Earlier this week in just 60 seconds of perusing my news digest app, I counted over a half dozen articles promising quick, essential cures for leadership woes. “The Six Traits…” “Five Things Every Leader…” “Seven Secrets of…” You know the blogs. The headlines capture reader attention and the content generally provides some truth. But not the whole truth, for at least four reasons:
“I have to hold their hands.” “They need constant supervision.” “They don’t think!” “They aren’t creative.” Have you heard leaders and managers pass these kinds of judgments on employee abilities?
Frequently, as I conduct employee focus groups or review 360 results, leaders who make these kinds of statements receive the following kinds of comments: “What a micromanager!” “Constant meetings and checklists and interference keep us from our work.” “We’re treated like children!”
“But I tried giving more autonomy and it was a disaster,” many leaders say. Frequently, they provided autonomy without clarity of goals or the benefit of wisdom learned from the past. There’s a happy medium of structure AND autonomy, a polarity that leads to results AND happy employees!
I read everything. The best in every genre has something to offer, even if the overall genre doesn’t match my core tastes (after all, at its heart Anna Karenina is a romance novel…). Thus it always surprises me when people proudly say, “I only read nonfiction.” The result of bad experiences in high school English courses? Perhaps, but I also wonder whether they’re aware of what fiction has to offer:
- The Truth.
I once had the great privilege of attending a writing seminar taught by Madeleine L’Engle. Perhaps best known for A Wrinkle in Time,she won awards for both her fiction and nonfiction books. She pointed out that often through fiction, the truths about human motivations and the causes of events, both personal and historical, can be much more deeply explored and conveyed than in nonfiction. Nonfiction, remember, is written from a point of view that doesn’t convey all sides of an issue, event or idea. If learning truth from fiction seems crazy, try The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It’s a deep exploration of the mindsets, motivations and emotions of the generals on both sides at the battle of Gettysburg.
- Emotional Intelligence. Studies are showing that reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others, one of the key components of emotional intelligence that is tied to overall leadership success. Fiction helps you step into other people’s shoes and understand why they did what they did. As more research concludes that the “soft skills” of leadership are truly the hardest to learn, adding high-quality literary novels to one’s reading list may make more sense than another tome on leadership (the ones I’ve written being an exception, of course!)
- Creativity. Let’s trust Einstein on this one–he recommended that to develop a scientific mind, children should read and reread fairy tales. Why? Because true science requires imagination, creativity, and a drive to understand, all of which are found in fairy tales. You’ll be hard-pressed to find careers that don’t require creativity these days–even assembly line workers are encouraged to and rewarded for finding ways to improve systems and processes. Fiction allows you to envision what might happen, what might be, and other big what if’s in ways that nonfiction can’t.
“Get the resisters on board–that’s why we’re bringing you in” is what I often hear from leaders when change processes aren’t going smoothly. In most cases, though, a few simple yet profound changes in leadership attitudes and practices are what is really needed. Here are three mind shifts I’ve seen in effective leaders:
1. Instead of Leading, Think Leading and Listening
As a school leader I know stepped into a new principalship, he told the staff, “I’ll be spending this first year listening, watching and dialoguing with you to understand the strengths and needs of this particular community of learners.”
No one believed him.
Recently, I’ve been working with auditors–my former life as a financial analyst provides insights into work style patterns in their profession and how they compare to many other professions. Below, I’ll be highlighting emotional intelligence sub scales, as described by Multi Health System’s EQi 2.0© instrument, one tool for thinking about these kinds of patterns, so that you can think about how these ideas might apply to the strengths and struggles of your own profession.
Research exists on some of the biggest problems facing the audit profession. The Dallas chapter of the Institute for Internal Audit found that
- The audit function is often undervalued by other corporate leaders
- Audit teams often struggle to recruit, develop and retain employees
- The overall image of the profession needs strengthening; it is seen as less than public accounting and other financial professions.
It doesn’t take much thinking to see how the audit profession’s core strengths, especially independence and assertiveness, might create these issues. Every strength has corresponding blind spots. If you need to be objective and independent, buildinginterpersonal relationships, emotional expression and empathy can seem not only counterproductive but outright dangerous. Think how this might contribute to the first two problems the industry cites.
Even if you think you hate Star Trek, or skipped the new movies out of reverence for the original cast, stay with me. Captain James Tiberius Kirk is a perfect illustration of how our greatest strengths — those assets fundamental to our leadership success — can also be our biggest nemesis. (And if you haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers).
The movie kicks off with Kirk breaking the Prime Directive (that pesky rule stating that Starfleet personnel must never interfere with other societies or planets). Jim does so, though, to save an entire civilization. Reasonable, right? Kirk excels at reading situations and people, weighing risks, sifting through possible consequences, and acting.
But then Kirk falls into the trap we all are susceptible to — we make up our minds without conscious reasoning and then justify our reasoning after the fact. He lies about their actions in the report he submits to Starlet. And Spock doesn’t. They get hauled on the carpet in front of Kirk’s mentor, Admiral Pike. Kirk gives a million reasons as to why his actions were right.
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