By Rodger Dean Duncan
Smart leaders acknowledge, correct, and learn from their mistakes.
Leadership is not all glamor. In fact, unless the Marine Corp Band plays “Hail to the Chief” when you enter the room, very little of leadership is glamorous.
Effective leadership requires hard work that’s often exhausting and repetitive. It can stretch your emotional and intellectual dexterity. Then there’s that part about needing to make tough decisions that are sure to upset some of the people you’re trying to lead.
Could you use a guidebook? If so, Scott Jeffrey Miller can help. He’s the author of Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow. Today he’s executive vice president of thought leadership at FranklinCovey, a top people development company. But that’s not to say he hasn’t had a few bumps in his own career journey.
In the first part of this conversation, Miller talked about self-awareness, focus, and other important ingredients in the recipe for leadership success (see “New Leadership Role? Find The Right Tools For Success”). In this part, he talks about skills and mindsets that help any leader at any level.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Some well-meaning people violate their own commitments without even realizing it. What’s a good approach to replacing that self-destructive habit with one of total reliability?
Scott Miller: Don’t overcommit to people, projects, or even new habits. Making grand announcements may feel satisfying in the moment, but you’re probably setting traps for yourself. Be very deliberate about what you can achieve, and commit to change gradually over time. It’s better to be seven for seven than seven for ten.
Duncan: With an effective leader, what does the “Carry Your Own Weather” principle look like in observable behavior?
Miller: People who carry their own weather are measured in their emotions and grounded in their values. This happens only when people know what their values are and have aligned their priorities to them.
We’re all tempted to react to people who annoy us, situations that aggravate us, and circumstances that drive us crazy. Recognize that we’re all 0% responsible for everything and everyone external to us, but 100% responsible for our own behavior, decisions, and most importantly, our reactions. Ask yourself before you react to someone, “What would I say an hour or a day from now?” Consider saying the next time you’re faced with an emotional situation, “Could I have a few minutes to think about my response? I want to be sure I think through my position before responding.”
Duncan: What’s the cost of avoiding “difficult conversations,” and what’s the best way to prepare for and have one?
Miller: One of the most neglected, but influential leadership competencies is holding difficult conversations and discussing the undiscussables. It’s also the biggest gift you can offer a team member—moving outside your comfort zone and talking straight about their blind spots, areas of growth, and issues that are holding them back.
The truth is that any gutless wonder can dress someone down verbally. That’s shallow and selfish. It takes heart and caring to deliver tough feedback in a diplomatic way that both delivers the facts and keeps the person’s self-esteem intact. This isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. There are no shortcuts to becoming good at this. Practice, practice, practice.
Duncan: What role does balancing courage and consideration play in a difficult conversation done successfully?
Miller: When holding high-stakes, difficult conversations, leaders need to be especially mindful of balancing courage with consideration. Too many leaders focus their time on one or the other. They’re so worried about overcoming their own fears about discussing hard topics that they end up not addressing the issue head-on. Or they come at it so forcefully they verbally eviscerate the person and have a scorched-earth reputation.
As with most things in life, it’s all about moderation. Role-playing and practicing can help you find the right balance.
Duncan: Top performance is possible only when all parties feel safe to engage in unvarnished communication. What’s the key to creating and maintaining that kind of safety?
Miller: Contrary to popular belief, leaders don’t create engagement with their employees. They, in fact, create the conditions for employees to choose their own level of engagement.
One of the best ways to create conditions for a high-trust culture is for leaders to model what they want to see in others. Share your fears. Talk openly about your strengths and weaknesses. Admit your failures. Make it safe for others to admit theirs. One of the best cultures I’ve ever worked in was the Education Division at FranklinCovey. Our leader had a philosophy of pre-forgiveness. You were expected to make mistakes and take calibrated risks. Growth and innovation happen when people don’t work in fear.
The leader sets the tone for what is and is not acceptable. When the leader makes it safe to tell the truth, everyone else does, as well, and productivity flourishes.
Duncan: “Hold Regular 1-on-1s” is a practice you recommend for leaders. How can that be used to advantage in a peer-to-peer relationship—at work … or in a marriage?
Miller: 1-on-1 meetings are easy to commit to and extremely hard to honor. Canceling or short-changing them in any way signals to the other person how much you value them.
Don’t be cavalier or glib with these meetings. Schedule them and treat them as sacred. Honoring them in an engaged and collaborative manner builds a relationship like nothing else. Missing them has the opposite impact. Avoid the relentless temptation to respond to an urgency or to work on something that brings more immediate satisfaction.
1-on-1s are an investment in relationships, and nothing, nothing is more important than your relationships in life.