If there is anything to be learnt from the spate of recent political leadership challenges it’s that leaders need to listen more to those around them. Even when it’s not what they want to hear. In fact especially then!
Leaders must learn to open up to feedback, from their colleagues, constituents and other key stakeholders if they hope to win respect and survive in their roles.
For those schooled in heroic leadership, this is a dramatic turnaround. For them the ability to withstand and overcome opposition has long been regarded as the mark of a strong leader.
For decades we’ve been regaled with stories and images of leaders who set a direction and pursue it despite all opposition. Heroic leaders usually throw themselves at their vision and commit themselves to their chosen strategies with all of the energy and might they can muster. The only way forward in these tales is relentlessly straight ahead. Sound familiar?
But what happens if things crop up that disturb your grand plan? Perhaps the financial forecasts aren’t as optimistic as you’d hoped or staff aren’t quite on board with your strategy. Worse still what if consumer feedback is poor?
All of these things might be thought of as intrusions that disturb your vision as you perceive it. How do you deal with these disturbances and feedback?
Some leaders keep their heads down and plough on. Others get irritated with those who deliver this feedback. They shoot the messenger, shutting down the feedback. A rare few value these disruptive events. What’s your style?
The potential value of unwelcome and unexpected feedback is that it affords leaders a richer picture of what they are trying to achieve, the untapped resources available to them and some of the challenges they face. The perspectives of others fill in and compensates for your own blindspots. If you can avoid reactivity and remain open to adjusting your plans or refining your strategies chances are you’ll enjoy more robust outcomes.
Saying that leaders need to listen to those around them sounds simple doesn’t cut it. It’s a principle that might be taught at Leadership and Management kindergarten. Yet it proves more challenging than it first sounds.
Think of the last time you resisted feedback. If you can’t remember ask someone who works with you. That’s what I did when writing this piece. My executive assistant Lou laughingly reminded me that it was just yesterday. Gulp! She’d pointed out something that I interpreted as a criticism. I promptly defended myself, describing why I'd taken the action I did. But my defensiveness was a distraction from her message to me. It took us off course. Had she not been so persistent, I might have missed the message – and at the very least she would have been left with that impression.
On other occasions impatience and wanting to just get on with it is a trap for me. I don’t stop, listen and THINK an issue through enough. Inevitably I pay for it later in terms of the time it takes to clean up a mess that was arguably foreseeable.
Of course the dilemma for leaders is in knowing when to open up to disturbances, and when to fix an eye on the horizon and maintain your course regardless. Leaders need to train both their attention and their discernment.
There are five distinct phases in working with early warning signs and other disturbances. Try following this guide next time unwelcome information comes across your desk or you have niggling encounters with colleagues or clients.
1. Become curious
Adopt an attitude that regards disturbances as potentially important. When you appreciate their value not just for your organisation or community, but for your own leadership and development, your interest in working with them will grow.
With experience and evidence of their benefits you’ll be less irritated and triggered by seeming interruptions and deviations.
2. Get to know the disturbance
Paying attention to a disturbance, allows you to notice more about it. Who does it affect? What impact does it have?
Notice your own reaction. Does it excite, threaten, puzzle, confuse, terrify? What does it bring to the surface? How do your staff respond?
When does it appear? What eases it? What aggravates it?
Is it similar to other events? In what ways is it different?
3. Find the message
Look for the messages and opportunities unexpected information and events offer. Ask yourself: How is this important information? How do we need this? How is it relevant at this time?
4. Decide on a course of action
Armed with this information, you’ll be in a better position to decide whether or not to respond, and if so how.
5. Translate the insight into action
The cycle is complete when you put these insights into action. You might change how you deal with your staff, introduce new risk management measures, investigate new market opportunities, or re-prioritise time and resources.
Alternatively having assessed the opportunities and learnings a disturbance offers you, you may decide to maintain a steady course, keep an eye on things and proceed just as you were – for now.