Archive for the ‘Essential Skills’ Category
Listening is by far the most important skill for a leader to hone. Have you ever seen a leader who seems unflappable and remains calm in even the most chaotic circumstances? Watch that person closely and you will see the secret to this cool demeanor—focused listening. As a leader, you need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? If you speak too soon, you shut off creative impulse. You shut off collaboration. By speaking too soon, you force ideas on your team, even if that is not your intention. When you keep silent long enough to understand fully—not just hear—what someone is saying or doing, you create space for that person to invent, aspire, and contribute. By creating that space, you afford your team a sense of ownership, and you make room for the possibility that someone on your team has the best idea at this moment. By listening carefully, you sharpen all your senses and promote composure among those around you.
There are many ways to listen; the most obvious is with your ears. However the act of listening is far more nuanced than just hearing words. To do it effectively you must pay careful attention to sounds and much more. The pace, breath, tone, and inflection of the voice all combine to provide the implied meaning, intentions, state-of-mind, and needs of the speaker. Reactions of your fellow listeners can also teach much. When you listen attentively, you shelve your own thoughts, and for a moment there is no judgment, no discrimination, no understanding. Only listening. When you listen deliberately, your mind—which is like a hyperactive dog pulling on a leash—soon starts barking with ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and decisions. If you can hold that dog off for a bit, you can listen with clarity, which leads to hidden insights. Insights that are very useful to a leader.
Listening is not for ears alone. When you practice listening, you sharpen your other senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch. When you listen carefully with your ears, you can sense tone and inflection, cadence and emphasis—all of which combine to provide insight into the meaning of the words spoken. When you apply that same level of attention with your sight, you might notice a flicker in the corner of an eye, a twitch in the corner of a mouth, a shift in stance—all of which combine to provide insights into meaning both overt and covert. You develop a perception skill that few even know exists, let alone master.
Our wonderful human brain can simultaneously process observations made with all our senses. Listening as a practice sharpens that awareness automatically and leads to clearer perception of what is happening with the people on your team and in their environment. This clearer perception leads to competitive advantage because you can identify critical cues about intentions and motivations.
Are You Listening?
Most schools don’t teach listening. Neither do most parents. The closest we get to teaching children to listen is concentration games such as I Spy, Where’s Waldo? and Memory Match Cards, which emphasize keen observation but not listening per se. Early in childhood, by the third grade in the communities I have seen firsthand, we move our kids’ efforts toward serious academic pursuits, which usually involve more than a decade of frenetic preparation for scarce slots among top universities. As a result, we produce well-educated men and women with a singular need to demonstrate that they are the smartest person in the room, who vie to answer first, and who are not very practiced at listening. How many times have you come across this person in your career? Are you one of them?
Some kids growing up in this education system react to competition by becoming a class clown in an attempt to divert academic scrutiny or out of scorn for it. No listening there. Those who cannot compete in the “speed-answer-game” or the corollary “snarky-comment-game” often give up. For them, daydreaming or socializing becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Listening loses out here, too. Other kids end up pursuing non-intellectual competition, usually focused on running or retaining possession of a fast-moving ball. These more athletic youngsters might learn to listen to a coach, but if you have ever coached kids, you know they aren’t usually listening; they just get skilled at looking as if they are.
In other words, education, development, and training in every country on earth are invested in sharpening competitive skills. This is indeed necessary for leadership, but it is not sufficient. I have spent much of my life perfecting a competitive instinct. I love competition, thrive on it, and believe it is the fuel that makes a democracy and capitalism possible. What I find disappointing is that in the midst of all the competitive juices flowing in academic, athletic, and professional endeavors, we neglect to develop the most important skill we will ever have—careful listening. It is the doorway to understanding our world and our place in it, and is the source of every great leader’s strength.
If this doesn’t make sense, consider the fact that a professional baseball coach doesn’t win by hitting a home run. A baseball coach wins by getting the team to function well and consistently over the course of nearly one hundred ninety games each season. He assembles a team that has the potential to win. There are key athletes on the team that can hit home runs when needed most. There are those who pitch well at the beginning or at the end of a game. There are others who field the ball well together and make brilliant defensive plays. To guide a team to victory, the baseball coach must have a very clear awareness of the abilities, temperament, and condition of each member of his roster, and an awareness of each of these critical areas is best sharpened by practicing clear and concentrated listening every day on and off the field. With a competitive drive, the coach will make the effort to lead the team well. And, if he listens well and pays attention with all his senses, the coach can consistently lead them to win.
Listen and Learn
Listening is a skill that, like any other, is mastered only through practice. And because listening isn’t part of the standard primary or secondary curriculum, we are all sorely in need of practice. Our minds are very busy. You and I and every person trying to lead an organization has a mind that acts like a dog sniffing, chasing, and barking at shadows and leaves rustling in the breeze. Learning to listen meticulously is a lot like training a dog. Want to learn how? Let’s practice.
Breathe. Find a quiet place. Sit still and comfortably with a reasonably straight but relaxed spine. Close your eyes. Bring all your awareness to your breath as you inhale and exhale as fully and deeply as you can. Allow your mind and body to relax and settle a bit as you use the breath to bring yourself into the present moment.
Observe. Open your eyes and look down at what is in front of you. With your eyes open, you are less likely to start daydreaming. For this practice to be effective, be sure to stay awake and present. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic? Birds chirping? People talking nearby? Your heartbeat? The blood rushing in your ears? A clock ticking? Your breath? Let your mind roam and listen to everything around you, all while your eyes are open.
Concentrate. With your eyes still open, concentrate on your slow, deep breaths in silence. Listen to each breath carefully as it enters your nostrils, passes through your trachea, fills your lungs, and then reverses. Continue to listen to the inhales, exhales, and subtle spaces in between. These sounds and the sounds of all the activity around you can each be perceived individually and collectively in each breath. Every time your mind wanders away from your breath, just smile, take an extra deep breath, and start again. You are concentrating on one point amidst all the activity around you. Just breathe. You are training your mind to sit still instead of roam.
Awareness. You may get bored listening to your breath. You might become frustrated that you end up in a daydream after each few breaths, even though your eyes are open. You might feel antsy. You might realize you are hungry. No matter what you experience, whenever you notice that you have strayed from your breath, you are having a spark of awareness—you just woke up. Use that awareness and just come back to studying each breath while you observe all the other sounds around you and in you. Practice patience with yourself. Practice calm control. Practice staying present. You are gently training your concentration to come back on command.
Practice. Do this for at least five minutes every morning or evening, whenever you are likely to consistently set time aside. If you enjoy this practice, do it for ten or fifteen minutes every day or try it for five minutes three times a day. After two weeks, apply your honed, concentrated listening to someone speaking to you. If you notice that your mind wanders, becomes bored, or starts coming up with ideas while that person is speaking, use that same spark of awareness to return to the speaker. Come back to their voice, just like you came back to studying breaths. With practice, you will notice that you aren’t drifting as much, and you will start to see, hear, and feel cues you may never have noticed before.
Leadership is a relationship, and listening is essential to building successful relationships. When people are heard fully and completely, without interruption and without debate until they have finished their point, they are more likely to trust you. They are far more likely to be receptive to whatever ideas you would like them to consider—whether it is a request you are making of them or an opinion you would like to share with them.
Have you ever seen a leader checking email messages on a laptop, BlackBerry, or iPhone during a meeting? Are you one of those leaders? Not only is this enormously disrespectful, it is self-defeating. By not listening and observing, you miss the most valuable information you need to lead, and you simultaneously devalue the speaker and the others in the room. Pay attention to the people in the room or cancel the meeting. Listening isn’t just about getting information you need; the act of listening is the primary tool you have to inspire and motivate others.
It doesn’t take much effort to become a more effective listener. Consistent practice is essential. If you start now, in a few weeks you will already be a more skilled listener than the majority of people on the planet. The average adult attention span has been conditioned by years of television and Web browsing to last only about twenty seconds.9 So if you can focus your attention for five minutes, then you will be operating fifteen times higher than the average. Not a bad start. Even more valuable, by practicing calm listening every day, your demeanor begins to adjust. You begin to be more deliberate, even in the midst of noise and chaos. You will appear unflappable, which is always inspiring. Your natural levels of passion and enthusiasm will not be dampened—they will be more focused.
People will start to take notice and you will too. What are you waiting for? Try it right now. We are at the end of this post. It is a good time to take five minutes to practice listening. And always remember the ancient wisdom of Epictetus: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
- Be still and silent.
- Relax your mind and observe.
- Use your breath to focus your attention.
- Let go of expectations and judgments.
- Stay present and focused on your breath.
- Each time you drift from observing your breath, gently guide yourself back to it.
- Do this, in silence, five minutes every day.
- Apply this deliberate awareness to all situations.
The situation in Iran serves as a sharp object lesson. Every leader at every level in every organization faces the test of power. The best will will use the power of their position to create a better world, even if it means sacrificing themselves. The mediocre will use that power to retain their position.
The situation in Iran is intriguing because whether the recent election was a fraud or not, we are learning just how mediocre Ahmadinejad really is. If the election is a fraud, then he is conducting a raw grab for power and the citizens of his nation are not fooled and will not easily be repressed. If the election is a fraud, then his desire for rank, fame, and power is more important than his ambition to represent the interests of his people and the region in which they live. There is a delicious irony in watching our passionate Persian cousins shouting and marching against one of their own flawed leaders rather than buring American flags and effigies of one of our flawed leaders.
If the election is not a fraud, then Ahmadinejad is a deluded fool. If he did win this election fairly, then he would gain far greater power and credibility in his own nation, in his region, and among world leaders if he merely asked for calm and called for a swift investigation into the allegations of fraud. By using his power and leadership role to drive an open, public, and independent evaluation of the election process and count, he would have cemented his position and his opponent would have shunken to nothing.
In either case – whether the election is a fraud or not – the situation has touched a nerve in the Iranian psyche. Echo’s of “Yes we can” and “It is time for a change” ring amidst all the shouting and anger on the street. Again, if Ahmedinejad were a leader worthy of the title, he would be listening carefully and adapting quickly. There is no evidence of listening.
There is only evidence of power to retain position. And a failure to lead when his nation needs a leader most.
My only hope is that this story ends with leadership rising as it did in Polish Solidarity rather than power clamping down in Tiananmen Square.
As a young man, I had often heard tales of the hearty Finnish appetite for vodka, for cross country skiing, and for swimming in icy waters. They all seemed like tall tales to me. Oh how wrong you can be.
When I was working for Real Networks a few years back, I was fortunate enough to inherit the fledgling games business. We purchased a company that made fun games to play on your cell phone. The company was called Mr. Goodliving, which seemed an odd name to me but I wrote it off as a translation error. Oh, how wrong you can be.
During my first visit to this business unit, I arrived after a nine-hour flight to Copenhagen which led to a layover that felt more like a hangover, and then another flight to Helsinki. I was so looking forward to settling into my hotel room. Oh, how wrong you can be.
Our hosts picked me up and took me to dinner. We packed five people into a small car, drove for an hour or so outside of the city to a small house—a shack really—where I was told there would be a locally renown chef to provide us highly personalized service. First came the vodka. Then came some beer. Then some more vodka. Then it was time to get naked.
You didn’t read that wrong. You see, the shack was actually a sauna house with a dining room. I got naked with my hosts, sat in a 160F heated room, and talked business, family, and other “getting to know you” topics. Of course they insisted on dousing the hot rocks with water to keep the air from drying us into Folgers crystals. I was sweating bullets or the vodka was condensing on my skin. I tried not to think about the fact that my first staff meeting was being held in the nude. This situation brought a whole new meaning to the term penis envy. Fortunately, I was sufficiently inebriated not to care too much about measurements. Besides, I was the boss, so my ego wouldn’t let me be embarrassed or act the least bit surprised by any of this.
Just when I thought I was going to die from heat exhaustion, jet lag, and alcohol poisoning, it was time to go swimming. It was December. The Baltic Sea is salt water. It has to be below the freezing point of water to become solid. There were chunks of ice floating in the sea. It was 10pm. Thus far for dinner, there had been only alcohol and heat and as yet, no food. My judgment was impaired. So I agreed to go swimming with these hearty Finns. They jumped in with glee. And yes, I jumped into water that was 30F and only a minute after having been in a cedar box blazing 130 hotter. I didn’t die. It actually felt refreshing, and brought on an appetite of epic proportions. I thought maybe my Dad’s Lithuanian blood did in fact still course in my veins.
We finally ate. We ate a lot of great food. We drank more vodka. We sang a few songs. And then we went to the bars to celebrate our new post-sauna-trauma brotherhood, where we found even more vodka, some of it dark black and tasting like a bag of licorice had been slowly dissolved in grain alcohol over several years of curing. The Mr. Goodliving gang lived up to its name. Until of course the next morning, when those Folgers crystals came in handy.
Tens of millions of people are glued to their televisions every autumn to cheer their favorite NFL team to hit, shove, and grind their opponents into the dirt. We openly and eagerly celebrate the physical spectacle of football—a sport that rewards the most agile of men with the roar of 100,000 adoring fans while brutally punishing the rest. The NFL is filled with young men trained to withstand and deliver severe pain week after week. Yet we act surprised when those men fail to instantly transform into gentlemen of compassion when they walk off the field of approved violence. We wag our fingers at those who find it hard to turn off the aggression and cruelty we so enjoy watching on the gridiron.
Michael Vick responded to this hypocrisy in 2005 by flipping off an angry mob bellowing from the stadium. It was a childish gesture but rooted in honesty. Like so many of his NFL peers, Michael Vick loved the spotlight, the bravado, and the money. And like so many of his NFL peers, he became addicted to the power of his position and failed to mature into a man of character. Armed with the arrogance and cruelty that had become second nature to him on the football field, he created a forum in which dogs were forced to mimic the same aggression and physical violence. And for this particular act of cruelty to hapless animals he has been punished. Some would argue not enough. However, he is financially bankrupt. He has served two years in prison. In short, he has received punishment far harsher than most any other convicted dog fighting operator.
Commissioner Roger Goddell has made it clear that a return to the NFL is contingent upon Michael’s demonstration of genuine remorse. It seems a fair and reasonable condition, even if it’s a highly subjective criterion. However, the real question is whether Michael has developed humility in prison or if his time there merely served to deepen his sense of entitlement and persecution. If he is to succeed as a quarterback, he must first accept that leadership is relationship. His teammates will only follow him if he listens more than he talks. His fans will only support him if he embodies both raw power and disciplined control—on and off the field. His coaches will only play him if he enhances their status in the community both as an athlete and as a citizen. Michael has already taken a first step in remaking himself by working with the Humane Society. Some claim it’s a public relations stunt, but those same critics would condemn him even more if he had not begun to work with an animal rights cause.
Michael Vick has paid the dues we as a society have deemed necessary. In fact, he has been punished more than almost any other who has been convicted of this particular crime. He has only a few years left as an NFL athlete. If he is fortunate enough to re-enter this brutal sport in the near future, he deserves the opportunity to redeem himself as a man, as a professional athlete, and as a leader.
Pamela is a charming and insightful leader. She has led an interesting and eclectic career in the Performing Arts, in Education, building her own businesses, and serving as Vice President & COO at Coach U, Inc . From 1996-2006 she helped create and then later led the International Coaching Federation (ICF) – a highly respected standards organization in the professional coaching field, serving over 14,000 members in over 80 countries.
Building the ICF
As one of the founding members and early leaders in the ICF, Pamela has keen insights into the challenges of building an organization from scratch. Her story begins with the motivation the early leaders had for creating the ICF: community and education. She was building a coaching business in the early 1990′s and like many others at that time, discovered that the market did not understand what a professional coach was. Nor was there any consistency in the definition of a professional coach, even among the more prominent schools who specialized in that field. “In order to help create a profession with competency based credentials, behavioral standards, shared best practices and effective self-regulation, I joined a number of prominent founders of coaching schools in a conversation to try to create and promote unity of purpose and process.”
As you can imagine, the challenges in forming the ICF were immense. At that time, if professional coaching was even heard of, it was viewed by most as a frivolous soft skills consultancy or worse, as a kind of charlatan psychotherapy. The challenges faced by Pamela and other early leaders of the ICF included not only the education of a marketplace; it also required the typical herding of cats in a startup and merging many strong egos into a unified vision for the profession. She describes her leadership model as “heart-centered” with her view of the role of leader as “inspiring others to greatness rather than laying down the law by wielding power.” Her approach is similar to the somewhat over-marketed term “servant-leader” so frequently quoted by politicians, pastors, and business leaders these days.
Pamela’s heart-centered leadership model builds on three pillars, “know thyself, inspire other to greatness, and defend the decisions made by team as if they were your own.” Using that platform, she focused first and foremost on exploring what was common among the founding members of the ICF. She did not sell her own vision to her peer group. In fact, she probably would have failed if she had tried that approach. As she explained, “Some of the first board members of the ICF were well established, internationally renowned experts in professional coaching with strongly held views.”
Instead, Pamela chose to remain open and curious even when the conversation went to places she didn’t agree with. “As a result, I was in a better position to facilitate and co- lead this group of passionate and insightful people.” She goes on to say, “We saw early on that there was already great enthusiasm and passion for the conversation” and she used that enthusiasm as a rallying point to help get the team through the more challenging debates. No matter what obstacles appeared during a specific negotiation, most often Pamela could bring the team back to center with an agreement that the debate itself was productive, no matter how contentious.
What became clear in those early ICF conversations was a shared view on the core competencies of a professional coach, even though there were radically different approaches to training, development, philosophical base, or the coaching process itself. She explains, “This early insight by the team led to a productive conversation about the standards for coaching.” This allowed the team to come to a firm resolution. And that agreement in turn served as the foundation for additional areas of agreement as time went on.
In Pamela’s heart-centered leadership model, there is a sense of ownership that is different from other leadership models. If you are selling your vision to a group, you certainly own that vision. But if you are inspiring the team to agree upon a shared vision, if you use your role as leader as foil for the debate, seed of discussion, builder of compromise, then the outcome isn’t yours. It belongs to the team. In order to create confidence among that team; to give them permission to take a strong stance on a risky position, Pam believes, “you need to be willing to be publically responsible for the decision made by the team. You create a space and freedom to fail. Trust is formed by standing up for the decisions made by the team and defending their position as though it were your own.” Of course, it follows that when the outcome is clearly successful, the heart-centered leader must then ensure the team gets credit for that success.
Source of leadership inspiration
This heart-centered leadership model is challenging enough. Using it during the formation of a new organization in an embryonic market filled with misinformation was daunting. Pamela was confident, however, because her style had evolved over a many years and different career phases. Her path in heart-centered leadership began in High School, where she had a drama teacher that called upon her to learn a new character role in only a few days to step in for a student who had abandoned the play. In the skillful hands of that director, Pamela discovered abilities she didn’t have and she watched him also draw performances from actors who had no idea they could act. That inspired her to pursue a career in the Performing Arts and to acquire the skills of a stage director. She says, “I learned that pulling together lights, sound, and whatever talent pool showed up for auditions, then revising the script to accommodate what I had to work with for that production – that process itself was the performance. Great results are self-evident to an audience if the creative process is treated as the reason for the effort.”
Whom do we serve?
Among the many debates by the ICF board members, the debate about the definition of “customer” for the ICF gave rise to a number of operational impacts. They argued:who is our client? Our members? The profession itself? The clients of the coach? What about the training organizations and schools? In the end, it was agreed that the membership of the ICF was the customer. But it was also agreed that no major decisions could be made without considering the impact on the stakeholders who helped make the ICF possible. This was easy to say but hard to implement. For example, the training organizations were often inadvertently left out of decisions and forgotten in important communications regarding changes to the emerging credentialing standards and processes. Though never intentionalt it caused unwanted friction. After years of practice, the ICF now has implemented a thorough decision making and communication protocol to consult with or inform stakeholders as required to ensure a smoother operation.
Having said all that, the ICF had a parallel mission it could not shirk. While the ICF had defined its membership as the customer and organizing principle, the ICF also had to educate the marketplace on professional coaching and what standards clients should seek in a professional coach. As a result, the ICF had to consider the clients of the coach as part of its stakeholder base. By that definition, most of humanity is a stakeholder which made segmentation for messaging a monstrous challenge that the ICF still grapples with today.
One of the operating challenges facing the ICF board in the early days was that the board members were experts in the practice of coaching and their own business, they were not necessarily experts in building a non-profit organization, professional association, or standards body. Pamela recalls, “The professional coaching process can fall short when trying to run a business.” A business management team needs to make decisions, take risks, evaluate performance, set objectives, and manage plans. Coaching can help you do all those things better but a coach doesn’t take those actions for the client. So in the same way that a sales associate promoted to manager suddenly finds himself not quite as competent at leading a team as he was selling the product, the ICF leadership team found its core competencies in coaching not completely sufficient to build and run a coaching federation. “We had hired a management firm and later hired an independent consultant to conduct a business audit of operational and governance processes and to establish benchmarks for performance.” This led to a management overhaul run by operational experts that set the stage for the growth that the ICF has enjoyed ever since.
In her role as ICF President, Pamela had to travel the world and work with many different people. She learned to enjoy them all “even the grumpy ones because I came to see that their dissent led to insights that would not have come forward without them. The only times I really was irked was dealing with those who were stuck on only one way of looking at possible solutions.” When I asked her how she overcame this, she said “retaining self control. Not jumping into a debate; giving the dissenter and naysayer the opportunity to be fully heard: To fully make their case and to acknowledge their input.” Then she could say “Thank you for making that clear. And in addition to that well explained view, there are perhaps other ways to look at this…” which provided her a free and clear platform to allow someone else to make a case for the plan that caused the dissent in the first place.
Source of Joy
In all her travels to build and promote the ICF globally, Pamela discovered that no matter what country she was in, no matter how different the culture or challenges were the same principals of good business applied. Business is conducted among human beings and the most successful approach is asking “How can I help?” In Korea, significant focus of the ICF was on serving students who came to their first jobs already suffering burn-out after years of intense pressure to compete in school. By contrast in Bogota, significant focus of the ICF was on creating sustainable economic growth among the poor. In each place that ICF members worked, the basic intention was the same – helping other people succeed in their endeavors – and in each place that simple intention came alive in exciting, different activities. This inspired Pamela to work even harder to build the ICF and to share those many different approaches and common insights everywhere she travelled.
There is one insight that came from this conversation with Pamela about leadership that serves as a challenge to all leaders. A heart-centered leadership model requires a simple focus that anyone can apply immediately. Know yourself completely. Know your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and fears. Inspire others to step up and achieve greatness. And then have the courage to allow others to explore and express their own vision for your organization.
© 2008 BlueSeven Partners, LLC
Listening is by far the most important skill for a leader to hone. We need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? Because as leaders, if we speak too soon, we shut of creation. We shut off contribution. We force the adoption of our ideas. When we keep silent long enough to understand (not just hear) what someone is saying (or doing) we create the space for them to build, create, and own the plan and the outcome.
Storytelling is not a skill everyone is born with. But it’s a skill we can all develop. People on your team want to believe! They want to believe you know where we are going, or you will get us there even if you aren’t sure of the exact path at this moment. People LOVE stories because that is how they reassure themselves in the midst of chaos that what they are working on matters. They want stories about where they are going. They want stories that compares what they are doing with others. And they love to laugh and learn from stories that show where they have been.
Sincerely acknowledging contribution is necessary to sustain motivation during the hard times. It’s not hard to do and doesn’t require a lot of effort or expensive gifts. A thank-you note is enough most of the time. Public recognition of accomplishments, contributions, efforts, and even mere attempts sets the benchmark not only for the people who are performing tasks but also sets the standard for the leaders in your organization.
Negotiation is a practical and essential skill for every leader. Negotiation is often misunderstood to be the domain of clever deal makers. It’s actually really simple. Make very clear requests for a promise. Don’t walk away until you understand exactly what the promise is – what is being done, when, and what the standard of excellence is. And then check up on the status of that promise to see how you can help. It’s that simple. And if you need to make a promise, make damn sure you are clear about what you are going to do, by when, and what the standard of excellence is. Make sure you follow up with your requester on the status of your promise and any help you need to fulfill it. By doing that, you are modeling the behavior you expect.
(C) 2008 Michael Schutzler, all rights reserved.
While it is true that great leaders inspire by painting a mental image of a better future, many charlatans and mean spirited characters can and have done as much. The hallmark of a great leader is a willingness to embrace doubt while driving to separate facts from opinions and theories. In short, the bedrock of great leadership behavior is empirical skepticism.
Abraham Lincoln wrote and spoke eloquently about a future America, but it was his deep doubts about the social norms of his time, his agonizing doubts about waging a war, and his ability to see slavery at face value, that made him a great President. Ghandi was eloquent about non-violent protest and a future India of shared cultures and equitable economics. He inspired millions to action with the hope of a better future, an unwillingness to accept the arbitrary social and economic structures accepted at that time, and a focus on the facts of inequity in his country that made him a great leader. Pope John Paul II was a great orator but it was his ability to see the facts on the ground in Poland and his unwillingness to accept the status quo that inspired millions to follow him. He faced great doubt about whether the communist regime would or would not try to kill him, and yet he had the courage to take action.
Great leaders are filled with doubt and yet will not allow themselves to wallow in it. Great leaders provoke us to face the world as it is and then demand from us the courage to achieve what we perceive to be impossible.
We are surrounded by fiction. As leaders we need to sort the facts from the fiction. Accountants, engineers, marketers, technicians, nurses, doctors, car mechanics, plumbers, even (especially?) medical researchers make assertions that blend their observations with their assumptions, theories, and opinions. For example, cash in the bank as of this moment seems like a fact. Then again, the bank will tell you what checks have cleared; more cash may be actually in the bank but won’t be available until a current deposit clears. Less cash may be in the bank because some checks already written have not been processed at this moment. Why does this matter? Well, if you are running a start-up and you are trying to assess whether you are going to make payroll, it might matter a lot to the people who are going to get paychecks. Some nuances, like the definition of cash in the bank, only have a practical impact in an edge case. For example, if you have plenty of cash to make payroll, you won’t care about this distinction. But if you have barely enough or are just a bit short on cash to make payroll, then this distinction matters quite a bit if you want your employees to have a pleasant experience when they go to their bank to cash their paychecks.
The same happens in every functional discipline. Take engineering as an example. A website that is available 99.999% of the time sounds like a great achievement, but it’s almost guaranteed to be fiction even if the data and the calculation were done without error and with sincerity. Achieving that level of availability likely means that maintenance time needed to sustain a superior level of stability was not included in the calculation. It is also likely that network availability (over which engineering has little control) was not included in the calculation. So although engineering can feel great about “five nines” the reality is that a consumer who visits the site experiences far less availability. And in the end, having a happy engineering team is good but having happy customers is better.
A good leader understands that the people who are presenting “facts” are usually layering many assumptions, theories, and opinions into their assertions. A leader needs to sort the facts from the fiction in order to surface the assumptions and theories, and evaluate them critically. You do this by suspending judgment, and drilling for assumptions to make them explicit. In this way, you can deliberately choose which explicit assumptions, opinions and theories are deemed valuable in combination with the facts at hand.