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Leader’s Perspective: What Separates The Best from the Rest in Leadership

 

What inspires us to be better leaders? Was it a particular boss, a powerful article or a significant experience? For me, the answer is relatively simple. Taking time to reflect on people I have worked for and with as well as countless other experiences as both a manager and a parent, I can single out the most important lesson I have learned about leadership.

I was ten years old and my paternal grandfather shared a lesson with me from his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. What he shared was simple, easy to understand and has stuck with me throughout my career in leadership. The lesson was that to lead a group of people, one only needed to know four things. He said that if I got these four things right, whoever I was leading would “follow me into the jaws of Hell!” This painted a vivid picture for a ten-year-old and is probably why I’ve not only remembered it all these years, but have put them to practice and have come to know first hand that he was right.

My Grandfather’s 4 leadership musts:

  1. Make sure my team has dry socks
  2. Make sure they have full bellies
  3. Treat them with Respect
  4. Above all, treat them as Equals

This may be sound advice for a team of Marines on the move, but for business?

Dry socks and full bellies

Let’s break it down. Ensuring your team has “dry socks” and “full bellies” is an easy concept to translate to the world of business. Let’s assume dry socks and full bellies are surrogates for basic needs, safety, comfort, etc. This may take different forms in different business environments, but essentially we are making sure people get paid sufficiently, have a decent environment to work in, etc. It is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in practical terms. In my experience most businesses are able to address these basic human needs, but by themselves these aren’t enough.

Respect

The third item the Colonel instructed was “treat them with respect”. What does this mean? In many hierarchical structures it is often those at the top of the hierarchy who demand “respect” from those at the bottom. They may develop a sort of begrudging politeness and respect for their position but not the depth of respect that is the hallmark of good leadership.

What we are talking about here is the difference between “treating someone with respect” due to their position in the hierarchy and “having respect for someone” because they are fellow humans.

On the surface this sounds self evident, but in my experience fewer leaders/managers are able to embrace this step than the first two. Why is that? I don’t believe that it is because these managers don’t care about their employees. I think they care, but maybe about the wrong things. Often they see the team as “their” employees, and co-workers are often seen as tools to get the jobs done. Ironically, most managers have been the employee at some point and quickly upon assuming the mantle of management they forget what it was like to be in the shoes they just vacated. Additionally, some managers try to keep a distance from their employees knowing that they may have to discipline them in the future. They may also worry that these employees might one day decide to leave the organization and move on in search of brighter pastures.

The mantra becomes “don’t get too close, keep it professional” and is achieved by maintaining your distance by not connecting. I don’t think that’s what the old Marine was getting at. He’d lost plenty of soldiers to combat, reassignment, the end of their enlistment, or post-war reductions in force. I think he was getting at this essential idea—treating your team with respect requires two conditions to be present: self-awareness and connection.

Developing self-awareness of what motivates you, what triggers you, and a clear sense of your emotional and physical boundaries is critical. If you know what’s yours, you won’t be inclined to take on another’s baggage. If you are self-aware, you are likely cognizant of personal work you need to do and similarly are accepting if not comfortable with some of your vulnerabilities or shortcomings. This makes it possible for you to lead with confidence, identifying the qualities you need on your team and allowing those with skills you may not have to step up and participate fully. You don’t need to have all the answers—as long as you are aware of this and don’t see it as a flaw, but rather the way it is.

When you are able to know and respect yourself, you can respect others as individuals. This is an essential quality in good managers and leaders alike. It’s not something you are born with but something you have to work to develop. It necessitates stepping away from the ego-centered label of who you are and where you fit in the hierarchy and into the reality of who you are. As Steve Miller sang, “The question to everyone’s answer is usually asked from within.”

Equality, Even In Hierarchy

In the context of the qualities of leadership outlined by the Colonel, connection is just what it sounds like: knowing the people you work with and letting them know you. Caring about them as more than simply tools to accomplish the task, but as whole people with hopes and dreams, imperfections, joys and sorrows. You need to have enough confidence to show them who you are, sharing that you are more than just the boss, you are a human being who also has hopes and dreams, even imperfections.

In a business hierarchy this can be a challenge. As you open up and show your vulnerability, your caring, and your humanity, you will start to notice little things. You learn about people’s lives, and yes, this makes it all the more difficult if one day you have to lay them off or fire them. This is the whole point of connection! People matter and when you have to let someone go, it makes sense that you would feel some loss. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them go, but in feeling that grief you know that they are important to you as people, not just as tools. When you find yourself grieving the person, not necessarily the job they were doing, you have arrived at the fourth stage. You experience equality with them, not in the hierarchical sense but in the true sense of being equal as a human being. This in no way undermines the authority of the hierarchy, but it cements a personal connection that can be every bit as valuable in terms of your leadership as your position in the organizational structure.

When you show up with self-awareness and connect, people will gladly follow your leadership. It may not happen immediately: your very position in the hierarchy makes you someone to fear. You have the power to hire and fire. You can misuse your authority. I think the last piece of this is something the Colonel didn’t specifically state, but is implicit in treating our teams with respect and as equals, and that is trust.

Your job won’t make you trustworthy. There is no mantle of trust that will be conferred upon you based on your position in the hierarchy.

This is something you have to earn through your own self-awareness and willingness to connect authentically with your team. You are going to have to show your team and prove to them that you are self-aware, willing to connect and can be trusted. When this happens, you will have formed a team that will have your back, as you have theirs. A team that is not only capable of, but a team that will perform great things and in so doing with metaphorically “follow you into the jaws of Hell”.

Recommended Reading:

Learn more about the intersection between leadership and emotional intelligence in our new Primer series, featuring Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson, Peter Senge, and other thoughtful contributors. Primers available are:

Honesty Under Pressure: When to Ask For Help As a Leader

 

As leaders or managers we often find ourselves in a reactive frame of mind when we are under a great deal of pressure from self or external sources. Remaining in this reactive state can cloud the mind, diminish creativity, or isolate you from your team, and it is not conducive to an effective response to the situation. Developing a degree of self-awareness so you can notice your tendency to move towards a reactive posture in the moment – and consciously choosing to shift to a more interactive mindset – is essential in a leader.

In my early 40’s, I was involved in an interaction that served as a transformative experience in my development as both a manager and leader. The experience involved shifting from a reactive to an interactive mindset.

I was working as a CFO for a small company that manufactured ski-tuning machines in Waitsfield, VT. We were in the process of negotiating the sale to a much larger company. As is often the case in situations like this, I was negotiating the sale, but was going to lose my job as the acquirer already had a CFO. I was under a great deal of pressure both in negotiating the deal and in figuring out what I was going to do next. My wife, Patty, worked as a house manager in a respite house for people on hospice. She worked the 4pm to midnight shift.  Most days we had transitional childcare to cover any gaps in my being able to get home to take care of our two children and and Patty having to leave for work. Transitional childcare wasn’t always an option, and on this day, with the sale looming and pressures building, I had to get home early because the sitter was only able to stay for a short while.

When I got home I paid the sitter and tried to get the kids gathered, focused, and out to the car to get one of them to an appointment. I was running late. Trying to get them out of the house with whatever stuff they needed wasn’t working. I was getting frustrated. I’m normally a fairly soft-spoken person, not inclined to lose my temper unless pushed, but on this day and in this moment I felt pushed beyond my limit.

I can remember the moment as vividly as if it were this morning. Kids churning in the kitchen, leading me to yell in anger, and then it happened. My son stood in front of me, my daughter just behind him and he said, “Poppy it’s not okay for you to talk to us like that!”  It was as simple as that.

In my childhood, a response like his would have gotten me a slap across the face and an admonition not to “talk back” to my parents. For reasons I will never understand, I experienced what I can only call a moment of grace, of emotional self-awareness, a moment between hearing and reacting in which I realized he was right. I said, “You’re right. It’s not okay for me to talk to you like that.” I sat down on the floor and shared with them some of the pressures I was under, and in sharing I was careful not to ask them to take care of me. I just wanted them to understand that there was a lot going on and I needed their cooperation. It wasn’t about them, but in their frenzied state they aggravated my stress. What happened next was also a surprise. They both looked at me and he asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?” They jumped to their feet, ran upstairs, gathered their gear and were out the door and in the car in minutes.

I’ve thought about this often over the years. In our roles as leaders of organizations we are often under significant and unshared pressures from a variety of sources. As with my kids, it is important to be clear with those around us that it isn’t their job to take care of us. That’s our job. But we can share with our teams when we need help, or support. This is as important in a leader as in a co-worker.

Two aspects of this have always stood out to me in this illustration. One, the courage it took to speak up, and second, the importance of self-awareness. There are appropriate times to acknowledge a non-productive situation, and shift to an interactive posture.

While our management positions give us power and authority, they will never make us leaders. 

The choice to listen and hear the opinions of others while under pressure and being able to have an open and interactive mind, sharing the pressures you are facing with your team, empowers them to participate in solutions.

Recommended reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. See our latest release: Empathy: A Primer for more insights on how this applies in leadership.

Additional primers so far include:

Engaging the Whole Person at Work

 

When we see ourselves and our co-workers only as tools to get the job done it is difficult to connect with one another as human beings. Connection is essential to building high performing and high functioning teams, not to mention to creating job fulfillment.

There is a story Max DePree shared in his book Leadership is An Art (1987), told by his father about visiting with the wife of the Millwright for the Herman Miller factory after her husband died. It was in the 1920’s and Max’s dad went to pay his respects to the Millwright’s wife. During his visit the Millwright’s wife asked his father if he’d mind if she read some poetry. He thought it would be appropriate and sat back to listen. As she read, the beauty of the poem resonated with him. He’d never heard this poetry before and asked who the poet was. She said it was her husband, the Millwright. The man who had been integral to the Herman Miller manufacturing processes, who provided the power for the machinery in his factory, dismantled machines and moved them around was a poet. This came as a surprise; he’d known the man but didn’t know he had this talent outside of work. It motivated him to see that leaders must, “endorse a concept of person”.

As I read this in the early ‘90’s I realized that this lesson is bigger than the “concept of person” in a tops down view. It is about connection, learning about the people who work with you and sharing yourself with them. When you connect with the people who work with you, you discover other interests, talents, loves, and they in turn learn something about you.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make if you know the Millwright is a poet, the Accountant is a photographer, the HR Manager’s child is seriously ill or the Customer Service Specialist has just loss her mother?

Business is structured as a well-defined hierarchy that defines us by our titles and the roles we play within business, and our interactions are determined by these roles. The playing field is tilted in favor of the leadership, but should it be? By coming to understand more about ourselves and the people we work with, we can see that occasional missteps at work often result from a much larger context; a problem at home, the death of a beloved pet or some other distraction. They aren’t necessarily about lack of competence or skill, sloppiness or a bad attitude.

Without making excuses we understand that we all have days that are a challenge. “Endorsing the concept of person” builds team and team makes it possible to confront unexpected challenges in the day-to-day life of business, whether it’s shaky sales, disruption of production, strained cash flow, the loss of a well-liked co-worker or the acquisition of a new customer with compassion and understanding. We have jobs and roles within a company, but when we can connect not only through job and role but as fellow humans, we create an authentic engagement that fosters an environment in which human creativity and satisfaction grow and thrive. We form a sense of equality in an otherwise hierarchical unequal environment. The consistency with which we can cultivate these fleeting opportunities, over time builds a level of trust essential to a high functioning team. The challenge is that many believe that when a leader opens up they will be seen as weak or vulnerable. The opposite is true.

Here’s how this played out in my leadership experience

I worked with a smart and capable Engineering Manager who had a reputation as a tremendous problem solver, but he had started to become impatient with process and prone to angry tirades. He seemed to be seething inside. Many of his attacks were directed at individuals. My boss at the time wanted me to “get rid of him.” His behavior was undermining his position with the company and his credibility; people were starting to avoid him. What he lacked was Emotional Self-Control.

Instead of turning my feelings off and seeing him as the “problem” and firing him I sat down with him to talk about anger. Not only his, but mine. I shared some of my frustrations and how important it was to see them and be with them, but not project them out onto others. As we discussed the situation he began to explain what was behind his anger. He kept pointing at the things other people were doing, and I’d share more about my own anger and how my frustration was often rooted in not really understanding how to move the needle and effect change.

Finally I looked at him and said, “You know the anger has to stop. It doesn’t matter what provokes you, you can’t act out and mistreat other people on the team, no matter how frustrated you are. There are positive and constructive ways to address the issues that are frustrating you. You need to find them or ask for help. Do you understand?” He replied that he understood. We talked about the possibility of anger management counseling. He didn’t think he needed it. I told him that I valued him as a co-worker and friend but that if he had another angry outburst, I’d have to let him go, no second chances. As we continued to talk, I asked, “Do you want to stay here?” He said, “Yes. I like it here, I want to stay.” I followed with,  “Do you think you can do this?’ His response,  “Yes, I know I can.”

The problem was now entirely within his control. I knew some of the difficulties he was dealing with outside of the workplace, and understood that having control would likely result in a better outcome. Through our connection and sharing, he knew that I’d had similar challenges in my work life, and others had as well. It wasn’t having the feelings that were the problem it was what he did with them. At this point, he began to problem-solve for himself. He identified his triggers and ways he could address them.  He looked at me and said, “Thanks, I think I need to apologize to a few folks.” He kept his job, and worked better with others from that point on.

By being authentic and curious about his issues, sharing my own, and not taking the easy route of simply replacing him, we built a connection together that made it possible to discuss the issue not just as a boss and employee, but as two human beings. By “endorsing the concept of person”, we created a moment of equality and authentic connection that helped him move from being a victim to understanding the impact his behavior was having on the organization and the need for him to take responsibility. This is leading with emotional intelligence.

Recommended Reading:

Emotional Self-Control: A Primer

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now:

Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability,  Achievement Orientation, and Positive Outlook.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!

Why “Achievement” is About More Than Short-Term Gains

 

Maintaining the competency of Achievement Orientation as a leader is complicated on many levels. One aspect is the time period in which achievement is being evaluated. Many businesses operate in very short transactional windows, and this challenges a leader’s ability to balance his or her personal drive with the needs of the organization as a whole.

Balancing sales and cash flow concerns with a longer view toward developing people is another reality of business – one that undermines the inner wisdom of many managers because it’s tough to do both at the same time.

Here’s how this played out in my leadership experience.

Many years ago, I was in a financial management position charged with bringing a business case to corporate headquarters for a fifteen million dollar capital equipment request. It involved significant changes in manufacturing tooling, was mildly controversial due to its scale, and was not easy for senior management to approve. There were competing needs across the company, so we not only had to believe in this program ourselves, but make a compelling case to senior management.

At the time, I managed a financial operations department of twelve employees, all but one of who were extremely busy. The one who wasn’t extremely busy was the newest on our team, new to the company and the least experienced. Should I take an experienced person off another equally important project to assure success here, or give the new guy a chance to learn something – yet risk a screw-up as a consequence? This is a question that managers face every day. It is a question that brings with it feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, and the added question of whether this will be the decision that torpedoes your own career.

To the risk-averse, it is generally an easy decision; pick the best person to do the job and get on with it. An alternative might be to pick the least experienced and micro-manage them to a successful outcome in order to maintain a sense of control. After brief deliberation, I chose a third path based in part on my awareness that my job would be easier, and in the long run the company healthier, if I viewed my responsibility to be in service of the organization as a whole, not just to myself and my career.

Taking calculated risks is part of how the competency of Achievement Orientation played out in my mind.

We had about four weeks until the presentation, so I called in the less experienced analyst and discussed with him what was needed for the business evaluation and presentation, who he could go to in manufacturing and engineering to get necessary information, and the stylistic approach required by headquarters for capital equipment requests. He said he understood what was required and we agreed to get back together to review his work in two weeks to make sure he was on the right track.

When we met again, he appeared to be moving in the right direction, though I pointed out that he’d made far too many assumptions in areas where the data was available, and that those gaps would be exploited by those with competing needs who wanted to scuttle our request. He seemed to understand and agreed to get the necessary data, incorporate it into his evaluation and we agreed to reconvene in ten days having tightened up those gaps. I wasn’t feeling good after this meeting. I wondered if he understood the importance of the project. He said all the right things, but I felt a distinct unease. Based on this feeling, I made an important decision: not to alleviate my feeling by either taking over the project or assigning it to another analyst but to commit to his growth.

 

I knew that in the worst case, with the information he’d have gathered by the following week I could pull something together to take to headquarters, but at this point I committed to a larger vision.

Two days before I was scheduled to fly to headquarters, we met to review his work. I was disappointed. He hadn’t gotten verification of his assumptions, and he hadn’t corroborated engineers’ hearsay. In a week we had hardly gained any ground. I was angry. Anger is both a constructive and a destructive emotion when used by a leader – it can motivate and commands attention, or it can undermine the individual and their authority. I told him that he needed to get focused. We had a day and a half and I didn’t care if he had to call the Chairman of the Board, the CEO or the Plant Manager himself, but I needed him to be at the airport the following day at 6am with the presentation as planned and the supporting data as required. No excuses.

At 5:45am the following morning he met me at the airport.

This was before the days of TSA and security checks when you could actually meet people at the airport at your gate to transfer documents. When I looked the presentation over, I saw that he’d done the work and done it well. He looked tired but satisfied, like he knew he’d just fully joined the team. I felt the same thing, that he’d fully joined the team. At that moment I knew my decision was the right one despite my earlier concerns. My boss told me that later that day he’d seen this analyst in the cafeteria and said, “You look like hell, what happened to you?” His response? “I had to stay up all night to get the business case done, but it was my own fault.” When my boss shared that with me I felt certain that I’d made the proper decision for the organization as a whole, and vowed to myself to choose that path whenever possible.

It is difficult to make decisions that may take months or years to manifest when we live in a world in which decisions are measured in days and weeks. The essence of good leadership is knowing how to balance those short and long-term gains.

Recommended Reading:

Achievement Orientation

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability, and Achievement Orientation, with new releases monthly throughout 2017.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!

Emotional-Self-Control

Emotional Self-Control: A Leader’s Perspective on Staying Cool Under Pressure

 

According to Daniel Goleman, Emotional Self-Control is “the ability to keep your disruptive emotions and impulses in check, to maintain your effectiveness under stressful or even hostile conditions… staying clear-headed and calm.”

Self-management and control are necessary components of the leader’s tool kit. It’s not so much about trying to muzzle yourself as it is about understanding your role as a leader.

Here’s how Emotional Self-Control emerged in my experience:

Years ago, as a newly minted manager at IBM, I was blessed with an insight into what this means both for the organization and myself. I was promoted to management because I was good at doing things. It’s the same in every business where I’ve worked. Generally, those who are the best at doing the work get recognized and when there is a need for managers they are selected because of their ability as “doer’s.”

In my case, I took over a financial planning department at an IBM semi-conductor plant in Essex, Vermont. The manager I replaced was a hard and dedicated worker, often putting in fifty to sixty hours a week; however, his work was largely transactional, and reactive. We did as we were told under his management and took few risks. Having taken over his department, I found myself sitting at my desk one evening wondering what I was supposed to do and trying to understand exactly what it meant to manage and lead a department of skilled financial analysts, some with far more experience than me.

I could feel the beginnings of panic, a tightening in my chest and a strong feeling that I should be doing something. But what? As I sat with my feelings, I suddenly understood. My job wasn’t at all what I thought it was. My job was to hold the anxiety for my department, for my team.

What does it mean to “hold the anxiety?”

Holding the anxiety involves engaging your Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control so that you can see the difference between your “doer” self and your “being” self. When you don’t have the ability to “do,” your anxiety can increase and you may feel motivated not to feel your feelings, but to push them on to your employees and co-workers. This can manifest itself in many forms. Micromanagement or other controlling behaviors are often at the top of the list. It is easy to rationalize our behaviors. But consider an alternative approach: if you choose to allow your anxiety and fear to take over and you micromanage or control your team, you miss the opportunity to develop your own self-awareness and effectiveness as a leader, and also miss out on the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with your team. You may never really see what great work they can do, instead believing they need you to make decisions for them. They will then wait for your direction before making decisions and moving forward because they don’t feel trusted. But developing decision-making abilities in others is key to good leadership.

In “holding the anxiety,” you create space for them to learn and grow and ultimately increase the capacity of your team.

Applying Emotional Self-Control in the real world

It is a very delicate balance. Those above you in the hierarchy may be acting out their own anxieties from various pressures. This is where Emotional Self-Awareness and Self-Control are critical. You can listen to what your boss wants, feel the feelings you have, hold them, and then calmly talk to your team about what needs to be done and engage them in creating the proper result by listening, guiding, coaching, and leading.

Always take a moment to allow yourself to simply “be” and connect with your self-awareness, but don’t project it onto the team. You won’t always be successful. Sometimes we do project, but when you do if you can own it and recognize your projection you will continue to build a trusting relationship with your team and demonstrate your true strengths as a leader.

Fear is a motivational and destructive force in business. No one wants to fail. If we can understand and own our own fears and not project them on others, we will discover that engaged team members are far more creative and productive than frightened ones.

Victor Morrison has diverse management experience, including Financial Operations Manager for IBM, CFO of Finance for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, CEO of Elan Ski and Snowboard Company for North America, President of American Flatbread, and recently as CEO of Dr. Hauschka Skin Care for the US and Mexico. Victor also works locally as a management consultant, focusing on sustainable business strategy development and executive management coaching. Victor has also been an occasional Adjunct Business Professor in Green Mountain College’s Sustainable MBA Program, teaching classes in People Management, Sustainable Business Strategy, and Finance.  

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about how to apply these concepts at work? Our newly released Primers provide a concise overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, as well as an overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model itself.

The Primers are created by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, with several fellow thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research, including Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard J. Davidson, and George Kohlrieser.