Sunday, 26 May 2013

Leading Means Following

A couple of months before I started working as a CEO, I saw a television interview that was very timely for me. It was on the American news magazine '60 Minutes', with USA's then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Mullen talked about a congratulatory letter that he received when he was promoted to Admiral. In it was a line that had driven his approach to leadership. It said "Congratulations. Just remember, from now on…you'll always eat well, and you'll never hear the truth again."

Mullen's response to that piece of advice was to spend 30% of his time travelling to far flung US military posts, talking directly to the front line troops. I'm sure he knew that the 'truths' that he was hearing from the troops weren't necessarily any less subjective or self-serving than the ones he heard from his Pentagon staff. But they would have been different ones, and would have helped him to form a more complete picture of what was really going on.

Just having face to face conversations with different groups isn't enough though. For this tactic to be effective, the leader has to be careful not to lead the conversation. People react to power by giving it what they think it wants. That's a rational, if often unhelpful, behaviour.

I was lucky enough to have spent a few years working with a CEO who was extraordinarily mindful of this dynamic. Whenever there was a group discussion in the context of a decision to be made, he very consciously held his own views back, and would go around the table asking each person, however junior, what they thought. I remember on a number of occasions being on the spot on a matter about which I didn't have a well-formed view. I felt the way you do in an exam at school when you have exhausted your knowledge about a topic but are still 100 words or so short of the required length.

But the individual's comfort level is secondary (if it's a factor at all). The process more often than not forced people to crystallize and express a view, and with the spotlight on you, the desperation to say something often brought out useful views that would have otherwise remained buried.

This way of operating is a lot harder than it sounds for most CEOs. People who get to leadership positions are often what DISC analysis refers to as 'High Ds'. That's D for Dominant. It's only by consciously fighting that innate tendency to dominate that a leader can maximize value from those around them.
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