By Dave Crisp
Avoiding work led me to LinkedIn, where I found this question posed in a chief learning officer group: "What's the best leadership development advice you ever had?"
Such questions generate far more answers than most, because we all love to put our two cents worth in and pass on helpful stuff that doesn’t take any effort — a time-waster that offers something positive at least.
For the record, my answer was: "Remember they can’t see your knees shaking."
At the point of first having to speak in front of groups, that set me up like nothing else I could have heard. I learned to simply stand calmly in front of a group, take my time and start into whatever it was I had to say. I stopped worrying so much about how I looked, how I sounded, how it would be received — none of which you have any control over.
This was a very personal take on what good advice looks like. In fact, it is it whatever one individual needs most at the moment to move them toward risking taking the lead on something. Most people can develop themselves quite well from there if you can just get them over the first hurdles, I find — if you can answer the questions they face in the here and now and get them moving.
Writing that answer led to a request to link up from an interesting blogger/consultant in the United States who asked for an opinion about her blog: http://www.leadershiprealities.com.
I like it. She’s improved on the usual blogs people start by inviting a number of colleagues to contribute, so there are varied inputs and sources, which makes it interesting. But of course we keep looking for the one with the answers... and none of us offer that fully.
Leadership is a massive subject in many respects with ongoing research continuing to pile up daily. More people are asking, "How can we know so much and yet have changed so little?" That’s the question that continually puzzles me enough to keep me engaged, but I’d dearly love to find an answer.
A closely related question is one I’ve also asked before — "Is what we know about leadership getting too complicated for any one person to master?"
I’m pretty sure the answer to this is no. Complexity science suggests we can find our way through highly complex problems and develop rules of thumb that lead us to master them almost without limits. The question here is more, "Can we help others to master them as well?"
If leadership is about deciding to take charge and forge ahead without complete information, in spite of naysayers and seemingly insurmountable hurdles, there is a paradox that makes it difficult for leaders to develop in the humble, servant leader model that all the research and consulting input tells us is most successful.
It’s like telling someone to train to be the toughest, strongest, fastest competitor in a sport and then trying to explain that to succeed best they have to tailor their play to the rest of the team, not simply strive to outperform everyone, but step back and let others win, too. Some people can do this — a Wayne Gretzky in hockey, who would pass the puck to others almost as often as he tried to score himself. Others simply cannot.
One of the posts I liked best on my new Link’s blog pointed to an article in the Canadian Ivey Business Journal by Richard Boyatzis of Case Western University, whom I’ve mentioned a number of times.
It’s titled "The Promise of Neuroscience," and it's about understanding leadership, another growing topic. Boyatzis re-emphasizes a key point — that this is coming along, but not yet providing a clear answer. What he finds most relevant is the speed at which emotions of the leader lay the groundwork for whether people engage.
He points out research showing people react to negative emotional items much more strongly (and at least as quickly), which is why, he reminds us, we need to be positive some five or six times as often as negative when leading and coaching. Otherwise negative attitudes communicate to team members and turn them off.
Another friend recently asked me to review her up-oming book, which I was happy to attempt. Well-written as it was, there was something naggingly difficult to put my finger on at first that made me hesitate to be as positive as I hoped to be. It didn’t take too long to recognize that while the coaching advice she presented was excellent, laying out many of the right approaches in words, the examples were all presented in terms of mistakes the clients were making that needed to be corrected. We all tend to fall into this not-so-positive trap.
We talk a great game about coaching, intending to help rather than criticizing and demanding or dishing out orders to change, but then we focus just a bit too often on just that — what needs to change, what’s wrong. Of course we live in changing times, where we all have to keep growing (read: changing) in order to keep up. But there is a distinct difference between working with people you basically really believe in and appreciate to help them become even better as opposed to working on people you feel must change if they are to become acceptable. In the end, I’m going to have to pass on the review. This is the Marcus Buckingham ‘’build on strengths” admonition.
Of course I can’t suggest a total rewrite to my friend and it’s true we shouldn’t hesitate to look at our own behavior with a desire to change possible career ending derailers (to use a Jack Zenger term), but to urge managers to coach primarily by aiming the spotlight first and foremost on what’s being done wrong probably isn’t the best tone for a guidebook on any subject.
We have to be prepared to dig into the unfortunate details of where we ourselves could improve, but at the same time we have to find ways to keep the overall flow of work positive or people simply won’t deal well in a relatively negative emotional climate. They won’t make the progress they could if they are reinforced for doing some things that are working to give some forward momentum toward goals they have to do even better.
In my career, people who tried to be supportive had a far greater impact even in seemingly small ways, than those who were too free in their critiques without positive advice to counterbalance those. That six to one ratio is one of the critical learnings for leaders at every level. Too positive isn’t believable, but a bit too much negative and you turn people off.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.