Leader Insights Improve Innovation

As a leader, are you known for your insights?

Consider this: In January 2018, the World Economic Outlook (WEO) reported the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010, and estimated positive growth through 2020. But in December 2019, they reported the weakest pace since the financial crisis a decade ago. According to the WEO, “rising trade barriers and associated uncertainty weighed on business sentiment and activity globally.”

On January 20, 2020, they reported that despite prominent risks, “global growth may be bottoming out,” suggesting that we are on the cusp of great change. And while many leaders and organizations take a cautious, wait and see approach, great leaders recognize the opportunities for innovation. They think beyond adaptation, drive change, and make significant contributions that shape our future.

Leaders who are known for their insight identify fresh trends and actively prepare new products and services—before a need or problem is even identified. They instill an innovative mindset throughout their organization. Insightful leaders simultaneously improve efficiencies today, and prepare for the demands of tomorrow.

Innovation is not a choice. However, a lack of insight often results in a lack of innovation. Leader insights improve innovation.

Barriers to Insight

Insight is a process. Unfortunately, we often create barriers for insights to occur. We:

  • Over focus on risk management and compliance, and leave little room for creativity and insights.
  • Emphasize efficiency and effort on short-term goals, and discourage insight and innovation.
  • Set unrealistic deadlines that actually inhibit opportunities for insight.
  • Adopt a win-at-all-cost mentality that increases pressure and squelches opportunities for insight.
  • Fail to recognize our own bias, assumptions, blind spots, and leave questions unasked.
  • Fixate on the wrong problem(s) and dive into rabbit holes.

These barriers go beyond a leader and affect the entire culture. Of course, insight and innovation isn’t limited to leaders, executives, research and development personnel, or marketing departments. Cultures that are stuck in status-quo mode or strung-out in a quest for perfection become trapped and paralyzed.

Insight is a Process

The human brain is a marvelous machine, able to generate brilliant innovations seemingly out of thin air. And while intuitive thinking and insight can lead to innovation, they’re not the same. Intuition is the use of patterns already learned; insight is the discovery of new patterns. Unlike routine problem-solving, our insights aren’t conscious or deliberate.

In a November 2019 article for Psychology Today, Dr. Marty Nemko, PhD, describes the process as:

Raw Ingredients => Filtration => Fermentation => Evaluation

As a leader, you deal with a tremendous amount of those raw ingredients: data. It can be useful when appropriately analyzed, but in some cases may prove overwhelming and misleading. In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (Public Affairs, First Trade Paper Edition, 2013), Gary A. Klein, PhD describes the process as:

  • New information joins what we already know, and sets the stage for discovery.
  • Our stories frame and organize the details.
  • Insights generate a new narrative: a set of beliefs that are more accurate, comprehensive, and useful.
  • Our insights change our perspective: how we understand, act, see, feel and desire.

Most importantly, insights change what we do next, and what we need to validate new ideas. Innovation is not just about finding a new product or service. Insights create solutions to customers’ problems—even the ones that aren’t yet clear or articulated. Start by asking these six questions:

  • What do underlying trends suggest about possible future states?
  • What would happen if some of these trends converged into a perfect storm?
  • Where is there a small, but growing, trend?
  • What can you learn from analogies and metaphors?
  • What similar situations have companies faced in the past?
  • What can you learn from others’ mistakes and history?

When insightful leaders recognize the need to change, they ensure their business is prepared to innovate, before it’s too late.

Improve Your Leader Insights

When we step back and painstakingly observe a problem, examine perspectives and context, reinterpret the familiar, become aware of unfamiliar and unseen relationships, and ask questions, we can improve our insights.

You can improve epiphany moments with a few key strategies:

  • Be Inquisitive: insightful leaders make a lot of “what if?” inquiries.
  • Make Human Connections: insightful leaders interact with people from diverse backgrounds to access new perspectives.
  • Notice and Observe: insightful leaders are always looking at the world with business radar to detect surprising solutions.
  • Play and Experiment: insightful leaders try new things, in new places, to expose themselves to new experiences.

Identify specific tactics to implement these strategies. For example, alter your environment by changing your office, reversing furniture and items on your desk, or working in a completely different setting. You can also prime your brain for epiphanies with exercise: endorphins trigger positive emotions and creativity, and distance changes perspective.

Try these tactics to improve your leader insights:

  • Mandate R&R for yourself: get ample sleep, take vacations, and disengage. Consider incorporating meditation into your daily routine.
  • Practice gratitude: think about the people, places, and things that bring you joy, and express your gratitude.
  • Daydream: periodically consider your long-range goals, assess your values, and develop plans.
  • Learn something new: start a new hobby, study a different culture, or delve into something completely unrelated to your past experiences.

New information and experiences prime your brain for insight and innovation. Interact with diverse people, ideas, and situations. As you stretch your comfort zone, you’ll expand your curiosity, think abstractly, and identify seemingly remote associations.

Consider working with a qualified executive coach to improve your insights. They can help you identify your assumptions, fixations, or limited perspectives that create barriers to insight.

Use Your Insight to Improve Innovations

Leader insights improve innovation in four distinct steps:

  • Identify opportunities.
  • Develop a framework: organize ideas into plans or pilot projects.
  • Test, assess, and if necessary, make changes.
  • Execute.

Each step requires an open mind, and that you learn from mistakes. Test your ideas, revise when necessary, and have persistence and patience to wait for results.

Identify Opportunities

“Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” ~ Zig Ziglar

This is the gathering step, when you need a beginner’s mind. Focus on the client, and what may be going on in their mind. This is a basic, three-step process:

  • Identify your target client.
  • Identify problems the client is struggling to solve today. Clarify how your client is using your product or service (it may be different than you think.) Ask your client what they are trying to accomplish.
  • Discover any signals that suggest the client is dissatisfied with the status quo.

Before you jump to solutions, ask “why?” five times in succession. This will help you identify assumptions, underlying issues, and help you get to the heart of the problem. Your “why” questions could be the form of “why?” or “why not?” After your five “why?” questions, move to “what if…?”

When you ask questions in context, using observation, listening, and empathy, you are likely to gain insights on client experiences, and opportunities for innovation.

Develop a Framework

While your idea doesn’t have to be perfect, it must deliver better solutions. Research how other leaders solved similar problems and develop your framework. Ensure that you include short- and long-term:

  • S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based)
  • Required resources
  • Anticipated revenues
  • S.W.O.T. Analysis (strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, threats)
  • Known (and unknown) assumptions
  • How the solution aligns with your values, mission, and purpose

And remember: most innovators point to failures as their greatest success. It is most likely that your first idea will lead to a better one.

Assess and Test Your Insights

“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” ~ Dr. Albert, Szent- Györgyi

Make no mistake, leader insights drive change. But improved innovations require resilience and persistence. Tests are the best way to learn about existing and new critical assumptions. You’ll know whether your idea works only after actual implementation.

Sharing and feedback are a critical part of this stage. Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to get prototypes made and reviewed. As 3-D printing becomes widely available and affordable, this might become even easier and faster.

After test completion, analyze the results. Review your framework and make adjustments based on your learning. Re-test.

Start with a pilot project to minimize resources and maximize potential. Document everything, and remain open for feedback, new information, and adjustments. Remember that a balance between minimizing performance errors and maximizing the flow of ideas and opportunities for improvement will improve insights. If questions arise that can’t be answered, be honest.

Track information that can be used in training, marketing, and reporting. Prepare presentations for executives. Your presentation style and contents will influence your project’s acceptance or rejection, so be meticulous. Lead with “why”, and link to values, mission, and purpose. If necessary, seek help from presentation experts to ensure success.

Remember: Success is never guaranteed, no matter how hard you push or market your innovation. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” His greatest creation may have been his invention factory.

Edison’s lab was the world’s first R&D facility, generating more than 400 patents. Rather than focusing on one invention, one field of expertise, or one market, Edison created a setting that enabled his inventors to move easily in and out of separate pools of knowledge, to keep learning new ideas, and to use old ideas in novel situations. Their insights improved innovation.

Positive Progress and the Art of Negotiation

How much time and attention do you spend negotiating every day?

Think about it: just getting to your work space requires negotiating activities, meals, and space (think nutrition versus convenience, after-school activities, commuter lanes, etc.) At work we negotiate our way through business deals, customer relations, office politics, and career advancements. Such negotiations often require the agility of Captain America, the stamina of Dean Karnazes, and the wisdom of Yoda.

Ask any experienced parent (or listen to the news) and you’ll hear how playing hardball with threats and bluffs simply does not yield positive progress. However, traditional wisdom that points to a win-win strategic formula of trades and compromises is not without challenges. Of course, most of us are not super-heroes or world class athletes. Positive progress requires mastery in the art of negotiation.

What is the Art of Negotiation?

Negotiation is the process of agreement that takes place between individuals or organizations autonomously (by algorithms or machines) or human interaction (verbal or written dialogue). Generally, the objective is to identify common interests and resolve opposing differences. But as authors Michael Wheeler and Jeff Cummings write in The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, “agility is the mark of a master negotiator. Yes, preparation is important, but negotiation is a two-way street.”

Negotiations often break down when people focus on their positions, rather than on legitimate interests. The resulting polarization squelches curiosity, creativity, and compassion. This is often seen in positional bargaining, where egos are hooked, relationships become strained, and neither party is satisfied.

For example, you want your children to eat something healthy for breakfast. You offer an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. They counter that they want sweetened cereal and a glass of sweetened juice. You then drop your offer to half-an orange, three bites of the oats, and no less. One of your children counters with two orange sections. This exchange goes on until you meet in the middle.

The problem with this tactic is that the legitimate interests are not addressed, rather, both parties focus on their position and the compromise does not take into account the needs of either party.

What’s Your Negotiation Style?

Most people have a default negotiation style. Two of the most common are hard-bargaining and win-win.

The underlying motivation in the hard-bargaining style is based on a competitive, zero-sum game, that is to say, if one gains, the other loses. With this style of positional bargaining, there is a winner and a loser of limited resources.

In the win-win style, both parties seek to understand underlying interests and values of the other party. This gentler style is common with friends, family, and those who value relationships. Of course, a hard-bargaining, “muscle, might, or deception” style will dominate a gentler style, and ultimately result in a loss for both parties. Alternatively, a principled negotiation style supports both parties equally.

When both parties seek to meet the legitimate, basic interests of both parties using fair standards, mutually satisfying options are identified and result in a sound agreement. Positions, personalities, and egos are separated from the problem or conflict. Mutual respect is demonstrated with direct, honest, and empathetic communication.

The Art of Principled Negotiation

It’s not easy to change habits and disentangle emotions when negotiating. It may be difficult at first to enlist others in the task of working out a wise solution to a shared problem. Your first goal is to find a better way to negotiate.

In the best-selling book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton outline four elements of principled negotiation:

  1. People: Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Interests: Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
  4. Criteria: Insist on a result based on an objective standard.

These four elements require skills in analysis, planning, and discussion.

Analysis: Gather and organize information. Identify the outcome (basic need or want) you wish to achieve. Identify the desired outcome for the other party.

For example, if you are negotiating breakfast with your children, you’ll need to specify exactly what you believe to be indicators of nutrition or health. Is it consistent energy until lunch? You may want your children to eat only unprocessed, unsweetened foods, but their nutritional needs may be met with a balance of unprocessed, minimally processed, and naturally sweetened foods. You also need to know what each child wants. Is it something quick, easy, and sweet? This broader perspective differs from trying to convince both children to eat an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. The focus is on outcomes—not positions or specific foods.

In principled negotiations, you’ll want to consider any people problems, partisan perceptions, and unclear communications as you identify others’ needs. Note the options already on the table (i.e., oranges, steel-cut oats, almond milk, sweetened cereal, sweetened juice), and identify any criteria already suggested as a basis for agreement (taste/pleasure, nutritional value, speed/ease, etc.)

Planning: Only after you have thoroughly analyzed legitimate needs, wants, and desired outcomes, generate ideas and decide what to do. Consider these questions:

  1. When people problems arise, how will they be managed?
  2. What are your most important interests (needs, wants)?
  3. What are some realistic objectives?
  4. What are some additional options?
  5. What criteria will be used in decision making?

Discussion:  This is an opportunity to practice curiosity without judgement. Through two-sided, open dialog, both parties explore differences in perception, feelings of frustration and anger, and other factors. Remember to examine all four of the elements: people, interests, options, and criteria. Each side should come to understand the other’s interests. Both can then jointly generate options that are mutually advantageous and seek agreement on objective standards for resolving opposition.

Using our breakfast example, one child may want to skip the meal entirely, while the other wants something sweet. Negotiating a compromise requires family members to examine options that satisfy the group. Ultimately, you may need to create two separate agreements.

This method of reaching agreement considers all parties’ interests and allows you to reach a joint decision without the high costs of positional bargaining.

But what happens when positive progress fails?

When Negotiations Stall

Negotiating is about coping with complexity. To succeed, negotiators must be prepared, but more importantly, they must be prepared to cope with rapid change and mistakes. Agility and curiosity is the best approach.

We often act out of habit, without question. To be sure, it’s difficult to admit our common human condition of thinking we know more than we do. The ego protects itself by gravitating toward feelings of certainty. In that state of mind we’re unlikely to ask questions.

Instead, practice being a good questioner. Recognize your own feelings of discomfort or self-consciousness with not knowing. Ask naïve questions. A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while an expert’s is not.

When people do ask questions, they’re often relying on assumptions and biases. Even if you don’t yet know "how," it’s important to ask "why" and "what if" questions. And remember to listen well.

Negotiation is the exploration of the scope of the issues, the best means for resolution, and the nature of your relationship with counterparts. When negotiations stall, you might just need to go back to the exploration stage.

When Negotiations Fail

Negotiations often fail when we cut corners, rush to solutions, and accept proposed solutions—even when our best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) would have been better. Similarly, failure also occurs when a solution can’t be implemented.

Remember our breakfast example? If you had reached a point of exasperation and said to your children, “eat what I made, or go hungry,” a stalemate would likely ensue. And it’s really no surprise.

According to the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation, negotiations fail when strong emotions come in to play. Instead of objectively discussing a proposed solution, comparing it to your BATNA, and making a rational choice, threats are issued.

While some critics argue that a BATNA encourages positional bargaining, others point to the objectivity and assurance an alternative provides. A well thought out BATNA, or estimated alternatives to a negotiated agreement (EATNA), increases your confidence, identifies your alternatives, and helps you to recognize subpar and best solutions.

The art of negotiation requires preparation and agility. With practice, you’ll see positive progress while maintaining positive relationships during the process.

Leadership Development and the Art of Listening

What do Douglas Baker Jr., CEO of Ecolab, Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and former US President Barack Obama have in common?

Doug Baker became CEO of Ecolab in 2004. At the time, the 80+year old company was selling industrial cleansers and food safety services to the tune of $3.8 billion annual revenue, with 10% annual growth. In 2011, Baker transformed the company which resulted in $12 billion annual revenue.

Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, cared deeply about those on the other side of the television screen—their needs, concerns, struggles and joys. He was an advocate for children, public television, and a voice for the unheard.

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2019. Prior to that, he served as a US senator, a state senator, worked as a civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer for low-income residents. In a recent conversation at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program he spoke about his experiences and values-based leadership.

So what do these three leaders have in common? They point to listening as the key to forward progress.  After listening to clients, Baker refocused their efforts to help save the planet and attained 133% of their projected growth. Rogers listened to children, changed the face of television, and transformed the lives of young children. Obama spent countless hours listening to others, inspiring trust, pulling people together, and improving innumerable lives.

Although the art of listening is frequently the difference between leadership success and failure, it is often taken for granted, and rarely taught in schools—at any level. We have an urgent need for leadership development in the art of listening.

How Well are You Listening?

Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)

The art of listening is essential for leaders. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that we spend 22% of our time reading communications, 23% talking to others, and 55% listening. But how well are we hearing?

Test yourself with this simple exercise, suggested by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007): Close your eyes. Slowly count to 50 with a concentrated focus on counting only; don’t let any other thought enter your brain.

Most people admit that after counting to 20 or 30 they become distracted. (Some maintain the count, but are also thinking of other things.) While this may sound like a concentration test, it’s actually a listening assessment. After all, if you can’t listen to your own voice as you count, how can you listen to someone else?

Practice this listening exercise. Track your progress. By sharpening your ability to focus on your own voice, you’ll find that you are better able to focus attention on another.

Why We Aren’t Listening

Mastering the art of listening is beneficial to everyone. It allows leaders to identify opportunities, innovate, and increase profitability. It strengthens relationships, builds better teams, and bridges gaps. So why aren’t we listening?

The human brain is a remarkable, complex system with enormous power to process information through electrical signals. Like a computer (or artificial intelligence), it has circuits for input, output, central processing (CPUs), and memory. The human brain also uses parallel processing, and, according to Liqun Luo, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, has “superior flexibility, generalizability, and learning capability than the state-of-the-art computer.” 

On average, the human brain thinks at 500 words per minute (Wpm). However, we only speak at an average of 130 Wpm. This frees up a lot of CPUs when we are listening, and we begin to multi-task.

Emotional distractions also create a lack of presence and inability to listen. These include:

  • Impatience
  • Resentment and envy
  • Fear and feeling threatened
  • Fatigue and frustration
  • Overexcitement (happiness, joy, attraction)
  • Insecurities and/or a need to be “right”

When we think we already know what someone is going to say, we often stop listening, and begin crafting a solution and response. When this happens, we move away from a place of curiosity, a keystone of listening.

Similarly, our limited perspective can interfere with our listening. When we think we know what someone is going to say, or hear something that contradicts what we think or feel, we stop listening. We fail to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. We hold on to bias, beliefs, and pre-conceived notions.

Often times, leaders who struggle in the art of listening are simply struggling with their own perceived inability to act on suggestions and ideas. As a result, they shut down the flow of ideas and requests, and move to a defensive position where they do all the talking. Sure, they may empathize (and emphasize) how much they care, but they are not listening.

What is the Art of Listening?

As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the art of listening actually begins with self-awareness. Self-aware people understand what motivates them and their decision-making. They recognize their feelings (as they happen) and how they affect their thoughts. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Self-aware people understand their proclivity to bias and blindspots.

How? In an HBR article, Anthony K. Tjan writes that the trinity of self-awareness is to, “know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.” Self- aware leaders are active truth-seekers who commit to intellectual honesty and surround themselves with different types of people who understand and complement each other. Individually and collectively, they develop social intelligence.

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness—becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. In its simplest form, mindful meditation is an intentional awareness of being, focusing on the breath. If, or rather, when a thought occurs, the person simply acknowledges the thought without judgement, and returns to a focus on the breath. The practice leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people, and the context in which we live and work. It provides a framework for social awareness.

According to Goleman, social awareness is a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, and to “getting” complicated socials situations. Goleman describes it as:

  • “Primal empathy: Feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals.
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person.
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  • Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.”

Whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing, reading, or seeing, leaders who excel in the art of listening are fully receptive to the person communicating. They use active listening to signal their attunement. Self-aware listeners facilitate rapport with full, sustained presence, going beyond momentary empathy, similar to what they practice in mindfulness.

How Leaders Can Listen Better

Humans learn to sift and sort at any early age. We learn coping methods to drown out distracting movements and sounds. In the process, we often develop the habit of selective listening. As a result, we often miss important cues, or even direct communication. While the art of listening is not taught in traditional MBA programs, leaders can learn to listen better by taking a few tips from the training therapists receive.

Be curious. Curiosity allows us to think more deeply, rationally, and innovatively. Curious leaders gain more trust and respect, and are better able to adapt in uncertain conditions and external pressures. As a leader, how do you strengthen your curiosity? How often do you:

  • Read a wide range of topics, genres, and authors
  • Consult with others
  • Explore without an agenda—i.e. take a trip, a walk, a visit to brick and mortar book store
  • Ask “dumb” questions
  • Learn something new—i.e. memorize new facts, learn a new game/language/musical instrument
  • Deepen your existing knowledge and expertise
  • Ponder the unknowable

Practice active listening. As a leader, one of the most important things we do for those we lead is to listen. And while we may think we’re paying full attention, we may be sending a message that we’re not. Instead, practice active listening without judgement:

  • Stop what you are doing. This is perhaps the most important, and loudest signal you can give to the other person. If you are walking, stop. Turn to face the other person squarely. If you are seated and holding something, put it down, and if possible, away from your reach, and face the other person squarely. If you are not able to fully participate, or have limited time and attention, let them know, and, schedule a time and place when you can.
  • As the other person is speaking, pay attention to their non-verbal language—their tone, body language, and gestures—as well as the details of what they are saying. As appropriate, mirror their actions (make eye contact, smile, lean in, relax your face, etc.).
  • Ask for clarification, or elaboration, without interrupting them as they speak. To do this well, without manipulating the conversation with your own bias, agenda, preconceptions, or motives, takes practice. Allow for silence as someone searches for words or composure by maintaining eye contact and using appropriate facial expressions. Ask open-ended questions that can not be answered with “yes” or “no”. If you do need specific clarification, ask close-ended questions.
  • Paraphrase what you think you heard, verbally and non-verbally. Include what you perceive to be their feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, requests, etc. Include details, as well as the big picture. Acknowledge what you don’t understand, or know.
  • Don’t rush to solutions, or fixes. Be patient, but not passive. And remember, the goal is not to critique what they say, rather, it is simply to hear and understand. Resist any urge to empathize by topping the story with your own similar, but worse, experience.
  • Communicate what your next step or follow-up will be.

Establish guidelines for team and group meetings. The art of listening is critical for team success. Leaders who remove barriers, set standards, and model behavior increase meeting efficiencies and productivity.

  • Request that distractions be minimized or eliminated (i.e. cell phones off, doors closed, etc.).
  • State your objective at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Appoint a facilitator to keep track of time and focus.
  • Appoint a note-taker to paraphrase and track main points, assignments, deadlines, status, and next-steps.
  • Encourage everyone to face the speaker as much as possible (turn chairs in the appropriate direction.)
  • When ideas are presented, resist the urge to interrupt or critique, and encourage the same behavior from everyone.
  • Discourage side conversations. Ask participants to have their conversation at another time.
  • Take your own notes of what the speaker is saying.

Model the art of listening with self-awareness, attentiveness to the speaker, and listening to understand.

Signs of a Poor Listener

People who are poor listeners are generally not difficult to spot. They are often easily distracted, fail to focus on the present, offer plenty of free advice, minimize the feelings of others, and are quick to fill any silence with their own ideas.

Colleagues, co-workers, and even clients label poor listeners. Have you seen these types in the workplace?

  • Headhunter listener: this type of listener is looking to identify others in their tribe; that is to say, if your ideas align with theirs, or what they believe is “the truth.” While they may have good intentions, they are frequently looking for ways to restate their position, rather than listen.
  • Negator:  this type of listener believes everyone else is wrong. They create barriers, often hiding behind closed doors, lack of time, and other priorities. Resentful of others for their attempt at intrusion, they negate all ideas.  
  • Manipulator: perhaps the most cunning of poor listeners is the manipulator, who skillfully steers conversations to their desired outcome. Their questions are leading, slanted, or rhetorical, leaving others to wonder what just happened.
  • Phila-buster: this type of listener is also known as a wind-bag. Any thinking they do is done externally, or outloud, and they use repetition or gas-lighting to try and prove their point.
  • Fixer: the fixer listener is a people-pleaser, quick on the draw to offer solutions. They seek to impress, and often make recommendations before assistance is sought, or problems are fully identified.
  • Faker: this type of listener is a great actor, who often uses pseudo-empathy to mask their disinterest or closed-mind.

When co-workers don’t listen at work, it can often feel like bad improv comedy. Collaboration becomes impossible when conversations are one-sided. Unfortunately, the stakes are often much greater, and the consequences far more reaching.

How Teams Can Listen Better with Improv

Individuals and teams can practice the art of listening with a few techniques from improv comedy. The game is called Questions Only, where participants are challenged to move the dialog forward without hesitation, statements, or non-sequiturs, asking original questions only. Some versions of the game use scoring, but typically it is done with a group of four (or more), and when a mistake is made, another person steps in. The key to staying in the game is to listen well.

Poor listeners rarely move a dialog forward. Instead, they miss cues and opportunities. But great listeners focus on others, remain flexible, and listen carefully. They collaborate and support each other.

Listening well will help you strengthen relationships, increase your knowledge, make better decisions, and improve your creativity. It can make all the difference in your success. How are your skills in the art of listening?

Brain Gender: Different, Yet Equal?

Is there really such a thing as brain gender?

In March 2019, researchers attempted to answer this question based on an MRI database of 490 men and 575 women. What they reported was relative to the structural differences between men and women:

“By using the designed 3D PCNN algorithm, we confirmed that the gender-related differences exist in the whole-brain FA images as well as in each specific brain regions. These gender-related brain structural differences might be related to gender differences in cognition, emotional control as well as neurological disorders.”

Their summary supports the theory that there are differences between a male and female brain, and that these differences determine our thinking, feeling, behavior, and psychological health. But, notice the keyword they used: “might.”

Unfortunately, they are not alone. For decades scientists have been pointing to similar findings and analysis, commonly accepted as fact. Consider the differences molecular biologist Dr. John Media describes in Brain Rules (Pear Press, 2008):

  • Men have a bigger amygdala, a structure that processes emotions.
  • The male brain produces serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, learning and memory, among other functions) more rapidly than the female brain.
  • Women have larger connectors in the corpus callosum, which links the brain’s right and left hemispheres. (The left hemisphere is thought to be the primary source of neural information for routine tasks. The right deals with novelty and innovation, including experiences and data that are less structured. The right hemisphere is more image-based and operates in the realm of metaphors.)

Research is important: it influences the way we teach, work, and relate to one another. But there are big problems with brain gender theories and studies. They frequently support gender stereotypes, create barriers, and limit individuals from reaching their potential.

The Power of Brain Gender Stereotype

It has been widely accepted that men and women differ in how they manage people and give orders. Studies pointed to how women soften their demands and statements, whereas men are more direct and unapologetic. For example, women use phrases like:

  • “Don’t you think?” (after presenting an idea)
  • “If you don’t mind?” (following a demand)
  • “This may be a crazy idea, but…” (preceding a suggestion)

Is this nature, or nurture?

Many women are culturally conditioned to encourage harmony in relationships, as evidenced by softened demands, hedged statements, and a more tentative communication style. But tentative communication doesn’t mean a woman actually feels tentative or lacks confidence. Similarly, more direct communication, as seen with men and some women, doesn’t mean a person is arrogant, bossy, or feels superior. These are learned communication styles: a matter of nurture.

The amygdala governs many emotional responses, as well as our ability to remember them. After experiencing a traumatic event, the female amygdala communicates with the left brain hemisphere. The opposite occurs in men: their amygdala communicates with the right hemisphere.

It’s been widely reported that women remember the emotional details of an event, while men recall the ultimate outcome. Furthermore, women use both hemispheres when speaking and processing verbal information, while men primarily use one. These facts are broadly accepted as matters of nature.

But as Cordelia Fine, PhD writes, “Our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes, and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.”

Recognize Neurosexism

The term “neurosexism,” coined by Fine, refers to a flawed belief that results from the intersection of neuroscience and sexism. The belief is based on the assumption that gender differences perceived in character and behavior are caused by biological differences between male and female brains. We now have growing evidence and research that points to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Gina Rippon, PhD, and author of The Gendered Brain (Vintage Digital, 2019), has analyzed gender-related differences in the brain. What she has found is that when the differences in brain size are accounted for, differences in key structures disappear. As Rippon explains in an interview with theguardian.com:

“The brain is a rule scavenger and it picks up its rules from the outside world. The rules will change how the brain works and how someone behaves. The ‘gender gap’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Greater Power of Neuroplasticity

We now know that the brain continues to grow well into our later years through a process called “neuroplasticity.” Specifically, brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time. Neuroplasticity accommodates learning by producing new neurons, cells that help transfer information. 

“By the close of the 20th century, the brain had come to be envisaged as mutable across the whole of life, open to environmental influences, damaged by insults, and nourished and even reshaped by stimulation—in a word, plastic.”~ Sociologist Nikolas Rose and graduate student Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind(Princeton University Press, 2013)

Neuroplasticity demonstrates that brain cells can change in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Not only is it possible to change our brain, we can change the way we look at brains, our nature, and our potential. Even as adults, our brains continually change by the work we do, the hobbies we have, our diet, exercise, thought patterns, and attitudes.

Research from Georgia State University suggests that society’s expectations about gender roles alter the human brain at the cellular level. And while our brain may want to quickly sift, sort, label, and file to conserve energy, humans aren’t that binary. We are misguided when we try to classify people into two distinct, many times opposite, and often disconnected forms of masculine and feminine.

The next time you hear someone make the argument that women are more emotional, consider this caution from Rippon, “A gendered world shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health.”

What’s most important is to recognize the stories we tell: to each other, and to ourselves. Are we building bridges for positive change? How are we encouraging each other, and ourselves, to grow, collaborate, and achieve, individually and together?

Dealing with Disappointment

Leading in today’s competitive business market requires thinking and reaching beyond the norm. It requires leaders that give and gather the best: intellect, passion and commitment. Leaders know that they can’t achieve desired results without the engagement of others.

We require vendors to fulfill contracts as agreed. We need co-workers to complete assignments and meet deadlines. We anticipate partners will do their fair share. However, sometimes people fail to do so. Let downs occur. Expectations are unmet.

Great leaders will tell you that some of their best improvements and growth have resulted from a response to a disappointment. As painful as they may be, disappointments can be invaluable tools for lessons learned and wisdom gained. The critical question is how to deal with disappointments when they occur.

The Sources of Disappointment

While leaders are in a position to enjoy various kinds of success, they are also subject to disappointment from several areas of work life. Setbacks may be caused by factors that seem to be out of their control. However, patterns and avoidable issues need to be addressed.

Some disappointments come from your people. You counted on them and they let you down. A deadline was missed, an action item was not pursued or a possible solution not considered. Disappointment can turn to resentment if your people indicate apathy toward the misfortune.

Most employees will feel bad about disappointing their leader. It was not their intention. Be mindful of the fact that although you may bear the brunt of the disappointment, your people are often disappointed in themselves.

Other disappointments come to you through the company or its upper management. You may have been passed up for a promotion, denied the requested resources to accomplish a goal or given news that the company won’t be pursuing what looked like a promising venture.

These are not unlike the disappointments you may cause your people. They experience the same types of letdowns, often as the result of your decisions. What could you have done differently? Change what you can, and accept what you can’t. Practice self-compassion, and avoid self-pity.

The best leaders recognize that there are a number of ways they can bear the responsibility for disappointing their employees. Leaders can unknowingly let their people down by:

  • Communicating insufficiently
  • Not providing proper training or resources to get the job done
  • Making poor or uninformed decisions
  • Insufficient project management or follow-up
  • Having poor people skills
  • Behaving in ways that demotivate or disengage
  • Not having the technical ability to solve problems

Smart leaders take steps to raise the bar on their leadership.

Unfortunate Responses to Disappointment

All humans are hard-wired to respond to stimuli with feelings first, analysis second. When we act on our emotions, before we allow time to think, we respond unfavorably to disappointment. Unfortunately, emotionally driven types of responses are common for some leaders, according to leadership expert Peter Bregman’s Harvard Business Review article.

One such response for a disappointed leader is to go into attack mode. The temper rises and hurtful things are spewed. The attack is based on blame. Someone needs to be called out when a leader can’t look internally to their possible contribution to the setback. The underlying goal is self-preservation by causing a subordinate to pay the price. Sometimes damaging words are too extreme to be called back or reconciled. Relationships then become irreparable.

Another leadership response to disappointment is withdrawal. If a leader bears shame or deep regret, they may shut themselves in and avoid contacting the people they feel they’ve let down. They bear the pain alone, unable to deal with the humiliation or regret.

Perhaps they feel that things will heal and return to normal if enough time is allowed to pass, but this is rarely effective. Avoidance is no way to lead and can cripple other aspects of management. Withdrawal is not the example of strength and confidence employees need to see in their leader.

Yet another unfortunate response to disappointment is apathy. Leaders who can’t deal with letdowns rarely continue in their roles for long. They resign themselves to the thought that their position is compromised, and nothing can make up for the mistake. They stop caring altogether, waiting for the end.

Signs of apathy are easy to spot. The leader’s spirit and demeanor drop off significantly. This not only endangers their role, but the roles of everyone counting on them to lead and get things done. The team’s effectiveness and future grow dim until significant changes in personnel are made.

Of course, the severity of these unfortunate responses depends on the seriousness of the disappointment. Everyone has differing emotional tolerances and levels of perspective. Low measures of each cause unfortunate responses that bring regret to everyone.

Proper Responses to Disappointment

Leaders who provide constructive responses to disappointment reflect an honorable character worthy of following, describes Robin Camarote in Inc.com. This involves learning the skills of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. An experienced executive coach is a great resource to help you in this area.

When your people let you down, make it your focus to identify the issues and help them improve. The immediate desire to vent or convict people is damaging and works against you in the long run. Not many employees have a desire to work on solutions after they’re condemned.

Expressing disappointment is very acceptable, as long as it’s done in a way that inspires corrective action and positive attitudes. Calmness and objective reasoning are key. Working through solutions is best done directly with your people, engaging and helping them.

If you treat the situation as the problem, and not the employees, the team will make corrections at an amazing pace. Of course, if certain people have fallen short of expectations a one-on-one approach is called for. A problem employee may need an attitude change, a role change or an employment change, depending on the nature of the issue.

When the company or its top leaders disappoint you, make sure you assess yourself first. Identify your motive, attitude and goals before expressing concerns. Presenting a firm, but professionally positive front is the only way to arrive at a beneficial outcome. Anything less makes you appear to be the problem, and then your problems are just beginning.

Leaders who regret disappointing their people need a humble and transparent approach in order to set things straight. Assess your contribution to the problem and the reasons for it. This is best accomplished with the assistance of another trusted perspective, such as a co-leader or coach.

Improvement is the goal. Devise a plan to address shortcomings and unify your people. Then show them how you’re going to help them succeed. This is often the most difficult type of disappointment for leaders to overcome, but the rewards for your accountability are unlimited.

Establish Your Leadership Brand

Product branding is a familiar concept where product identity, reputation and differentiation are promoted. In an ideal world, a product’s image is established in positive ways, and the market is made aware of its presence. While it seems natural to brand products, leaders often don’t recognize how advantageously this principle can be applied to their careers.

A significant aspect of leadership success pertains to how the leader is perceived and accepted in their role. Favorable impressions are a huge part of the human experience, especially when applied to relationship-based activities such as leading people in an organizational setting. Positive impressions enhance a leader’s impact and offer more growth opportunities than neutral or negative impressions.

Leaders, while valuing the need to perform well and meet commitments, also benefit by establishing a solid personal brand. This allows them to make the most of their skills and potential as they advance their career path. There are several key areas that formulate your leadership brand and, when developed well, can take you to new heights.

What Constitutes a Leadership Brand?

When it comes to brands, products have much in common with leaders. Look at yourself as a product, because in essence, you are. Marketers illustrate their product’s worthiness, offering solutions that couldn’t be obtained without the product. Leaders are in a position to do the same. A product stands on a brand that makes a mark for its value. That’s exactly what successful leaders do as well. Leaders with strong brands are sought for their value because that’s what organizations need.

A strong reputation is the fundamental foundation. In part, your brand is what you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing and what you stand for. Consistent performance and accomplishment build great reputations. This creates a brand that proves a leader’s capabilities or expertise. Leaders with strong brands don’t need to search for opportunities; opportunities come to them.

A leadership brand establishes your voice, as described by Paul Larson in his book Find Your Voice as a Leader (Aviva Publishing, 2016). Leaders with a developed voice have a presence: a distinctive quality that makes them stand out.

Your brand creates a following. As the saying goes, leaders don’t lead unless someone follows. People want to be associated with the benefits that come with success. Leaders with a strong brand represent success, attraction and influence. Employees know that a great leadership brand brings gains to everyone.

If you have a solid leadership brand, you fashion your influence in ways that create a lasting legacy. This maximizes your impact, not only while you are on board, but long after you’re gone. You’ll find nothing more gratifying than an organization that owes its success to your legacy. Does your brand have the potential of doing that?

The Building Block: Behavior

Leaders are primarily known for how they act, especially in tough and trying situations. This goes both positively and negatively. Leaders with strong personal brands have honed their personal skills to be reliable and trustworthy under pressure. This includes being calm, reasonable and poised. People put their faith in leaders who are a rock in a storm because this represents safety and security.

Another aspect of strong brand behavior is genuineness. Leaders who demonstrate transparency and humility are trustworthy. Their brand stands out as a pleasant departure from a leadership norm that lacks these traits. Similarly, a brand of refinement and integrity is admirable. If you are a leader known for doing the right thing, being responsible for your actions, taking the heat and issuing credit, then your brand will rise to the top.

Having confidence in your abilities, based on your competence and experience, is a great brand booster. People can see this in how you speak and carry yourself. However, if this carries over into overconfidence, pride or arrogance, your brand gets tarnished. An experienced executive coach can advise you on the image you portray, and help you reverse any adverse behaviors.

Other personality traits can help to build a solid leadership brand. Leaders who are firm, but fair, earn high praise. People want the ability to do their jobs well and understanding when conditions prevent it. Fair treatment, acknowledgment and reward are the benefits employees receive from strong leadership brands.

Additionally, a leadership style that is prepared and knowledgeable fashions a respected brand. People want leaders who know what they’re doing and can anticipate things that go south; because they do. Being teachable is an extra benefit that lets people know you are real, can relate and don’t pretend to have all the answers. Few things darken a leadership brand more than a self-professed know-it-all.

The Art of Appearance

Like products, leaders convey their brand through their physical packaging. Visual impressions are powerful, as people are wired to make judgements from what they observe. An impressive appearance goes a long way toward a positive leadership brand. As with behavior, the greatest appearance influence is generated by the most positive presentation.

The most immediate visual impact comes from being clean cut and well dressed. This shows an attention to detail and a sense of discipline, two traits that aid in competence, decision making and responsibility. People see a leader who attempts to look their best as someone who applies themselves and reaches for the best.

Leadership expert Dianna Booher, in her book Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), suggests body language is another brand-related factor. It shows in how you carry yourself and respond to the many stimuli around you. Staying in control of your emotions indicates internal strength and good self-awareness. This conveys a rational and subjective command of situations, boosting your leadership brand with the trust of your people behind you.

How you keep your office space also discloses your level of discipline and self-management. A disheveled desk implies disorganization and an inability to stay on top of things. While a perfectly sparkling desk may indicate you are underutilized, you want to have the signs of being busy, yet not inundated beyond your limits. Again, visual perceptions are powerful influencers in how your people receive your brand.

In addition to physical appearance, your emotional appearance weighs into establishing a strong leadership brand. Several personality traits are especially helpful for positive image building (besides being the right way to lead people). Leaders with a positive outlook, framed by good energy and passion, are greatly appreciated. They influence their people positively and inspire them to do their best work. This is a fantastic brand to stand by.

The Criticality of Communication

Leaders who are good communicators build some of the strongest personal brands. Communication is the lifeblood of every organization. It must be promoted and championed by the leader. Companies are handicapped by poor communication, and their brand is tarnished by underperformance. If a company’s brand is tarnished, so is the brand of the leader.

How a leader communicates reflects on their character and competence. Clear enunciation, authoritative delivery and considerate expression all help form a solid brand. In addition, communicating with emotional control and professionalism forges the trust of your people. They have the security of knowing they’re in good hands.

The best leadership communication is based on facts, not speculation. Speaking knowledgably and objectively gains credibility. Wishful emotion and baseless assumptions don’t build a brand. Credible leaders muster the most influence because they gather the most followers. If you do your homework and prepare thoughtful statements, delivered with insight and diplomacy, your leadership brand will be boosted.

A leader’s communication style also impacts the standing of their brand. A trained executive coach can help you with this. Good communicators explain things well. Speaking in brief segments is less confusing. Going back to summarize significant points helps everyone get on the same page. Your leadership brand will benefit by the engagement of your people when you communicate.

Ask questions to make sure your listeners grasp your message. Also, be open to questions from your audience. This conveys a desire to meet their needs and helps them participate in the dialogue. The goal is not to simply get a message out into the open, but to add value to your people by giving them information they need. Leaders who are known for this have solid personal brands.

Speaking skills need to transfer to large group sessions as well, according to Booher. Having a positive, authoritative presence builds an admirable brand. Your people are looking for hope and security in what you say, even if the news is difficult. Putting their interests first positions you to be highly regarded and branded well.

Relying on Relationships

Leadership is essentially the ability to achieve goals through effective relationships. The leaders who have the greatest relational skills have the greatest chance for success and the best foundation for a solid brand. Is your brand known for valuing relationships and enhancing the work lives of your people?

Relational leaders have strong personal brands because their people feel valued and satisfied. Employees enjoy working for a leader who treats them like a partner, like an appreciated resource. This promotes a feeling of security. Leaders who offer these kinds of relationships have a highly regarded brand and benefit in many ways.

Leaders with relational skills want to connect with and engage their people. This involves showing an interest in them, and seeking to understand their hopes and concerns. Leaders who can dialog with active listening build relationships.

Asking questions and actively listening demonstrates interest in others and signals that their thoughts are worth knowing. Be inclusive, asking for feedback from everyone at some point or another. You honor people by appreciating their ideas and solutions to problems.

A key factor is to be approachable and reasonable. If your people know they can come to you and build on a relationship, they will trust you and value your leadership. When employees are comfortable and satisfied with their leader, there are no limits to what they can accomplish.

Inspire your people with a positive, empowering approach. Delegate as much authority as their level can accommodate. Celebrate their victories.

Great Leaders Conduct Great Meetings

The mention of the word meeting will cause most people to groan. Experiences of wastefulness, boredom, confusion and frustration often prompt such a response. Most business experts agree that the vast majority of meetings fail to meet their objective: agreeing to workable decisions to meet established goals.

Top executives typically spend at least 50% of their time in meetings; somewhat less for middle management. As popular as the idea may be to some, absolving or avoiding meetings is not an option. Issues need to be discussed and resolved, and no leader can do this alone. Collective efforts are required to undertake complex challenges, where multiple points of view and a wide range of expertise are needed.

The key is to conduct meetings effectively and make productive use of the participants’ time. But, according to Elise Keith, author of Where the Action Is (Second Rise, 2018), less than one in four leaders are trained to run a meeting. On-the-job learning is rarely adequate. How a meeting is conducted reveals much about the leader heading it and may also be an indicator of how the company is run.

The most successful companies have the most fruitful meetings, where leaders have the skills to bring people together for productive discussions with meaningful outcomes, founded on building consensus. A few simple principles can be employed to boost meeting success and employee willingness to attend. An experienced executive coach can help leaders hone the personal skills needed to improve meeting facilitation.

Preparation is Paramount

Meetings are only as effective as the level of preparedness of the participants. Everyone’s time is waisted if meeting topics are a surprise. The preparation of the attenders is established by the preparedness of the meeting leader. Inviting people to a meeting is not enough. A clear agenda is needed, and it must be distributed to participants with enough time to allow them to be ready for the planned discussion. Leaders who provide their attenders with a realistic, clear agenda increase their success rates significantly.

Agenda items can’t be unfamiliar to attenders. As Amy Gallo suggests in a Harvard Business Review article, your people need to be familiar with the topics to understand what’s being discussed. If this isn’t the case, then they need to be informed prior, either via conversations, a preliminary meeting or their own research.

Make your agenda achievable within the meeting timeframe. People will dread attending if your meetings habitually run over, or insignificant enough to not warrant the meeting in the first place. Meetings should be called only when more personal forms of communication are inadequate.

Have necessary materials or documents available for your meetings. If your attendees need to see them ahead of time, distribute the information with enough time for review. Everyone at the meeting should know the materials in front of them. When in doubt, overcommunicate.

Plan your meeting with definitive start and stop times and stick to them. People have more confidence in a leader who manages time well. If you start your meeting on time, those who are late will avoid a repeat, and they will learn to be prompt.

Leaders who plan their meetings with anticipated concerns or questions from their people have a more effective dialogue and better results. Being proactive can avoid difficult or distracting moments and give people more confidence in your concern for them.

Efficiency is Essential

Busy employees try to make the most of their time, hating to waste it. They also appreciate leaders who value them enough not to have their time wasted. This is most noted when it comes to holding meetings. When meetings are loosely run, dragging on and getting little done, the time-wasting alarm goes off in every participant’s head.

Alternatively, efficient meetings are greatly appreciated and often favorably anticipated. People who attend productive meetings feel benefitted and know they can do their jobs better. Their motivation, attitude and productivity rise. When meetings are boring and wasteful, people feel depleted, frustrated and farther from their goals. When leaders conduct efficient meetings, the enhancement of the culture is significant.

One of the most valuable aspects of an effective meeting is brevity. Keeping meetings short and sweet benefits your people in numerous ways. A lot of ground can be covered in thirty minutes when effective tactics are used. People can’t take much more than an hour without regretting the experience. A recent trend is the stand-up meeting. The idea is that standing can be endured for less time than sitting, so everyone is motivated to wrap things up promptly.

Small talk and rabbit trails are common, but your facilitating skills need to bring people back on track. This can be done kindly and considerately, while being firm enough to get the job done on time. Electronic devices also distract the group and should be set aside until the meeting is concluded. Of course, leading by example is the best way to convey these approaches.

Another efficiency-related strategy is to get as much participation from the group as possible. Keep your people engaged by asking questions and requesting individual responses. The more diverse the feedback, the more thorough the discussion, and the better the resulting decisions will be. Balancing discussion with brevity is a master-facilitator skill.

Follow-up is Foundational

Effective leaders recognize that what takes place after meetings can be just as important as what happens during them. Following up with your people ensures that what was assigned or decided has a greater chance of succeeding. Summarize your meeting discussions before the meeting concludes, and make sure everyone is on the same page and understands what you expect of them. This is best facilitated by assigning names and dates to action items, not hoping someone picks up the ball.

Credit people with good ideas as you wrap up. This encourages more participation and yet more ideas. Following their activities afterwards keeps these ideas fresh and likely to bear fruit. When you empower your people to run with their ideas and prove themselves, they will reflect the benefits of your meeting discussions.

A valuable asset resulting from a meeting is a written record of what was discussed and decided. Leaders who make sure minutes are taken make their meetings more effective by giving all participants a copy. Things left to memory are often lost. Develop the collective mindset that the minutes are the roadmap everyone is held accountable to.

As action items are pursued, successful leaders request reports and updates to keep the group informed and moving forward. With this continuous flow of information, team members are able to perform at their best. Everyone reaps the rewards when leaders run effective meetings.

An often-overlooked aspect of meeting follow-up is the celebration of progress on the items previously planned and discussed. Letting your people know they’re appreciated, valued and contributing to the success of the organization builds their confidence and self-worth. Your meetings will get progressively more effective when your people are motivated to shine and support you. Following these basic principles develops a culture where meetings undergird the quality of progress you and your people make.

Raising Your Leadership Bar

In today’s breakneck corporate culture, many leaders have redefined their success. Merely keeping up with the chaos has become an acceptable goal. The trend in organizational management is to focus on staying afloat and ponder the future if time allows. The common theme is do more with less.

Unfortunately, this attempt to enhance the profit picture as much as possible has created unprecedented levels of stress, dysfunction and disappointment for leaders. The time leaders can afford to spend on their leadership skills and personal growth, as critical as these areas are, seems to shrink every year. Leaders are under increasing pressure to make their companies all they can be, with little time taken to making themselves all they can be.

The most successful leaders use sound approaches to assess their work and determine what they can do to improve what they do. They understand that their company will prosper if they personally prosper as an effective leader with the best approach, ability, mindset and stability. How they go about raising their personal bar is the key.

What’s Your Perspective?

If chaos is the norm for you, have you ever contemplated how you can change that? Perhaps a more basic question is: do you recognize the detrimental effects that chaos has on you? The most effective leaders have learned to step back, even if only briefly at first, to assess their leadership situation: their career, influence, personal growth and satisfaction. They ask themselves important questions and try to find answers:

  • What are the things in my role that I should continue doing?
  • What are the things in my role that I should change?

These are prominent concerns all leaders should address, according to leadership expert and author Peter Bregman in, Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work (Wiley, 2018). These areas are foundational in developing the character, skills and desires to lead well.

Other related thoughts:

  • What would it look like if you became all you could be?
  • What’s keeping you from getting there?
  • How best can you alter the things that are holding you back?
  • What character traits are worth developing in this endeavor?

Leaders who deliberately find time to explore these areas are richly rewarded. They grow in their abilities and value, make more use of the skills they have and enter new avenues of opportunity and success. Find a way to schedule more time for these kinds of thoughts. A seasoned executive coach is an excellent resource to guide you through this process. Few leaders see things objectively enough when dealing with their inner workings. A second set of eyes spots things you can’t.

Leaders make the most progress in self-development by cutting through the clutter, looking at the big picture and making basic, yet profound adjustments. This may require courage, patience and determination.

Bregman suggests four fundamental categories that leaders can examine to enhance their mindset, value and purpose:

  • Clarity
  • Focus
  • Intentionality
  • Balance

Find a Clear Theme

Clarity is the ability to see things as they are with an accurate perception and understanding. It’s a freedom from uncertainty or confusion. It’s the skill to grasp fundamental truths and distinguish false alternatives. Clarity of mind stands as a basic framework to hang other usable skills, and successful leaders learn how to find it.

According to Bregman, one of the most distinguishing character traits successful leaders possess is clarity. This encompasses not only reaching a state of clarity, but continuing to embody it. In other words, providing clarity to others is just as vital as establishing it within yourself. After all, what is the point of a leader being clear if no one else benefits from it?

In the effort to be all you can be as a leader and determine how to move forward, you need to assess your recent performance and frame your effectiveness. Ask yourself what things went well. Just as important, ask what kinds of things did not go well. Putting together an historical picture helps to reveal patterns. The next step is to discern common causes for the things that did not go well. The goal is to find a personal theme behind it all, as Bregman suggests.

You may find your theme to be similar to these:

  • Emotions get in the way of clear thinking and reasonable responses. When I have calm responses rather than emotional reactions, outcomes are much better.
  • Overthinking makes things more complicated. When I break things down into simple compartments, solutions are more effective and longer lasting.
  • Rushing to conclusions with impatience takes me down terrible paths. Taking a more deliberate approach, dealing with one step at a time, yields a better understanding and thus better decisions.

Your theme determines the corrective action needed to reverse the affects you don’t want to see.  Make it your ‘theme for clarity”. Let it be simple, doable and easy to remember. Make it your focus every day. For example, if your theme is to slow down, practice slowing down. A deliberate awareness will become an automatic state of mind. Be all you can be by finding your best self-improvement theme.

Sharpen Your Focus

In a fast-paced environment, it’s difficult to think about the future and where you want to go. Understanding what your future looks like and how to reach your full potential requires dedicated, undistracted thought. It requires a sharper focus on the things that matter down the road.

Preparing for the future should be a thoughtful and optimistic matter. Time must be dedicated to evaluating the possibilities and potential. This means that you’ll need to split your time between current tasks and potential or future tasks. This doesn’t necessarily mean an equal split, but some kind of proportionate division, dependent on the circumstances. It comes down to deciding what to let go of in order to focus on the future.

Bregman is keen to point out that this is difficult for many executives, not because of time constraints as much as the common paradigm that non-essential tasks are not productive and have no apparent return. The culture has us convinced that only the tasks that provide a quantifiable return (and quickly) are worth pursuing. Leaders who’ve become all they can be know this to be untrue.

Future goals are gradually achieved by working in ways that, on the surface, have no short-term rewards, but in principle have great long-term payback. This includes networking and building relationships, daily writing or journaling, learning new personal skills and reading. The key is to continuously improve yourself and your prospects while understanding that these activities may not support your immediate role. It requires a renewed focus and dedication.

Be More Intentional

Leaders are busier than ever and have no energy to spare. Bregman reminds leaders who want to be all they can be that they need to be strategic about their time and energy. They must be productive, and that requires optimal focus and effectiveness. Being fatigued makes this much more difficult. Leaders can’t be busy just to be busy. Their time must count.

An intentional approach focuses on the most beneficial areas, and thinking can be one of them. You find what matters most by recognizing that the things bringing you the most joy are just as important as the things bringing the organization the most benefit. The intention is to pursue both.

Joy is important to grow and refresh. It permits you to apply yourself and have a positive perspective in your role. A significant aspect of finding joy is to let go of the things that annoy, frustrate or drain you. Many leaders find doses of refreshment by letting emails go for a while. Take a step back from time to time and let go of worries.

Many leaders get worn down by wasting their time. Ineffective meetings, reports or trips take their toll. Make note of how you spend your effort, and you’ll see how much of it could be more fruitful. Make an intentional decision to change this as much as you can by revising your routine, commitments and habits. How can you reduce frustration and increase joy?

Do you spend too much unproductive time on the internet? Are all the meetings you attend necessary? Eliminate time wasters, but don’t obsess over it. If you want to reach your maximum potential, you must be intentional about your goals and the methods you’ll employ to achieve them.

Balancing Work and Life

Our culture has brainwashed us into believing that our occupations determine our identities and our productivity indicates our value. Breaking this unfortunate mindset is a struggle for most leaders.

Technology facilitates this myth. Leaders can be accessed virtually everywhere, whether they are on company property or not. As Bergman rightly observes, the workplace is now everywhere. We can’t escape the demands and expectations put on us. The boundaries between work and personal life are gone. Leaders battle this boundary invasion, and their debased sense of value bleeds over into home life, where none of the work-related demands should be.

Leaders who’ve become all they can be have decided that their role at work is important, but not all-defining. They’ve learned to sense self-worth in all aspects of their lives: with family, friends, activities and personal growth. Their resulting joy and satisfaction help them to engage in all that they do with optimism and effectiveness. The key is not necessarily dividing their lives into work and non-work time, but finding a way to balance them such that they complement each other. 

Time management techniques at work can reduce the in-office demand and open up more non-work time. Establish a routine that helps you cover more bases in less time using the resources and staff available to you. Think ahead, anticipate demands and plan for multiple situations. This can reduce your stress and let you be fresher for the office and at home.

Similarly, more joy at home allows you to be more positive and fruitful at work. The most well-rounded leaders have found ways to enrich their relationships and activities at home, bringing more pleasure to life. Your family deserves more from you than what’s left over from what your employer takes. Many leaders have found that a richer work life is built on a foundation of a richer personal life.

Save your sanity and energy and bring a fresh approach to each day. If you balance the aspects of your life, you’ll have a more fulfilling identity and a richer purpose. These are the best paths to becoming all you can be as a leader.

The Behaviors That Lead Change

A well-known paradox states that the only thing that remains the same is change. Most leaders agree. Businesses are, and always have been, subjected to the influences of technology, economies, politics, competition and the culture. Change is unavoidable. The most successful companies are led by people who recognize the need for change and manage it well. Alternatively, those who cannot will subject their organizations to the risks of failure.

Implementing change is a significant aspect of leading organizations, in some ways more critical than many traditional areas. Some necessary changes are minor, while others are major. Mergers or acquisitions rank in the major-change category, as does rebranding or downsizing.

The way that change is managed can ruin the most passionate dreams of accomplishing it. Studies show that a vast majority of projects involving change don’t succeed. The estimates vary between 60 and 80 percent. Failures in the change process result in large wastes of capital and time, and may send a company backwards from the position it started in.

Evaluations of corporate change reveal something else: the major factor in successful change management is internal to the company, not an influence from the outside. This applies to the organization, as well as the top leader. According to a Harvard Business Review article by organizational change expert Edith Onderick-Harvey, the leader’s behavior is the most critical distinguishing element determining success or failure.

Communication is Critical

Surveys and studies confirm that the most important aspect of organizational change is keeping everyone involved and informed. That requires meaningful and continuous communication. Leaders who want to achieve successful change must have strong communication skills. They must be people oriented.

Employees who comment on their organization’s inability to implement change point to how they were not properly informed, directed or trained regarding the change process. Their leaders attempted to implement change from behind the scenes, hoping everyone would fall in line. This doesn’t happen naturally.

Most people like a predictable and reliable environment, where personal comfort and familiarity provide a sense of safety. For many, change presents risks that take them out of their comfort zones. Risks threaten positions of influence, authority, competency or rewards. Change poses a potential for failure, or the possibility of being worse off than before. That’s why change is resisted.

Staff needs thorough connectedness with leadership to overcome fear of change. Leaders must reach out to their people to convey the need for change with rationale and reasons. They need to set the vision, tout the benefits and lay out the course in a way that compels people to buy into the program. Leaders who effectively implement change are focused on their people as much as the change itself.

Effective change agents understand the perceptions and impacts of change. They care about people and engage them from beginning to end, involving them in every step. This includes the following, all calling for communicative behavior:

  • Introduction with compelling presentations that lay out the need for change and how it will be accomplished
  • Assurance that the needs of the employees are vitally important, and their roles will be enhanced or improved
  • Continuous updates on how things are going and what the timeline looks like
  • Encouragement for people to stay positive and enthused
  • Requests for feedback and opportunities to answer questions, address concerns and revise the plan if needed
  • Empowerment of others to engage in and contribute to the process

Be a Beacon of Light

Successful change agents know their people need encouragement through the process, remembering that many people resist or distrust change. They need an extra measure of positivity and support.

This calls for the leader to have an optimistic outlook and, as Onderick-Harvey describes, view change as an opportunity. If the leader doubts the process, how can their people have confidence in it? A positive mindset at the upper management level is most powerful when it is spread throughout the organization. Leaders who behave confidently with the courage to take on the challenges that come with change have the greatest influence on success.

As the leader, it is imperative that you embrace change rather than fear it, as Inc. Magazine writer Robbie Abed suggests. It is, after all, your program, authorized by you, so fear needs to be eliminated from your behavior from the outset. Your courage must be contagious, especially when setbacks occur. A committed and confident leader calms everyone’s nerves and keeps them forging ahead.

The optimistic leader keeps negative emotions in check. While undergoing change, people need a steady rock, a beacon of light to feel safe and secure. Let them see you in that role.

Part of this approach is a character that believes in people and lets them know it. Empower others to contribute input and ideas. They are, after all, the experts in the detailed operations within your organization. Solicit engagement in crafting solutions and revisions to the plan. Demonstrate that they are trusted, valued and a critical part of implementing the change, which boosts optimism and buy in.

Another way optimism is conveyed is the rejection of the status quo. The old ways of doing things cannot continue and better ways are coming. Better ways will benefit everyone. Yes, it will be hard work to implement change, and there will be struggles. But your people are worth it! Let your people know that they deserve better than “good-enough”.

The Power of Authenticity

As change is announced and implemented, people want the straight story—the truthful picture of what’s happening. If the leader has a secret agenda, hidden motives or suppressed information, people lose trust and won’t provide much-needed buy-in. Behind-the-scenes issues eventually become exposed, so it’s simply best to convey everything up-front with your employees.

This is especially true if the project hits snags. Being open and truthful is the best way to unify the workforce and keep them engaged. People can often handle bad news as long as they’re valued enough to be informed properly and given the chance to respond. As the saying goes, honesty is always the best policy.

This often takes an extra measure of leadership humility, suggests change expert Bill Hogg. A leader who can admit mistakes, see a need for corrections to the plan and lay this out for their people gains the highest trust and participation in staying the course. Your authenticity diminishes their fear of change. An even more powerful approach allows your people to offer their expertise to derive solutions or improvements. Providing opportunities to fully invest in the change process yields the greatest chances for success.

Leaders should be willing and able to handle failures along the way, knowing some will pop up. This is a realistic approach, and by preparing your staff for this, their collective mindset provides the most thoughtful and insightful responses. Change is difficult enough. Being prepared to step in when needed provides a teamwork that can’t be achieved any other way.

A leader’s authenticity in facing adversity, having difficult conversations, conveying their concern for their people and recognizing what needs to be improved makes the change process as rewarding as possible. Your people will grow and have the confidence to take on further changes down the road.

Overturn Leadership Liabilities

Leaders are encouraged to develop their strengths and sharpen their skills to maximize their effectiveness. Many resources are available, including books, seminars, conferences and qualified executive coaches. A coach, of course, can address your specific needs, and customize an approach that perfectly fits your personality, circumstances and goals.

Most leaders understand that all their beliefs and behaviors are exposed. They put their character on display every day. Employees rightfully attribute the organization’s success or failure to how the top leader leads.

While focusing on strengths is very worthwhile and profitable, leaders can’t reach peak effectiveness without taking a hard look at their weaknesses. A leader’s prominence in the organization automatically designates their strengths as assets. Alternatively, their weaknesses can be considered liabilities, blocking the organization from reaching its potential.

Although not a fond exercise, some of the most significant personal growth can come from understanding what behavior is blocking collective success. The best leaders make the decision to understand their liabilities, many of which they never notice. Turning them around to become assets will be the most valuable undertaking of their professional careers.

The Impact of Leadership Liabilities

Many leaders don’t recognize their liabilities or the detrimental effects they have on their organization. Every leader has weaknesses of some kind. The wisest are willing to learn about them and undo the damage they cause. After all, if the company struggles, the employees struggle, and this eventually comes full circle to cause the leader to struggle.

For the most part, leadership liabilities have to do with personality rather than a lack of technical skills or knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired with relative ease. Leaders can also rely on the expertise of people around them to cover their technical skill shortcomings. However, leaders can’t look to others to compensate for their personality shortcomings. Only the leader can address these.

Even when other co-leaders bring effective assets to the organization, an ineffective leader with liabilities can undo them, as leadership experts Robert Anderson and William Adams explain in Scaling Leadership: Building organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most (Wiley, 2019). They put it succinctly by stating that “leaders with liabilities simply get in their own way.”

Some leaders observe disappointing results and reason that they just need to work harder. They press more or put in longer hours to compensate for a perceived deficiency. This is rarely the solution. In fact, with an ineffective style or disruptive personality, working harder can exacerbate the liabilities. More of a bad thing is generally a worse thing.

Leaders who bring character or personality liabilities to their organizations see a variety of debilitating results. Diminished productivity, morale, unity, loyalty and progress are just a few of the outcomes. Ultimately, the organization is unsuccessful, and so is its leader.

Anderson and Adams point to three primary self-centric tendencies that cause leadership liabilities: disliking people, devaluing people and having emotional deficiencies.

Leaders Who Dislike People

It may seem like a contradiction, but some leaders don’t like people. Although they technically need others in order to run a team, they behave in ways that indicate they have no need for them. This proves to be a significant liability and it’s generally not difficult to spot.

Poor people skills are an indicator. Leaders who don’t treat people well signal their dislike for them. Common signs include not acknowledging others by initiating or returning a greeting, and being non-responsive to questions or comments. Adding arrogance or disrespect is a more blatant clue.

A leader’s liability is even more pronounced when they are critical of their employees, criticizing, condemning or insulting them. An argumentative character adds fuel to the fire, clearly displaying a dislike for people. This cuts peoples’ spirits and destroys their self-esteem. Morale and unity get crushed, sabotaging productivity and team effectiveness.

Anderson and Adams describe another way leaders display their dislike for people: being a poor team player. Unwilling to engage others, they rather work independently, keeping information to themselves. Withholding support may also be a way of avoiding contact, but it is a liability that handicaps the organization.

Pride plays a role in leaders who always believe they are right. The team’s position is not as important as that of the ego-driven leader who is never wrong. This throws up walls that block teamwork, and thus success. Employees have no tolerance for this kind of mindset and will express it with their feet.

A lack of follow-up is yet another way leaders reveal their dislike for people. This is often exhibited as a resistance to addressing difficult issues with employees: not wanting to hear their opinions or concerns. Not holding them accountable can be a way to avoid encounters. No one gets corrected, taught, instructed or challenged. This liability leads to disorganization and disruption. Rules and policies become meaningless and the company crumbles under its mismanagement.

When People are Devalued

A surprising number of workers claim that their supervisors don’t value them: that they are treated like subservient slaves. It is a significant reason why people quit their jobs. As a popular saying goes, people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses.

Leaders bring a serious liability to their organizations when they don’t treat their people well. Employees may be driven hard, given unrealistic expectations, buried in work that they have no way to accomplish, or go unforgiven for past mistakes. This is a signal that their needs are not considered important, that they have little value in the eyes of the leader.

Leaders who treat their people this way give the impression that obedience is the most important factor: they are to do or die, not to question why. Messengers of bad news get shot. There is little understanding or caring about the staff. Only the leader’s needs matter. It sounds harsh, but unfortunately is common.

This is a clear demonstration of devaluing people and it causes serious consequences. Above all else, people need to sense value to maintain self-worth, confidence and positivity to do their work. Devaluing people strips them of these critical aspects, while debilitating the productivity and longevity of the staff.

Micromanaging is yet another way leaders demonstrate a devaluing of their people. It stems from the leader’s belief that no one can match their high standards, so they must be over-guided to get things right. People are not considered competent or trustworthy enough. This devalues and demoralizes them, and creates a stinging liability.

Leaders who listen poorly devalue their people by indicating that they have nothing important to say, that they can’t contribute. A leader who is lost in their own thoughts signals that only their thoughts are significant. They live in their own little world, and none of their people are worthy of entering it. As communicator and author Andy Stanley puts it, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say.” That’s a serious liability.

When Leadership Emotions Take Over

Employees look to their leader to establish safety and trust. Leaders accomplish this in part with behavior that is rational, calm, logical and wise. They don’t get rattled by letting situations get the best of them.

Leaders who portray a solid, steadfast source of guidance and direction earn the trust of their people. The opposite is true for leaders who can’t control their emotions when the pressure hits. Employees question their security when their leader shows they’re not putting the team first.

Research conducted by Anderson and Adams reveals that leadership impatience is a common response to difficulty. Leaders who lack patience in tough situations release frustrations and resentments, showing an intolerance for something not going their way. It can be accompanied by anger and disrespect.

Impatience from a leader is a way of indicating that they believe something is wrong with their people. This is a damaging mindset, even if it’s momentary. People sense this and respond negatively. Leader impatience can also lead to taking shortcuts to make up for lost time, and that has its own set of potential consequences.

Anger and tirades are more serious behavioral problems indicating a lack of emotional control. Employees are put on high alert when the leader overreacts to bad news. People sense defeat and that can lead to depression, high stress and lower productivity. A leader with little emotional control is a liability to the organization.

Leaders can handicap their company by prioritizing their personal agenda over that of the company. When decisions are made favoring their personal gain rather than team accomplishment, the organization suffers. Protecting one’s image or turf can lead to lying, cheating, blame-shifting or credit-grabbing. It is damaging and is a liability to everyone.

Minimizing Liabilities

Since the most damaging leadership liabilities have to do with the inability to work well with their people, leaders benefit best by making effective relationships a priority. As Anderson and Adams point out, the greatest challenge in minimizing these kinds of liabilities is to find an optimal balance between a focus on tasks and relationships.

In essence, the best leaders have minimized personality-related liabilities by valuing others before self. This is easier said than done. First, it requires an understanding of your liabilities and character. A trusted confidant can offer a different perspective and help you take a deeper look. This may be a close colleague or better yet, a qualified executive coach who has an impartial mindset.

Listen to those who can honestly counsel you and frankly describe what they see in you. They are helping you; be thankful for it. With this new knowledge, work to undo some of the behavior that threatens the unity within the ranks. Your people are not assets to be used merely for the sake of getting work done. They are your partners joining together to support your cause, wanting to succeed together. They want you to succeed as well.

Being mindful of this is the best way to develop appreciation for your people and show them that they are valued. You need to be valued, and so do they. Give yourself a mission every day to add value to them and watch the unity grow. This is the major difference between leaders who overcome liabilities and those who don’t.

If your behavior reflects honesty, authenticity and transparency, your people will see that you care about them and much of the damage caused by your liabilities can be reversed. Respect for your people will be returned multi-fold. Engage your people with enthusiasm and encouragement and you’ll be amazed at how they respond. Let go of control and see how well they grow and develop.

Your leadership liabilities are dependent on your outlook—your attitude. Are you willing to put in the effort to turn it around? Relying on the expertise of a seasoned leadership coach can get you off to a great start.