Why do great leaders go off course and how can they get back on track?
The day-to-day slog can lead many of us down a less-than-productive path. However, as leaders and managers if we allow ourselves to slide into complacency, our teams will soon follow. It’s imperative that we create environments that challenge and excite, but how? Is it possible to change course and renew the energy in our workforce?
Tanveer Naseer has been named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership experts, ranked as one of the top 15 leadership bloggers in the world, and HR Examiner's top 25 online influencer in leadership. You may have already seen his work in places like Fast Company and the Globe and Mail. He's a keynote speaker, executive coach, and author of Leadership Vertigo: Why Even the Best Leaders Go Off Course and How They Can Get Back On Track. I recently interviewed Tanveer for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed leadership, perspective, and the keys to being a great boss. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: What do you mean by Leadership vertigo?
Tanveer Naseer: Well leadership vertigo, in a very succinct term, refers to a gap that exists between how you view your leadership and how your employees experience it. You might be thinking again that you're going in there with those good intentions, you're trying to help your employees, but if you're only viewing it from inside your own head, you're not necessarily going to be aware of what their experience is and how it might be dramatically different from what you're actually hoping to achieve.
Kruse: Your model has four principles. Can you summarize them for us?
Naseer: Yeah, there are four leadership principles that are in the book on how we can overcome leadership vertigo. They are ‘Build community,’ ‘Develop competence,’ ‘Earn credibility,’ and ‘Cultivate compassion.’ We want to think of these as being landmarks on your leadership landscape. They're the things you're going to use to help make sure you're in fact creating the kind of conditions your employees need to succeed and thrive under your leadership. The first leadership principle, ‘build community,’ is pretty straightforward in that it involves asking ourselves if we're creating an environment where our employees feel valued, and that they understand why their work matters, and the value it creates both for themselves and for those around them.
Studies have shown that one of the core psychological needs we all have is relatedness, and that is that we all want, to feel a sense of connection and belonging, both to the people around us and to the work we do. The second leadership principle is ‘Develop competence,’ and competence here is not referring to our technical competence. Rather, it's referring to our emotional competence. By that I mean it's talking about how are we showing up in those daily interactions with those we lead. Are we going into those meetings and conversations we have with our employees with a genuine interest to learn and understand what they have to say? How is our current emotional state coloring how we interpret and respond to what our employees are telling us?
The third leadership principle, ‘Earn credibility,’ looks at something that we're seeing more and more in discussions about leadership today, and that is specifically how do we go about increasing our awareness? Both of our own mental state, as well as the realities of those around us. What's critical to this principle is being open with our employees, that we don't have all the answers. Because only then can we free ourselves to be genuine about what it is that we're after, what it is that we need, and what we can actually provide them to be successful in their efforts.
The fourth and final leadership principle, ‘Cultivate compassion,’ looks at creating a workplace environment where we inspire and enable those around us to bring their best selves to the table, because we have that focal point to ensure that we're not making our leadership about us, but about those under our care. The importance of this has been demonstrated through numerous studies that have shown how organizations with that culture of compassion have not only higher levels of employee satisfaction, but they also have greater levels of employee commitment and personal accountability. This has been found across a wide range of industries and fields.
Kruse: How do you coach someone to develop more emotional competence and to become more genuinely interested in others?
Naseer: I think one of the things that we have to recognize, is that first of all, you know how you mentioned, “I'll come into the office and I'll say good morning and so forth?” One thing we have to recognize is that studies have shown that our emotions are very contagious, and that our brains are hardwired to pick up those nonverbal cues that we give off before we even say a word, right? That's why they often show with babies how they're automatically drawn to faces. That's why a lot of the toys and stuff are faces. It's an animal face, it's a human face, and so forth, because that's what draws their attention and draws our attention from an early age.
So if we use that example as someone walking in the morning, saying, “Good morning.” Let's say on your way to work, if you're commuting, you have somebody who cuts you off in traffic, or maybe there was someone on the train or in the business who was particularly rude, and it just really sets your day off on the wrong foot. You walk into your office, you know it's polite, it's courtesy to say good morning, so you tell people, “Good morning.” While our words are saying, “Good morning,” our nonverbal cues are showing off that I'm not really happy right now. I'm still processing the thing, and so what happens is people's brains, and this is a process that neuroscientists have shown, it happens instantaneously, we pick up on those nonverbal cues without us having a chance to process it.
They pick up that something is wrong, they don't know what it is, but you're telling them, “Good morning,” right? So what's going on there? There's a disconnect between the thing you're telling me and what I see on your face. This is where we get that notion of being disingenuous, because we'll say stuff like, “Oh, I told them this and I told them that and they're not reacting the way I wanted them to.” Well, how was your emotional state in that moment? Were you really focused in that conversation? I was at a conference recently in Whistler, BC, and I remember having one conversation with someone who I went up to and I started to ask questions about their company, what they do and so forth. I think the conversation lasted about 30 minutes. I probably spoke all of two.
It was really like I asked them this, and they started to go on and on. I asked the second question, just to whatever, and I realized after I left, I felt completely like that conversation left me with this bad sense. “I spent all this time, why do I not feel good?” And then I processed afterwards, the persons were so caught up in themselves that I felt like they weren't acknowledging me. This is something that actually, again, research studies have shown if we get somebody to talk about themselves their achievements, for about 90 seconds, we're going to dramatically reduce their ability to consider the perspectives of others.
If we're not aware of that, how easily our brain can shift from focusing on others to simply focusing on ourselves, it's hard for people to feel that emotional connection. When we're going in saying, “Okay, we need to do this, this, that, and the other,” we're checking off stuff on our to-do list, but if we're not saying, “Here's the problem. What are the things that we could do to solve it?” Now, we might have our list and we could be sitting there ticking it off in our head. One of the things I often tell people is, think of those drama shows. Every drama show out there right now has those serialized storylines, right?
It carries over episode to episode. How many of you watch the show with a certain checklist in your head of what's going to happen next? I'm not talking about mysteries, it could be a drama. “Oh, I knew this was going to happen.” You feel that kind of satisfaction, right? I said to them, “It's because our brains are puzzle solvers. Our brain is hardwired to solve puzzles,” so when we solve a puzzle, we get that endorphin rush. I often tell people like, “Look, instead of coming in, trying to solve the puzzle, say to someone, ‘This is the problem.'” Let them be the show that tries to solve it, and in your head, tick it off when they get something right. You'll see how quickly it makes you feel good, even though they're the ones giving you the solution.
That's why it's important when we talk about emotional competence, that we're getting out of our head to see and understand the perspective of others. Because when we start training ourselves to do that, we're actually going to get that positive feedback internally, because of how our brain is hardwired to have, “Ah, see I knew they were going to come up with that, because that's what I thought of too.” And they might even come up with, “Oh, I did not see that coming,” moments, which again, that's that elation we have of being surprised.
Kruse: What's the most common flaw or shortcoming you tend to see among leaders?
Naseer: I think one of the things I've seen leaders trip up time and time again is there's a false assumption that they're communicating enough to those they lead. In fact, just this week, a few days ago, one of the leaders I'm working with told me how he didn't want to send too many emails to his regional employees because he has a lot of employees in different regional areas. Because he figures they're already getting plenty of emails from his colleagues, so why bother filling their inbox with more emails? Like this leader, what they don't get is that your employees need to hear from you because you're the one providing them with the context for why certain decisions or choices are being made.
I mean, if you receive a lot of emails from your colleagues, there's an email chain going on about something, a product, and then the president or CEO sends an email, we all know which is the one you're going to click on. Even if you don't, you're not checking your inbox at that moment, I've had that moment where I'm sitting at my desk writing, “Did you read what the president just sent?” “No, I haven't had a chance.” It makes its way throughout the thing because people are hungry for information. The reason is because they don't have that long view out into the future informing them of what lies ahead and what we're hoping this will lead us to.
When you don't communicate regularly to those you lead, people are going to fill in the gaps with their own perceptions and ideas which often might not be reflective of what's really going on, and consequently, we get this push back because we're engendering this uncertainty because we're not making that time to communicate more to our employees of giving them that context, as well as that clarity that's needed for them to understand why their contributions matter.
Kruse: Many executives clam up when bad things happen because they don’t want to freak everybody out. But by being quiet, your team will imagine things are far worse.
Naseer: Right, and they're on the front lines, so they kind of see it. A good example is Sears. Right now, it's like there's a ticking time for when they're going to fold, right? So the people in charge at Sears might be thinking, “Oh, we can't really say anything because we don't want to freak out our employees.” Oh trust me, the people who work in the stores, they see it. They're walking around, they see empty shelves, they see the dwindling number of people coming into the stores. You're not going to be telling them anything they don't already know, but what they do want to know is what are you doing about it? When we think, “Well, we don't want to freak people out, let's keep it in, let's not start the rumor mill going.” The rumor mill will go, because again, one of the things going back to the idea about emotional competence, our brain, because it's a puzzle solver, it likes to fill in those gaps.
That's why when we're watching our TV show and the reveal comes along where a character says something we thought they might say, “Oh, I knew they were going to say that.” Or, then when they don't say it, we get that, “Oh, my God, I'm so surprised.” It's because our brain can't help but watch and try to figure out the puzzle. If you're not filling in those gaps, your employees' brains will, and sometimes they're going to fill it in with the wrong information. When you do come with stuff, they might not be receptive to it because it's not reflective of what they see going on, or what they are experiencing.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every single day. So, give us a challenge.
Naseer: Well, I think one thing that's important, it's that leadership is not just about getting results, it's about finding ways to inspire those you lead to be better. If you think, and I've done this exercise with so many people, if you think about that leader who you worked with years ago, who you still look upon fondly and think, “Oh, I just really loved working for that person,” what were the things that was particularly noteworthy? Why is it so memorable? Often it's not the work, it's not the company environment, it's how that person challenged you to question what your full competencies are, what you could truly achieve. Because they believed you could do more.
That drive that someone believes in you is a powerful force where we're trying to encourage people. Not to help the bottom line, it's not like, “Okay, let's just tell people that we want to inspire you to be better so you can help us move up a few notches on this quarter or whatever report we're putting out.” Rather, what we want to be doing is showing people that we want them to succeed and thrive because we realize that we're part of their career journey. They're not going to be with us their whole career. That's not the new reality, but we don't that as they move forward, we're helping them to build that foundation that is going to lead to their successes in the feature so that, like we do, they're going to look back over their shoulder and remember how we believed in them and we inspired them.
Because we weren't just looking at them to help us get the results, but we were looking at, “How can I inspire the best in you and to really see you bring your full efforts to whatever it is you're contributing to?”
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.