Two Simple Truths for Effective Leadership

People sometimes have a strange idea about what it means to be a leader, regardless of their field. Some merely “pose” as leaders because they are unsure how to lead effectively. Others may consider themselves to be naturally good leaders simply by virtue of their title or position, such as mother, store manager or lieutenant. To compound the problem, these people usually assume that everyone else also believes them to be good leaders merely because of their rank or title. The result can be insensitivity and a lack of consideration for those being supervised. Such an attitude can be death for any constructive leadership attempt. Following are two characteristics of a good leader or manager that illustrate this theory:

First, consider the act of listening. God gave us two ears and one mouth.  This ratio of personal communication instruments should give us a clue about the proportion of time that each should be used!  The hallmark of a good leader is the ability to listen to others, no matter what they want to say. It’s amazing how often this simple truth still mystifies leaders who think that their position means they should talk first and ask questions later, if ever. Many leaders forget how to be humble and recognize that they don’t know everything.  In reality, they often have a great deal to learn about those they supervise as well as the job those people are doing. For some reason, they confuse their job title with some sort of overall expertise, which makes them overbearing and foolish in the eyes of their subordinates.

A second point concerns respect.  I personally think it is a very important point to remember. Specifically, managers should treat those closest to them as though they were strangers.  Let me explain that statement. Because we have people in our lives with whom we become very familiar, either at the workplace or at home, it is very easy to slip into a rather casual attitude toward these people who know us best. The result is sometimes an outward appearance of a lack of respect or love, expressed by how we speak or behave. When we are upset, busy or unhappy, it is very easy for us to snap at those closest to us. We may shout or become nasty or insulting simply because someone is nearby. However, if the telephone rings with a stranger on the line, we can immediately switch to a sweet, kind and considerate persona. Why?  Because we would never insult a stranger with our surly attitude. This just doesn’t make sense. Why should you abuse your colleague, close friend, or child just because that person is nearby when a bad mood strikes?  The answer is: You shouldn’t. Don’t beat up people emotionally just because you know they’re familiar with your mood swings.

Remember, the people you are closest to, at work and at home, deserve to be listened to and respected. Do you lead this way? Does your boss?

Saying “No”

One of the most difficult things I have had to do over the years is to learn to say no.  As a people-oriented person, it is very difficult for me to say no to anyone—I don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them feel unimportant.  As a result, ever since I was a teenager I have been overloaded with things I have agreed to do. I have always made too many commitments.

Saying no is simple, but not simply done by most people.  I have tried all kinds of ways to say no in my life.  When I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, for example, I became so overwhelmed with things I had agreed to do that I sent out a letter to a number of people saying, “I am dying—dying from good opportunities.  If I don’t do something about it, I will not be long for this world.”  Then my letter went on to say that I had to drop a number of things I had agreed to do, just for survival.  I apologized to each reader because I had to drop something I had planned to do with that person.  The letter helped me out of the crisis in the short run, but was not something that made me proud.

To be effective in the long run in relieving overload, I’ve determined that you have to have a systematic approach and philosophy on saying no.  I recommend three steps:

1)  Be clear about what you are doing, and what your priorities are. If you are purposeful about how you are currently managing your work and time, it is easier to say no to new activities that are seemingly less important. We have a saying in one of our programs that goes, “A person who does not have goals is used by someone who does.”

To be proactive about saying no, you need to be very clear about your own goals. What are you trying to accomplish during a given period of time?  How can you focus your energy on things that will move you toward those goals?  This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and inflexible if a new assignment or opportunity comes along, it just means your goals become your reality check. Within those goals, set priorities and stick to them. Then you will be better able to discern whether something is consistent with your job or area of expertise, which will make it easier to determine if you should take it on.

All good performance starts with clear goals.  Without them you will quickly be a victim, because you will have no framework to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy.  I become much better at saying no when I am more clear about my focus and what my goals are.

2)  Be clear and realistic about the consequences of doing one more thing. This is for yourself as well as the person who wants you to do something new.  I’ve found the best approach is to be honest and direct.  For example, say, “If I do this, I won’t be able to do the other things I’ve committed to.”  Or, if for no other reason than past history, you can say, “With what I’ve got going on right now, if I take on this additional task I feel certain that I won’t do as good a job as I’d like, and we will both be disappointed.”

In recent years when a new opportunity has come my way that I know I’m not able to do, I often compliment the idea (if I feel it has merit) and then simply say:  “I don’t choose to get involved.”  I’m amazed how, when I use this powerful approach, people very seldom say, “Well, why can’t you do it?”  They just accept it and say, “Thank you.”

3)  Offer alternatives and solutions. Suggest someone else who you feel could do the job or who may be available sooner to work on the task.  If the request is from your manager, suggest a project or priority you are working on that could be dropped, delayed, or given to someone else, or ask your manager to do the same.

The degree of flexibility between these three approaches is, of course, a function of exactly what the task is, who is asking you to take it on, and the time frame involved.  A request from your manager is going to involve more consideration and discussion than a request from an associate or someone you don’t know. Still, these basic approaches work.

Research done by Charles Garfield, author of the Peak Performance trilogy, clearly shows that peak performers only focus on a few key things.  And the late, great leadership expert Peter Drucker asserted that the people who truly get things done are “monomaniacs on a mission”—people who focus intensely on one thing at a time.  The more you take on, the greater the chance that you will lose effectiveness in not only getting that particular task done, but in all aspects of your life.  Keep in mind that when you say no to someone, you are not saying no to them, only to their proposition. And never forget the old expression: “Nobody can take advantage of you without your permission.”

Managing Up The Organization

It’s not uncommon after I have given a presentation for someone to say to me, “If only my manager had been here!  He (or she) really needed to hear this.”  I feel it’s a bit of a cop-out to blame your work problems on others.  It’s a safe way of not taking responsibility for your own circumstances and initiative to make things better.  The fact of the matter is that, during the span of your career, it’s likely that two out of every three managers will not be very good at the job of managing.  Are you going to let that keep you from getting what you want and need in your job?

If you’re going to succeed, you need to train your manager to give you what you need.  Fortunately, this is easier than it may sound—perhaps as easy as 1,2,3:

1. Give your manager what he/she needs to be successful. It’s going to be difficult to get your manager to make special efforts to help you if you don’t first show, through your actions, that you are worthy of such special effort.  Be responsive both in promptly doing what is asked of you, as well as volunteering to help on special projects and responsibilities.  Be proactive, try to anticipate your manager’s needs, and help to meet those needs.  Take a moment on occasion to ask what else you could be doing to help out.  Your attitude and behavior on this first step paves the way for the next step.

2. Tell your manager what you need from him/her to be successful in your job. After you have confirmed with your manager what is expected of you in your job, state what you’ll need from him/her for you to succeed.  This is where your knowledge of One Minute Management can be used to get the results you want.  Identify simple, clear, and specific One Minute Goals for each item you will be counting on for your manager to deliver, and then set realistic time frames for when those items can be done.

3. Follow up on 1 and 2. By doing what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, you will build a reputation for being dependable and responsible.  By tactfully following up on items your manager agreed to do, you will build the expectation of reciprocity.

When your manager follows through on a commitment to you, use One Minute Praising to positively reinforce the behavior.  I am constantly amazed at how many employees feel that managers don’t need praisings!  After all—so goes the logic—that’s why managers are paid more.  It’s as if by making more money managers graduate to being appreciated less!  Let me let you in on a secret:  People are never too old or too high up in an organization to not want praisings—it’s human nature. Everyone likes others to notice things they worked hard to achieve. Give your manager a praising today and see for yourself!  And remember to praise progress—don’t wait until something is done perfectly before you say something.

If your manager does not follow through on a commitment to do something for you, you need some subtle form of a One Minute Reprimand.  Either reestablish the goal while checking on what you could do to move things along, or redirect your manager’s efforts toward a more feasible and realistic task.  Of course, you won’t have the position power to reprimand your manager, but the more you have built your personal power with him/her, the more likely a subtle reminder will work to get things back on track.

So don’t lament that your manager hasn’t created the perfect working environment for you—do something about it!  Take control of your work life, and learn how to get what you want from your manager in order to make things happen for you and the company.  People who learn the skills of managing up will soon be the ones who move up in today’s organizations.

The Best Way to Listen to Feedback

Many people get high marks for being good speakers.  People have become presidential candidates due to their oratorical powers.  In business, executives who wish to increase their public visibility hire speech writers to give them something terrific to say.  We have long recognized the value of being a good speaker.  Just ask any Toastmaster.

Now, how many people do you know who have received a prize or had their picture in the paper because they were a good listener?  Darned few, I’ll wager. And yet, it’s rare to find a really good listener.

It’s too bad more people don’t take an active interest in listening, because much of listening involves getting feedback, a commodity which I consider to be a gift.  When people tell you something that is important and useful, it means they care enough about you to give honest, sincere, and accurate data, which you should have.

Of course, your reaction to feedback, regardless of its content, will determine whether you will continue to get useful information from others.  After all, if someone knows you are likely to become upset about something they’re communicating, they’ll eventually stop giving you information. If people know you’ll reject them or their message when they are honest with you, you’ll be working in the dark without the necessary intelligence about yourself or your environment.  For a manager, this can be extremely dangerous.  Here are four ways you can become a better listener:

First, always acknowledge with appreciation the person who gives you the feedback.  You may dislike the information, but it may be potentially useful data you need in order to be more effective. Remember to disassociate the message from the messenger.

Second, don’t try to listen and think at the same time.  I know it sounds crazy—just listen to the information as it comes to you.  Disconnect your mental data processor and merely gather the data; process it at a later time.  Get as much information as possible, and ask questions that may expand or clarify the situation.  Keep pumping for details. The more information you have, the better.

Third, don’t try to solve a problem while listening.  If you do this, your listening capabilities will greatly diminish, if not stop.  Process all the details and then decide how to use the data.  If you rush to react to news without having received all the information, it is possible that your actions will be faulty because the information is incomplete.

Finally, if you are receiving some unpleasant information you don’t especially want to hear, don’t blow up.  Keep yourself under control.  As I stated earlier, if someone knows you’ll verbally abuse them when they give you unpleasant news, they’ll eventually stop giving you any news at all—good or bad.

To review, the steps to effective listening are: 1. Thank the person for the information.  2. Gather as many details as possible.  3. Act only after you have all the facts.  4. When receiving negative feedback, maintain your composure.  And always remember one of my favorite sayings taught to me by a former colleague, Rick Tate:  Feedback is the breakfast of champions!