What is it that most people don’t “get” about leadership?
This is actually not an easy question to answer. Not so much because different people don’t get different things, but because the essence is truly hard to name. It’s not reducible, I don’t believe, to a sense of personal responsibility or self-awareness or humility or the belief that it is a personal, not just a professional journey — although the best leaders I have known all share those qualities. No, there is just that Existential X, that quality that can’t quite be explained (although we keep trying), that can’t be homogenized into any final formula.
This is its beauty, too, of course, and I often feel that the greater part of the joy in leading is in liberating that beauty, working to translate it freely into action, trying to bring it to the surface in any way you can, in as many places and with as many people as possible.
Not long ago I was working with a manager struggling with a tough performance appraisal conversation she was about to have with one of her staff. I asked her to practice her opening with me; then asked her to switch roles and report what she thought the staff member might be thinking and feeling as she did this opening.
As she practiced her words and tone, she spoke in a distant, cool voice using a lot of “you are this…you are that…” language. When she stopped, she reflected a moment and then reported that her staff member would probably be experiencing a strong sense of futility: “Nothing I do will ever be good enough for this manager,” she said, referring to herself. “I’ve tried and tried but I can’t get any of her time and all she does is criticize me.”
So then I asked the manager, given what she knew about the staff member’s feelings, to try it again to see if there was a way to bring this knowledge into her tone and her statements. She seemed to do a better job but it was still pretty distant and intellectual (in my opinion), so I asked her to try one more time, and again she did an even better job, softening her tone considerably and getting rid of a lot of the you language.
Then she said, “Let me see you do it.” So I did, rather softly and sincerely saying something like, “Let’s put this appraisal aside for the moment — you can read it later and then we can talk about it another time. I’d rather talk about what I see happening to us. What concerns me the most is that you might not feel respected by me, and that really hurts.” As I said it I involuntarily choked up ever so slightly.
The manager drew back with a gasp, “Oh my God,” she said, “I could never say anything like that!”
I said, “Well, you know, of course it’s just my words, but I sense it might be possible to get a little closer to your staff member and what I said is just what showed up for me at this moment. You wouldn’t have to do it this way; in fact I don’t know exactly how you should do it at all. It just seems to me that when you take the risk to go into an awkward space intentionally, especially to connect with someone that is important to you, that’s when you are leading more than managing.”
The manager’s demeanor at that point seemed to change markedly. She let out a sigh and physically relaxed. Her voice become calmer. There was a quality of softness and also resilience. “I had this thing wrong,” she said. “And I feel so much better now that I know. Yes, it’s awkward, that’s exactly what it is.” She said this to me as if she’d believed her only job had been to deliver bad news and make it stick, and that she was supposed to exemplify some kind of controlled perfection as she carried it out. It was as if she “got” her real task in an entirely new way.
“Do you think you can get a little closer in your own way to making the conversation more real?” I asked.
“Well, I’m scared, but yes, absolutely. I know what I want to do. I’m glad I talked this through.”
What is it that liberates the real beauty of the human spirit? There’s so much that potentially interferes. And, today, for what it’s worth, liberating the beauty of the human spirit does seem to be that Existential X, what makes leadership leadership, what makes the journey from fear to love and joy and freedom eminently worthwhile.
And in this it is so clear we are all tied together. For I cannot help you liberate your beauty unless in some way I am also able to liberate my own.
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