Countless books and articles exist discussing the qualities of managers and leaders and whether the two differ, but little has been said about what happens in the thousands of daily interactions and decisions that allow leaders to get the best out of their people.
Start with this premise: We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. This statement from Anais Nin reminds that it’s not really a secret that we all see, feel, smell and hear things differently. Being an effective leader requires an awareness of how others see us, not necessarily of how we see ourselves. This does not mean that you need to feel that the view of others is correct, nor do you need to change your mind or theirs. It does mean that we need to understand how we are perceived so we can start the cycle of communication. How others perceive you may not be your reality, but it is their reality. It may not be our truth, yet it is their truth. Much of this assessment requires a simple understanding of that paradigm. This boils down to an awareness of self and a greater awareness of others.
As an example, you may feel that by listening without adding topics to the conversation that you are perceived as being interested and thoughtful. Instead, you may come across as dull and self-involved. You may feel that by sharing more than others do, you are perceived as open and honest. Instead, you may come across as burdensome and inappropriate. You may feel that by dominating the conversation with jokes and humor, others find you entertaining and lively. Instead, you may come across as tedious and draining.
What is the right balance? Ultimately, it is not up to you to decide, it is up to those you lead. How they see you is how you are seen. The following areas are a starting place for feedback and coaching.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re listening to a colleague talk about something extremely important to them, and while they’re speaking, something comes to mind to you and you can’t wait for them to finish so that you can tell your story? This is the point where you can still hear but you are no longer listening. How often does this happen when you interact with your direct reports?
Although listening would be considered a soft skill, it is actually one of the hardest skills to focus on. Humans have a tendency to hear more than they listen. Try to set your natural instincts aside and instead concentrate on the other person’s message and meaning. This requires listening without deciding or judging; the evaluation, and the decisions, and the reaction can come later. Sometimes, simply hearing what the individual is venting about may not only enable you to find a solution, it might actually be the solution.
- Do you listen for signals that your help is needed?
- Do you listen actively when someone is talking with you?
- Do you paraphrase or use some other method to clarify what is being said in a discussion?
- Are you able to discern the emotions behind your employees’ words?
The language we use determines the strength of the conversations we have. The strength and the type of conversations we have determines whether an individual sees us as their trusted adviser or someone that that just tells them what to do. That relationship determines the outcome of our success together; it is classic cause and effect.
Simply put? Words matter. Do not underestimate the importance that words have when either strengthening bonds or fracturing them. “Employee” has a different connotation than “team member” or “key contributor,” and “I’m going to need you to” comes across differently than “are you open to some feedback.”
- Do you separate observations from judgments or assumptions?
- Do you set a positive tone during coaching sessions?
- Do you demonstrate sincerity in wanting to help your direct reports?
- Do you customize your coaching approach depending on the person you are coaching?
- Do you give positive as well as negative feedback?
Play Chess, Not Checkers
The role of a leader is to take one person’s particular talent and turn that talent into performance. In simple terms, a good leader plays checkers. In checkers, there’s some strategy required but essentially all the pieces look alike and move the same way on the board. Now, a great leader? A great leader plays chess. They recognize that each piece on the board is different you cannot play the game, much less win the game, if you do not appreciate, leverage and deploy each of the pieces in their own unique and individual way. Good managers play checkers, great managers play chess.
- Do you seize learning opportunities and focus on immediate performance problems for your employees?
- Do you observe the behavior of your direct reports?
- Do you work with the employees you are coaching to generate alternative approaches or solutions that you can consider together?
- Do you always follow up on a coaching discussion to make sure progress is proceeding as planned?
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
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— Karen Schmidt