Kathy and I just finished a rewarding two-year project of designing and helping to implement an executive training program for a group of High Potentials employed at a large financial services firm. During the graduation ceremonies held after the last classroom session, the project’s executive champion shared a quote from John Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, to illustrate the importance of being self-aware and purposeful in your leadership; particularly when influencing others to follow. In describing a key distinction of leadership, Maxwell noted “He who thinks he leads but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” We would like to extend Maxwell’s quote to include the following: “He who thinks he leads but has no self-awareness, is taking that walk naked.”
During our 25-year collaboration, we have met a handful of leaders walking around aimlessly, pointing north to no one in particular and blissfully unaware that they were naked. Yep, not a stich of clothing as they lead no one to nowhere. Now, we don’t mean that they were naked in the literal sense (if that were the case we would be doing a column on the importance of rigorous screening of employees, employee ethics, or how to best assist employees who have gone off the deep end). Figuratively, their nakedness is created by a complete lack of self-awareness and a failure to self-examine, much like the emperor that Hans Christian Anderson wrote about in his fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor failed to be introspective while surrounding himself with sycophants who were afraid to state the obvious. This lethal combination allowed his unexplored (and out of control) ego to blind him to the fact that his new clothes were made of thin air and that he was nothing more than an easy mark for two crafty swindlers. It took a child watching the processional to comment on what everyone else was witnessing but were too afraid to declare. The emperor was naked and no amount of preening and prancing would ever disguise that fact to his followers.
So how do we, as leaders, ensure that we don’t fall for the same swindle that the old (and probably cold) emperor failed to avoid? Here is a list of four “Musts” for the potential emperor in all of us:
- A leader must routinely and rigorously self-evaluate his beliefs, behaviors, and pre-conceived notions. He or she must make a habit out of rejecting their own internal press releases and ask tough questions like “Am I really informed on this topic as I should be?” “Am I missing some critical details because I have filtered the issue through familiar prior experiences?” “Is my behavior aligned with my beliefs?” “If not, where could there be some disconnects?” “Do I need a new perspective?” Develop a reflective practice to facilitate deep inspection on a routine basis to make sure the draft you are feeling is from bad insulation and not a naked blind spot.
- A leader not only needs to allow feedback from others about her performance, she must actively invite it, accept it with grace, and make it potent by doing something about it. This is a tough bridge to cross for some leaders. The less aware leader may often believe that the process of soliciting feedback from others is no different than begging for negative criticism. They often think that doing so may compromise their leadership, portray them as weak, and forever upset the fragile balance of supervisor and subordinate relationships. Research shows just the opposite. Leaders who ask for feedback, acknowledge mistakes, and are open to the influence of others are actually perceived as more competent, more influential, and more effective. Ask for others to hold up an unvarnished mirror and avoid hitting them with it when they say something that stings. Only then can you truly be sure that when the big parade comes, you have some confidence that you are seeing yourself more as they see you.
- A leader needs a mentor, a confidant or a coach. It doesn’t matter if the leader is a seasoned executive or a new hire in his first leadership position-finding a mentor is key for lifelong leadership success. Some of the most celebrated CEOs in the world are quick to identify influential mentors in their life stories; people who helped them to move around obstacles, seize opportunities, and make sure that they were clothed before hitting the parade route. Leaders who reject the need for mentors are often the same leaders who reject the need for leadership development. They view themselves as having already arrived at the pinnacle of leadership (wherever that is) when, in fact, this is simply another sign that the leader has unconsciously stumbled into a nudist colony.
- A leader must cultivate the art of truly listening. This is perhaps the single-most important step to remaining clothed in public. In an earlier conversation about a clueless leader enamored with his own voice and his own ideas, a close friend shared the following quote from Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries for Leaders. “Leaders are notorious for not listening. They are often persuaders by nature and in their intentions, they try to convince people of their version of reality…without really appreciating where the other person is coming from.” Sometimes, the most important thing a leader can do is to shut up and tune in. Good leaders do not spend their energy reinforcing what they already know or proving themselves right. Instead, they seek out the contrary opinion, the novel idea, the alternative perspective. You can’t do that if your ears are filled with your own words.
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