Kristen Hadeed founded Student Maid in 2009 while a college student at the University of Florida. On day three of her new start-up, forty-five of her sixty employees quit. As she tells the story, it was not the work, the heat, or the hours; she was the reason they were quitting. She was “giving hugs rather than feedback, fixing errors instead of enforcing accountability, and hosting parties instead of cultivating meaningful relationships.” Her approach to leadership was literally killing her company—fast!
Kristen has learned much since that first week. Today, her company has sales of more than $30 million annually. What changed? Kristen says she learned quickly that leadership is not permission to do less but signing up to do more. She had to change the way she thought about her role and then show up differently.
Have you ever had such clarity about your leadership? I hope so. If not, perhaps this chapter will help. After you have made the Smart Choice to Confront Reality, you have to turn that aspiration into action. Hopefully, you made a list of areas in which the truth would be helpful to enhance your impact. This chapter is intended to provide some very practical strategies and tactics for evaluating and improving your leadership.
Peter Drucker said to “know thyself” is one of the prerequisites to lead well;2 yet many leaders don’t really know themselves at all. Research indicates the higher you move in an organization, the less self-aware you are.3 This is why you need to check the mirror.
Checking the mirror is about you—not your team, your organization, your shareholders, your competition, or anyone else. This is about a long, hard look at your performance and the way you lead, then confronting the reality staring back at you. Let’s start with your picture of leadership—do you have one? It may prove helpful as you decide what to assess and what to evaluate.
My picture of leadership is an iceberg. You probably remember from grade school your teacher’s description of the iceberg, with only 10 percent of it showing above the waterline and 90 percent remaining below. If you were like me, you thought, No way! How is that possible? I went to Antarctica to see for myself. Even after seeing it, I don’t understand the science behind the phenomenon, but it still creates a perfect picture of leadership. About 10 percent of your leadership—your skills—is above the waterline, and about 90 percent—your leadership character—remains out of sight.
This paradigm informs my questions when I look in the mirror; I need to look at my skills and my leadership character.
What follows are questions to ask yourself in order to begin improving these critical facets of your leadership. Let’s stare into the mirror for a while.
How Well Do You See the Future?
Leadership always begins with a picture of the future. Vision, as we’ll cover in depth in the chapter See the Unseen, is about seeing what others don’t and believing it. Leaders are the architects of the future, but we must see the future before we can rally others to build it. This is the part of leadership where your intuition, experience, judgment, creativity, knowledge of your business and industry, and your courage collide to paint an irresistible picture of a preferred future. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming this is someone else’s job. The difference between the CEO’s vision and the frontline leader’s is breadth and time horizon, but both still need vision to lead well. Leaders must invest enough time in the future to ensure their organization has one.
How Engaged Are the People You Lead?
Many organizations are starving while sitting on a sandwich. There is so much untapped potential in the people you have already hired. However, engagement remains a riddle most leaders have yet to solve. You may well be aware of the annual research conducted by Gallup on the state of the American workforce (they actually do this study globally). Each year for the last twenty years, the engagement level of our workers has been abysmal. The 2020 survey showed 64 percent of employees in the United States are not engaged at work.4 Imagine the loss of competitive advantage and human potential. These results are not the product of an apathetic workforce. Rather, they are the result of leaders who are not willing to confront and correct this issue.
What Is Your Track Record on Reinvention?
One of my fun memories is from an afternoon I spent with John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA men’s basketball program. On the day we visited with the coach at his condo in Westwood, he was still fully engaged—and engaging, no small feat when you are over ninety years old. One of the stories from the coach that I believe provides a clue to his enduring greatness and unrivaled record was his annual improvement project. His practice each off-season was to study one facet of the game. He would watch film, read books, and interview coaches and top performers—one year, he studied dribbling; another season, he focused on rebounding. He was always willing to reinvent his methods and his thinking for the sake of improvement. Coach embraced the truth: progress is always preceded by change.
How Well Do You Value Results and Relationships?
I’ve been taking an unscientific poll with leaders around the world on this topic for twenty years. Here’s my conclusion: valuing both results and relationships may be the most difficult aspect of leadership for you—it is for the vast majority of leaders. Having thought about this for a long time, I’ll share my opinion as to why—you can agree or not.
I believe most leaders have a natural bias. They are either more results-oriented or more relationship-oriented. This is not a good or bad thing, but the trick is to value both. If you don’t, you will suboptimize your contribution and the performance of whatever and whoever you are attempting to lead. The path to valuing both is one of compensation. Think of it like a prescription for eyeglasses or contacts. Eyeglasses are intended to help you compensate for something you don’t naturally do well (see up close or far away). My challenge and yours is to employ the right compensatory practices so we can value both results and relationships.
How Well Do You Live Your Values?
Core values are a powerful tool in a leader’s toolbox. They are like a Swiss Army knife. You can use them to shape a culture in many ways. They can be used to assess would-be employees, onboard those who make it through the selection process, train employees on desired behaviors, evaluate these same employees, form the basis for recognition programs, and more. However, there’s a catch. If the leaders don’t model these same values, trust in the leader will erode, and the desired behaviors will be diminished, not elevated. If this behavior persists, the leaders in question will ultimately forfeit the opportunity to lead. People always watch the leader.
Are You a Lifelong Learner?
What enables some leaders to lead at an extremely high level for decades? The Smart Choices are obviously at play. However, this question is intended to call out one defining characteristic of the best leaders—they are learners. However, there is no formula—leaders approach learning very differently—each catering their efforts to match their learning style and preferences. Bill Gates is now famous for his “reading weeks.” Brian Grazer touts his curiosity conversations as the catalyst for his sustained success (see more on this in the chapter Talk with Strangers). I know a CEO who built a website thirty years ago in order to learn more about the then-emerging World Wide Web. I know another leader who has been listening to audiobooks religiously for more than twenty-five years. If someone followed you around for a day or two or looked at your calendar, what would they say about your commitment to lifelong learning?
Are You More Optimistic or Pessimistic?
The leader who can cast a fearful and pessimistic vision of the future and still attract a following is rare. One leader who made this work was explorer Ernest Shackleton. He supposedly posted this ad in his local paper while preparing for his famed expedition to Antarctica: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success. Today, people are most often attracted to leaders who believe in the possibility of a preferred future—a better future. We want leaders who can tell us where we are going and why it matters. Often, these same leaders will also address the consequences of inaction. These are the leaders people typically want to follow. To encourage is to give courage—pessimists rarely imbue others with courage.
Do You Assume Responsibility or Place Blame?
Most people like to be recognized and few like to be blamed. The best leaders fight both these tendencies—they are quick to accept responsibility and quick to give praise. When was the last time something you were responsible for went wrong? Hopefully, this doesn’t happen often, but when it did, what did you do? If it happened on your watch, you are accountable and should accept responsibility. However, if things go extremely well, you should not be the one to accept the praise; give it to others. You can see this difference play out on any given weekend in the fall just by watching the postgame interviews with the winning quarterbacks. Which of these two guys would you rather play for? “The coaches called a good game plan, the O line was outstanding, the receivers were unstoppable, and the defense was spectacular.” Or the guy who says, “I was amazing today—I clearly brought my A game.”
Are You a Courageous Leader?
Leadership requires action in massive doses. Action often requires courage. Therefore, courage is an indispensable part of leadership. So much of the role cannot be executed well without it. Hiring decisions, terminations, strategy decisions, budget allocations, placing a bet on an emerging leader or an unproven project, holding people and yourself accountable, standing up for what you believe in the face of opposition, and much more, all hinge on your willingness and ability to act courageously.
Would those who know you and work with you describe you as a courageous leader? If you need to increase your courage, here’s one suggestion: make courageous decisions, even small ones. Courage is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Courage is the catalyst for outstanding leadership.
Are You a Serving Leader or a Self-Serving Leader?
As Ken Blanchard and I wrote twenty years ago, the best leaders are serving, not self-serving. I want to acknowledge the difficulty inherent in this statement. The ability to think of others first is not easy or natural. Most of us have been conditioned throughout our lifetimes to think about ourselves first; this is not the way of the servant leader. To think of others first is often countercultural, but it is my recommendation for anyone who wants to maximize their impact in this world.
One quick suggestion to combat the gravitational pull of selfishness: attempt to add value to everyone you meet. Now, before you point out the impossibility of this bit of advice, hold on. If my first priority is to add value to you, where is my focus? It is on you—not me. The effort and intent to add value transforms you. Even if you are unsuccessful in the moment, the effort will change you.
How Would Your Peers Describe Your Performance?
According to Peter Drucker, leadership can be assessed by two things: Do you have followers, and do you get results? Many of the preceding questions have addressed the follower part of Drucker’s success criteria. Now, for the other side of the coin, how is your performance? And by your, I mean you personally and all of those people under your leadership. I often ask leaders about their performance. Sometimes I am surprised by their responses. If their first words are about external circumstances or disclaimers, it raises a yellow flag for me. There is at least a chance they are not taking full responsibility for their outcomes. Maybe a better question is the one above: How would your peers describe your performance?
How Would Your Supervisor Describe Your Performance?
You must have a good perspective on your own performance, but unless you are self-employed, you must also know how your boss views your performance. He or she will be a crucial voice regarding your future opportunities within your organization. You also need to understand some leaders are uncomfortable sharing the “last 10 percent.” Let me explain.
Here’s how a performance conversation might play out.
Supervisor: “You are doing a really good job.”
You: “Anything else?” You are understandably curious because “really good” is not fantastic or outstanding.
Supervisor: “No, nothing else.”
If this is what you hear, I would suggest your leader is struggling to tell you the whole truth, including the last 10 percent. Consider a few “last 10 percent” prompts:
You: “Thanks! What would I need to do so the next time we review my performance you would say, ‘Amazing’?” Or “What specific suggestions do you have for me to improve my performance?”
What your supervisor thinks about your performance matters.
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