November 12, 2019

Two leadership skills you need and one derailer you must avoid

Leadership tips are everywhere in our growth-oriented world.  Many are good, a few are silly, and only some apply to everyone in leadership roles. In the post that follows, I think you’ll find the latter. Here are two things you must do, no matter what type of institution you lead, plus one thing you should never do.

Here’s what I mean.

A skill to build:  Contain your emotions

We are all human, and we all have emotions.  Leaders, too, of course.  This isn’t about whether your emotions are valid; they are – you are human, and emotions are normal.  But leaders who let their emotions lead the way and guide their decision-making are seen as erratic, reactive, even histrionic (and women, as you might guess, are more prone to being pegged as “emotional.”  But anyone can be seen this way.)

When leadership decisions are made based on emotions like anger, fear and anxiety, rather than a more objective framework like logic, values or strategic goals, employees quickly lose trust in their leaders, and they lose faith in the stability of the institution.

So how do you manage the dichotomy of being a totally human leader who does not lead by emotion? 

First, start with the emotion.  Recognize and name it.  This acknowledgement alone gives you a little distance that better enables you to step outside your feelings and lead from a place of greater wisdom.

Then, interrupt the response.  Our brains are trained for action under stress (you can thank your ancestors who needed fight, flight or freeze responses to avoid being eaten).  If you don’t stop the train of emotional response, it will carry you away.  So, this is about putting an intentional pause between emotion and reaction. Here’s how.

It actually takes time to learn this and create a new reflex for yourself.  Tools that can help include:

Journaling.  I love this idea for leaders regardless of their goals.  It doesn’t need to be complicated.  Even just jotting down a few notes each day will help foster awareness.  You can make notes on your dominant emotion on a given day, and the ways in which that emotion affected (or didn’t) your work as a leader.

MindfulnessThis is a practice that can take many forms, but it also comes down to awareness and intent.  You can keep it as simple as regularly checking in with yourself throughout the day.  Ask yourself, “what is my dominant emotional state right now?  What do I need to do to get to a better emotional state to do the work I need to do?”  And if you’re hit by a surprise in real time that triggers a response?  Again, cultivate the habit of intentionally pausing before reacting.  This is mindfulness in action.

A second skill to build:  Manage impact, rather than intent

Sometimes when we interact with someone, our impact is substantially different than we intended.  You can go around in circles over why someone’s perception was different than you intended, but the impact doesn’t change.  And the impact on them is what matters to others.  Leaders must hone the skill to manage that impact, rather than getting caught up in their own intent and any sense that there was misinterpretation.

Your impact:

This can play out in many ways in the workplace, but it’s especially common when delivering feedback.  You might intend to encourage your employee to think differently about a problem, while your impact on the recipient might cause them to think, “My efforts to solve this problem have been a failure (or I have been a failure).” 

If someone has a negative reaction to something you’ve said, this calls for some reflection.  What impact did you actually have?  What was your intent?  How did the two go awry?  And what must you do to deal with the impact you’ve had, once you become aware of it?

The impact others have:

This idea also has implications for how you provide feedback (and not just the impact of the feedback you provide).  The Situation-Behavior-Impact feedback model enables you to help your team see the dichotomy of their own impact and intent, and it can help you reinforce beneficial behaviors and interrupt those that are less desirable.

Imagine you and your direct report attend a meeting with a prospective client, and your direct report gets pushy in a way that clearly turns off the prospect, who ends the meeting curtly and early.  Your feedback to the employee under this model can be focused on the impact (we lost the client) and the behavior (you threatened to walk away from the deal) while offering a chance to explore your employee’s intent (what was your goal when you said that?).  This is an honest approach that is more open-minded that coming in swinging.  After all, it’s unlikely your employee actually meant to lose the business.

The reality is, we never can know for certain anyone else’s intent, and they can’t know ours.  A key leadership capability is suspending assumptions, interrupting any narrative we might spin around why something happened, and approaching our colleagues and subordinates with curiosity and an open mind.

A leadership derailer to avoid: Recruitment (to the story you are telling yourself)

Professional relationships are tricky, and we are all surrounded by friends, foes, allies and adversaries.  We need to be careful we aren’t making assumptions about those relationships, and we need to be especially wary of recruiting others to buy into the stories we tell ourselves.

This is what I mean by recruitment.  Maybe you’ve decided another department head is compromising your work in some way.  Or maybe you think she simply doesn’t like you.  These things happen.  But when you spin a narrative around the kernel of these ideas, and then start recruiting others to believe your story, you tread into dangerous territory for anyone, but especially for leaders.

Whatever is going on to make you feel a certain way about someone or some situation, recognize that although the impact belongs to you (e.g., “I feel threatened”), you know nothing about the intent of the other(s) involved.  And in the meantime, recruiting others to your narrative undermines respect for you and trust in your capabilities as a leader.

If you find yourself dipping your toe into these waters, it’s time to again interrupt the reaction.  Ask yourself, why do I need others to agree with me here?  Am I doing something that will be constructive, or am I looking for validation? (The former may be OK, but the latter is not.)

I want to be clear that there are some kinds of recruitment that can be beneficial and even the mark of effective leadership, but these are more about concrete aims than personal feelings.  What if you’re piecing together a proposal and want to work some back-channel communications to gain support for or troubleshoot your idea?  That might be perfectly appropriate and might improve your negotiating position.  If you want to gain support for something more insidious (I just know Mary wants to undermine me), it’s time for a harder look at what’s really going on. 

What other skills do all leaders need? And what other derailers put leadership at risk?

Please share your thoughts on these ideas and others you have in the comments.

Last updated November 12, 2019

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