Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leadership and Manners

There has been a lot made about the behavior of various people over the past several weeks. There is also a point to be made about personal behavior in regard to effective leadership. The point is simply this: behave yourself. And you should insist that those who work for you, especially those who are in leadership positions, also behave themselves. Assuming your mother wasn’t Ma Barker, it is probably best to remember those things your mother used to tell you: don’t yell, don’t make a scene, etc.

This is more than simply good manners, it is an essential part of good leadership. This is true for the simplest of reasons: it’s not about you. If you are leading people, it is about the goal, whatever that goal is, whether you are Alexander trying to conquer the known world, or Ray Kroc trying to make a hamburger faster and cheaper. Making a scene shifts the focus from the goal to you. Which means you are losing ground on your goal. So here are some simple rules, which may sound like they came from your mother. But they are worth practicing and, as important, enforcing.

Don’t yell. Yelling is a lousy way to get people to pay attention to your thoughts. I have a general set of instructions that allow yelling in the following cases: someone is shooting at you; the building is on fire; you’ve won the lottery; your team just scored. If you are alone you may yell at your computer when it loses a file, or at the news for saying something stupid. Other than that – no yelling.

As for all those TV shows and movies where the heroes yell at each other, I suspect that the directors and writers have never been in real high stress positions with good leaders. If they had, they would find there is very little yelling.

Does this mean that there have been effective, even great, leaders who haven’t followed these rules? Yes. But they have been exceptions to the rule. And, in fact, even a cursory review of history will show that they were rarely as harsh with their followers as history has painted some of them. Even as terrifying a figure as Genghis Khan was known among his people as a fair leader who took care of his troops.

If you have manager who yells a lot, you need to keep an eye on him.

Don’t interrupt. When others are talking, listen. And pay attention. Was the Congressman wrong to interrupt the President? Yes. And he appropriately apologized. (That some other Congressmen and Senators have, over the past several years, called the last President both a liar and someone who took glee in the death of US soldiers, and booed during the course of his address to Congress, and didn’t fully apologize, is a disgrace.)

Again, your mother was right: don’t interrupt. When someone else is speaking, listen to him. Let them make their point. Communicating is not a one-way street. If you really are concerned about the goal of the organization, and not your ego, you may find they have a good point. And if you don’t listen, you won’t understand their point and won’t be able to explain to them, if necessary, what issue they missed and why the organization is doing ‘A’ and not ‘B.’ This process of listening and then explaining sends the clear signal that you are not only interested in what the people in your organization think and say, but that you want to hear it, and that if there is a difference of opinion, that you are going to help them understand why the organization is doing one thing and not the other. People will feel included and will get behind your position.

On the other hand, if you find you can’t explain your position well enough to convince the doubters, it may be because your position has some holes in it. Listening and engaging in polite give and take will help you realize that fact a great deal faster then yelling and interrupting.

And paying attention is just as important. I recall a session of Congress several years ago where a picture of the Congressmen and Senators showed a number of them sitting and reading material that clearly was not the President’s speech. Or sleeping. There is a word for that kind of thing: rude. Don’t do it. Don’t let others do it.

So, if one of your managers constantly interrupts others, it is probable that they are poor communicators.

No Name Calling. First, don’t do it. Under any circumstances. Second, if someone says something, don’t assume you can understand his motivations. Because ‘Joe’ said ‘X’ doesn’t give you or anyone else the right to claim he’s racist, a sexist, an elitist or any other kind of ‘ist.’ If you think his behavior has crossed a line of decency, go talk to him yourself – one on one. Then you may need to act. But based on some clear facts, not hearsay and assumptions and name calling.

Three Strikes – You’re Out. Repeat Performances Shouldn’t Be Excused. Since I assume that my readers are all bright professionals, this won’t apply to you. But it applies to your junior executives. If ‘Joe’ keeps getting himself into embarrassing positions where he is yelling and then apologizing, yelling and apologizing, yelling and apologizing, he probably is the wrong the guy to be in front of people. Get him some professional help. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are very few, and should be reserved for those who show dramatic leadership and management skills.

While this may sound ‘preachy,’ the fact is that polite discourse is essential to convince people to pursue Your goal. You are trying to make people follow your ideas, and that means they must come along willingly, joyfully. Of course you should be passionate about your ideas, but you also need to respectful of others. Don’t forget that and, most especially, don’t let your junior executives forget it.


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