The Behavior of Leaders

Last time we addressed the tangible management system activities of leaders. Now… what are the behaviors that leaders practice?

If there is one behavior where leaders must be great, it is communications. Most of us conjure up the articulate, even eloquent speaker, and that’s great. But there is an even more important aspect of communications that is under-trained and under-valued: listening. Effective communication requires a committed speaker and a committed listener. So often, as we listen we’re really re-loading, thinking of what we’re going to say next, rather focusing only and exactly on what is being said to us. We’re listening to the voice in our heads interpreting or judging what is being said, and not connecting to what the speaker is saying and any non-verbal communication that accompanies it.

Leaders listen for the way the organization, or the work, occurs to people throughout the org. Is it ‘wow, we’re changing the world’ or more of ‘same old, same old’? That listening, or if you prefer a different sense, that lens, pervasive though usually undeclared, is a primary driver of performance. Results are often a self-fulfilling prophecy of expectations, especially unspoken expectations. What futures are people living into? Are they inspired by those futures, or resigned to them? Does the future fulfill the hopes and concerns of everyone?

When your people know, really know, that they have been heard and considered, they are far more likely to bring their best talents and not just dial it in.  You create the opening for people to change their approach their role from stone cutters to builders of elegant skyscrapers.

Listening implies a response. As a leader most of what you do is manage conversations. Speaking isn’t just about declarations, it’s about asking questions. What new future would be so compelling that it easily replaces the future that people are living into now? The listening or lens that people have on their future isn’t a fact… how can it be, it’s the future. So when you speak, offer a different lens, a lens in which people see so much personal and professional benefit that they enroll in the bigger game rather than play the old game to their individual liking.

Don’t orate, even in a formal presentation setting. People love to be in a conversation with their leaders, but most don’t like to feel they’re listening to a speech. Preparation is usually a good thing, but although Steve Jobs rehearsed extensively to achieve his goals, rehearsing can quickly rob you of authenticity which you can’t add back in. And remember these two quotes (c’mon, you know we revere quotes):

“In any situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not.”  -- Edwin Friedman
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

People need to know that their leaders stand for their success, individually and collectively. They need to see a commitment to winning that calls for a high level of performance from everyone, starting with the leaders. A leader’s courage inspires courage from everyone… as will a leader’s lack of courage. You have to be the first one in the boat. And when the boat starts rocking… and it will… people will resonate with mental toughness, what many refer to as grit. We’re fond of the Stockdale Paradox when difficulties arise: retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

So as not to ignore the obvious, as important as communications are, your actions need to be in complete alignment with what you said. Many corporations invoke integrity, and the very essence of integrity is that you walk-the-talk. It always comes down to that.