We have all been taught to respect authority figures: parents, teachers, professors, managers, etc. Respect, by definition, is a feeling of deep admiration, due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, traditions of others. It is common to hear leaders say, “I respect my boss and want to do what they ask.”
The result of this desire plays out at all levels: leadership teams having too many unrealistic priorities, mediocre solutions that lack innovation, cascading stress and burnout throughout the organization, and the ultimate enterprise cost of missing the mark on organizational targets and customer satisfaction.
CEOs and senior leaders want team members to speak up, push back, disagree, raise and discuss issues (and often tell us they don’t). In short, they want BOLD leaders.
To develop BOLD leadership, we need to examine one of the biggest dynamics that prevents it.
The Old Way of Leadership
When we were young, we learned to run our lives by unconsciously asking ourselves two questions:
1. What Do They Want? “They” is everyone, past and present. “They” are the people, institutions and culture that surrounded you and the unique messages you gleaned. Examples include parents/teachers (you need to have a clean room, play piano, get good grades, go to the right school, study and work hard, say yes, etc.); society/culture/religion (be calm, happy, accommodating, feminine, strong, positive, less visible, seen and not heard, tone it down, have (or don’t have) children, etc.); work (do what your boss asks, don’t disagree or negotiate – it will limit your career, do it alone so you can prove your value, the more you take on, the better you’ll look, etc.).
However, many times, “they” is actually “us.” We take norms and habits for granted. What we think is “the truth” is actually, in reality, our own standards that are often self-authored, unattainable and unaligned with what matters most. In one BOLD leadership session, a woman mentioned washing her drapes quarterly and was surprised when participants erupted in shock and laughter. It never occurred to me NOT to do that, I thought everyone did, she remarked. That breakthrough moment caused her to start examining all of her unconscious standards that were driving her priorities, resulting in overwhelm and unhappiness (and clean drapes she didn’t value).
2. What Should I Do? Most people endure relentless, unconscious shoulds driving their thoughts, feelings and actions. When we metaphorically fly on autopilot, we blindly assume our standards are “just the way it is”, generating huge costs in how we manage our time and make decisions, which you can read about here. Awareness is the first step to Stop Should-ing on Yourself. To eradicate shoulds from our vocabulary and lives, it is imperative to shift our focus to the BOLD way of leadership.
The BOLD Way of Leadership
BOLD leaders ask themselves three questions, the order of which is critical:
1. What Do I Want? This is the hardest – and most important – question we can ask ourselves. As we discussed in the previous post, it’s the metaphorical oxygen mask we need to put on ourselves first. It is much easier to answer this question when we are grounded and clear in our bigger purpose and our values. Otherwise, we can operate as five-year-old ID-monsters seeking instant gratification.
2. What Do They Want? This is critical and can be difficult, at times, to decipher. When they are clear, it is the easiest. When they are unclear (or worse, underground about their needs) about what they want, they can send convoluted messages. They might say they don’t care or it’s your decision, only to find out they did have a point of view, sometimes after-the-fact, when they express frustration or aren’t aligned with the action you took (oh, you thought that was the right option?).
Many times, we unconsciously assume others have needs, opinions or priorities without question. When we start to question, manage our mindset and step out of our comfort zone, that is where BOLD leadership (and freedom) lives.
One senior leader never attended her son’s football games because she thought she would not appear committed to her job. After negative feedback from her family members, she had a conversation with her boss that took guts. Not only did he not care, he was delighted because he was worried about her burning out and trusted she would complete her work.
3. How Do We Create the And? Finding the bridge between what I want and what they want is where the magic happens. It can also be the most uncomfortable part because it can require stepping out of our comfort zones, negotiating and setting boundaries. This is the dialogue where we courageously engage and clarify mutual needs. Staying in the conversation until everybody gets to win-win builds trust, and enables needs to be met.
A theme around company priorities recently surfaced in our data of several leadership teams. The teams agreed on the priorities and yet, comments such as we have too many priorities and we have low confidence in our ability to deliver on all priorities began to surface. The CEOs were perplexed since the team had created and agreed to the priorities, and they were frustrated with the data because the team had supposedly aligned. The conversations among the team, and in subsequent individual coaching, revealed the lack of pushing back and renegotiating for fear of seeming incapable. When we don’t boldly use our voices, we lose that which we want most – to be seen as committed and trustworthy team members delivering realistic commitments.
True story: when my kids were young, I had not yet made any plans for a two week vacation in August. A client launching his leadership team asked me to lead his team session at a castle in Sweden. Initially, I saw it as a yes or no question, and considered declining. Thankfully, I talked to a friend who coached me by asking, Is there a way you could say yes AND go on vacation in Europe? When I did the research, I realized I could bring my kids on vacation (what I wanted), lead the session (what they wanted), and save the client money while spending two weeks in Europe with my kids (creating the and).
Showing respect does NOT mean I need to do what they want no matter what the impact is on me, the project, the team, or the enterprise. In a high performing organization, it is about clearly articulating what we all want and need while engaging in productive conversations to accomplish these things..
- How clearly have I identified and communicated my own needs with key stakeholders?
- Where have I given in to what they want, and what has been the cost (frustration, resentment, overwhelm, etc.)?
- Where do I need to further assert my needs, or renegotiate commitments that are not win-win
Please feel free to reach out to me and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,