Non-Verbal Leadership

September 22, 2009

In a recent article in the NYTimes, Linda Hudson described her first day on her job after being promoted to president at General Dynamics:

… I went out and bought my new fancy suits to wear to work and so on. And I’m at work on my very first day, and a lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit. And I go to work and wear my suit, and I have my first day at work. And then I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.

Hudson’s scarf is a great metaphor for the power of non-verbal leadership. Language matters in leadership, of course, but non-verbal leadership — the signals that leaders throw off in their actions and body language — can speak as loud, if not louder than those carefully-chosen words.  This phenomenon can be an enormous opportunity, as long as you understand and harness it.  Ms. Hudson got it immediately:

And that’s when I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was — all those kinds of things. It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization.

I try to focus my students on the non-verbal influence they have on their peers in the classroom, influence that they will eventually have on organizations. This is counter-intuitive in the beginning.  Students often think they’re only being evaluated on the two minutes they may contribute to a conversation in any given class, but I try to explain that the other 78 minutes matter just as much.  Our goal is to get as much out of the discussion as we can as a group, which means everyone needs to work hard when they’re not speaking, too.  It turns out that the body language of one student can have an incredible effect — positive or negative — on other students.

As a simple example, imagine the quality of participation when Student A speaks and Student B is leaning forward and listening carefully.  Not only is Student A much more likely to deliver on the high expectations of Student B in that moment, not only is she much more likely to step up and share something brilliant with her audience of believers, but she’s also more likely to stay focused on the collective learning of the group.  Student B’s eagerness to learn from Student A shuts down the possibility of narrow, self-promotional exchanges that can sometimes creep into the dynamics between students and teachers.  Student A can no longer just talk to me, the evaluator.  She must respond to Student B’s non-verbal invitation to help him improve.  Now consider the quality when Student B is barely listening, or appears bored or dismissive.  Why should Student A bother to do anything but think about herself?

In my experience, the classroom is a microcosm for organizational dynamics. It’s a laboratory for learning how our  choices influence others in the structure of a group.  As I’m reminded every day when I step into that laboratory, our non-verbal choices are a powerful tool for creating the conditions for others to thrive.  The next time you are in a conversation, take note of how the body language of listeners affects the speaker.  If you accept the premise that our job is to bring the best out of the speaker, then we need to learn how to lead non-verbally.  The first step is understanding that we’re accountable for it.

On Glenn Beck

September 20, 2009

If you ever wonder how much exposure matters in your ability to influence people, Glenn Beck is as pure an experiment as you’ll find on the public stage. Beck is all heart, no head.  As much as he’s attacked for his words, his critics don’t get that his words don’t much matter. What does matter is that by stripping down in front of his audience, with no armor to protect himself or the rest of us from his swirling emotions, he gives his viewers permission to feel things, too.  That’s good television.

It’s also good leadership, or at least the foundation for it.  Whatever you think of Beck’s politics, he’s been able to influence the behavior of a lot of people over the last six months.  The chattering class is confused and appalled.  How is it possible that a man who told us FEMA might be building concentration camps has a large and growing following?

I recall seeing him host an obscure cable access show three or four years ago. I was stuck in an anonymous airport hotel in Miami, desperate for distraction from my own circumstances, and I stumbled on his show.  I was riveted.  I couldn’t leave the room, even with the promise of a fruity, poolside umbrella drink, and I stared for a jaw-dropping hour while he and his guests wrestled openly with their demons.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or my own reaction to it.  Sure, here was a crazy man, talking crazy, but that part got old after a few minutes.  What kept me there was the strangely empowering part of the ride.  In Glenn Beck’s universe, it was ok to feel things intensely and to channel those emotions into action and progress. This was exciting for a good WASP from Ohio.

I rarely agree with Beck’s proposed actions or definition of progress, but I’m convinced that there are lessons in his ascent for anyone who aspires to leadership. Show up. Remove whatever mask you’re wearing to protect yourself from judgment, and give us regular access to the emotions that drive you.

That means you, too, Mr. President.

Hidden Risks of Crisis Leadership

September 14, 2009

The NYT’s Adam Bryant delivered an interesting interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Blankfein offers some suggestions for leading in a crisis, which can be summarized as keep talking, to everyone, both to better inform your choices and to communicate changing conditions and strategies.  Blankfein walked the halls constantly during the height of the financial crisis and left a daily voicemail for the entire organization.

Blankfein also speaks to the need to “be good” to your people without lowering standards, a theme I explored in an earlier post.  In his words:

…being good to them doesn’t mean you pay them more or you’re more liberal, or you let them get away with things. Most people, what they want is to be better.

Getting this right is a central part of good leadership, but it’s harder to do in a crisis.  There is often intense pressure to care too little about your people — to become distracted by anxiety and external events — or to care too much and lower your expectations of their performance.  The first reaction is more common, but the second is more insidious.

Anxiety is a deeply selfish emotion. We don’t think of it that way because it’s often threats to other people that trigger the sensation, but anxiety’s unique rush of hormones and chemicals is biologically designed to promote our own survival.  The response is self-distracting, by design.  It’s almost impossible to focus on the experience of other people in these moments, to perform the very act that makes leadership possible, and so we end up hardening ourselves to the people who need us most.  Anxiety is an indulgence that destroys our capacity to lead.

In contrast, a crisis tempts some of us to become overly sympathetic and lower our standards.  When people you care about are going through a tough time, it can feel reasonable to compromise and let them off the hook a bit.  But there are two significant costs to that choice.  First, it denies your team the opportunity to learn.  People, like muscles, need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to grow.  They need to bump up against their perceived limits in order to break through them, and protecting them from reality disrupts that growth process.  Second, lowering standards signals your hidden belief that maybe they’re not up for it after all.  It reveals a lack of confidence in your people when the stakes really matter.  They will internalize the message.  Their performance will rise only to the level of your diminished expectations, and everyone will conclude that you were right.  It is hard for organizations to recover from those dynamics.

A provocative way to think about it is that a crisis tempts us all to become anxious mothers or protective fathers.  Leadership requires that we reject both of these unproductive stereotypes.

Feedback and Trust

September 4, 2009

I want to revisit your discussion on feedback, Frances, because I think the topic often gets lost in the race to do things that feel more important organizationally.

The ability and willingness to communicate honestly is often framed as a soft contribution, nice but not critical in these serious times.  I take the opposite view.  I think feedback is the central act in building organizations since it creates the raw material that matters most:  trust.

Trust is necessary for any task that involves more than one person, which includes most of what an organization does all day (deciding things, making things, selling things). Trust persuades your employees to give you their best ideas and most productive hours.  Trust convinces your customers to believe your brand promises.

Trust gets built when we do what we say we will do. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but somehow gets highly complex in practice.  Calls get dropped.  Guitars get broken. Bonuses go unpaid. Companies who are competing on strong relationships with their stakeholders – think Google, Zappos, Whole Foods — work hard to prevent these violations, big and small.  They understand that trust dies in the space between talk and action.

But here’s the thing — we’re not reliable observers of these gaps in our own behavior. This is where feedback enters the story. We often don’t know when we’re letting our constituents down.  We often don’t know when we’re under-delivering on commitments, spoken or unspoken.  Feedback gives people the chance to address the variance, to close the distance between chatter and truth.

Customers give you this gift when they pick up the phone to “complain.”  A complaint identifies the weakness in the relationship, the place where trust must be built or rebuilt.  Frustrated and articulate customers are the competitive equivalent of Christmas morning, but they’re more likely to be treated like a nuisance or distraction.

The same dynamics play out in all human relationships.  Trust gets eroded every day between reasonable, well-intentioned people, and it can’t be restored unless we talk honestly with each other.   The reason feedback can change lives, as you suggest, is not just because it makes someone else better in a vague sense. Feedback changes lives because it creates the opening for greater integrity in our most important relationships. Feedback builds trust. And trust builds everything else.

Katrina’s Environmental Subplot

August 11, 2009

I am a reluctant environmentalist.  I like people more than animals, animals more than plants.  I’ve come around to caring about our mismanagement of the environment because of the devastating effects of that mismanagement on human beings.

There is not a more vivid metaphor for the human costs of environmental incompetence than the direct links between the destruction of Gulf Coast wetlands and the horror show that unfolded in the Superdome on 8/29/05.  As Time’s Michael Grunwald wrote in 2007, in his scathing exploration of Katrina and her enablers:

….FEMA was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city’s man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government’s response, but they still haven’t come to grips with the government’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

Ravaged wetlands are not a central part of the narrative we’ve built around Katrina, at least not up North.  When we do acknowledge the human missteps leading to the not-so-natural disaster, we invoke Brownie’s “heckuva job” and W vacationing while whole neighborhoods drowned.  That’s the story we like to tell around Boston.  Sometimes we bring the Corps into it, usually for its engineering mistakes with the levees themselves.

But Grunwald and others have made a powerful case that the most tragic leadership failures can be traced to the “U.S’s cockamamie approach to water resources,” a decades-long, pork-filled drama that doles out responsibility across generations, sectors and Congressional aisles.  Everybody got it wrong by razing wetland barriers, and the most vulnerable among us paid the ultimate price.

One of the challenges of mainstreaming the environmental movement is its lingering sentimentality.  Another is its emphasis on valuing the future more than the present, a message that is often heavy with moral authority.  Katrina reminds us that smart, strategic stewardship of the environment matters right now.  I’m unlikely to ever hug a tree for the tree’s sake.  But when that tree starts teetering towards my fellow citizens, I find that my affection for it grows.

Beers and Handshakes at the White House

July 26, 2009

How did a “post-racial” black president with extraordinary empathy, an exemplary police officer who specializes in racial profiling, and one of the country’s great scholars on race relations crash into each other on the topic of race?

Maureen Dowd chalked it up to a “town vs. gown” clash of egos, which feels too simplistic. As does Obama’s attribution of stupidity.  One clear sign of a systemic problem, we’ve learned in our business, is the folks at the top blaming errant, front-line employees.

A typical organization works to get average inputs to create excellence.  In this case, excellent inputs created a massive service failure, which means that the system is probably broken.  Learning occurs when we understand why reasonable people make the choices they do, so let’s give the principals here – the professor, the cop and the President — the benefit of the doubt, and see where it lands us.

Here’s my quick accounting.  The cop thought he was interrupting a burglary.  As a white person, he had the luxury of not experiencing the events that followed through the prism of race.  He could just do his job.  The professor did not have that option.  He responded to the possibility of arrest in his own home for an ambiguous crime in a context of deep distrust between “black and blue” in America.

That distrust turned standard procedures and routine questions into the perception of race-based aggression.  The professor responded disrespectfully to his experience of being disrespected.  The cop responded to his experience of being disrespected with handcuffs.  Enter the President, who used his bully pulpit to name the context of distrust that escalated the incident – racial profiling – a phenomenon that is both improving and that no one really disputes.

So the problem here – and this is not breaking news – is that race still influences the experience of American citizenship.  And this moment represents an extraordinary opportunity to talk about it, to surface and address the lingering symptoms of our country’s “original sin,” a social, economic and political system that was not race-blind, to put it mildly.

It turns out that the same people that failed to produce a good law enforcement outcome are perfectly positioned to lead that conversation.  The brilliant scholar, visionary President and honorable officer could engage a public that’s leaning forward to build trust that would improve our public life.  The biggest risk at this point is that the opportunity will be lost in a series of photo-ops, press conferences and politicized meetings designed primarily to benefit the individuals involved.

There’s a collective opportunity here, which the President described as a “teachable moment.”  But we’re unlikely to get there with beers and handshakes at the White House.  We’re unlikely to learn anything from this moment unless someone makes a clear decision to lead us.

The Naked Leader

July 21, 2009

Red Smith famously said, “writing is easy…you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  No one believed him like Frank McCourt.  We lost McCourt over the weekend, but not before he gave everything he had to his readers and students.

McCourt didn’t stop the bleeding when he got up from the typewriter, one reason he was so good in the classroom.  He was exposed, completely.  His example suggests an intersection of great writing, teaching and leadership.  The more layers he removed, the more effective he became at making other people better.

One of the more powerful anecdotes in McCourt’s ‘Tis is about his transformation from an authoritarian, sadistic ruler of his students at Stuyvesant High School, among the most elite in the country, to someone with the devotion and empathy to excite young minds. We find him hiding behind a ridiculous front of dominance and power – and then, in an instant, he removes it.  And his life starts over.

Every day I teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the test, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam, I’ll call your father, I’ll call your mother, I’ll report you to the governor, I’ll damage your average so badly, kid, you’ll be lucky to get into a community college in Mississippi, weapons of menace and control.

One day a rebellion starts to brew.  One student has had enough.  The class starts circling around McCourt’s dirty, little secret, which is that the tyrant at the front of the room never went to high school.

So, Mr. McCourt, I thought you had to get a license to teach in the city.

You do.

Don’t you have to get a college degree.

You do.

Don’t you have to graduate from high school to get into college?

You mean graduate from high school, from high school, from from from.

I suppose you do.

Tyro lawyer grills teacher, carries the day, and word spreads to my other classes. Wow, Mr. McCourt, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man.

And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask.

I’m naked and starting over and I hardly know where to begin.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this decision leads to McCourt’s extraordinary impact.  This was his pivot from safety to influence.  Most leaders confront a similar choice at some point in their lives, usually the choice between impersonating a leader and actually leading.  By documenting what can happen when the mask drops, McCourt made it harder for the rest of us to hide.