he seemed more approachable, and as such was able to connect better with his new colleagues. (Yes, you can practice relaxing your facial muscles by looking in a mirror. This is not vanity.)
Leaders are always judged by others. The higher their profile the bigger the stage, and their words and their actions are magnified by the roles they hold.
X-factors are comprised of many things that work individually — and collectively — to help the leader. These include ambition, creativity, humor and compassion, as well as three more words that begin with “C” — character, courage and confidence. X-factors strengthen the leader’s commitment to doing what’s best for the team and the organization.
The sum of your X-factors attributes give you the foundation to do what you do better than anything else. It also lays a foundation of trust.
Trust is the bedrock upon which you build followership.
The other day a senior executive with whom I was working told me that one thing he strove to do was turn “make work” projects into “make work for you” activities. One example: the performance review. For too many organizations, performance reviews are onerous activities that managers and direct reports go through because they have to, not because it adds value to the organization.
The opposite was true with this executive’s company, where performance reviews were tied explicitly to performance metrics themselves tied to corporate objectives. His company had managed to keep the review from becoming another pro forma exercise.
This lesson has merit for every manager struggling to optimize operations, especially at a time when managers are continually challenged to do more with less — fewer people, fewer resources, and less time. Sometimes you can find points of leverage by finding ways to turn what some perceive as useless activities into productive ones.
Here are some suggestions.
Itemize what you do. Do a task assessment to identify how people are really spending their time. They may be working hard, but are they doing what the team needs them to do? How much time are they spending on processes — and which processes? Sometimes we are so busy with tasks that we lose sight of the big picture.