Failing to Lead

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. If I were hiring for a leadership position one of the most important questions I could ask would be this: “Can you give me a recent example where the action you took required real courage?”

There are lots of characteristics required for Authentic Servant Leadership. One of the most important is courage.

The courage to make the tough choices, the courage to say no when no needs to be said. The courage to take a calculated risk and the courage to stand alone, with only the support of your principles.

But there’s another area of leadership that requires true courage that is often overlooked. It’s the courage to say something when something needs to be said. It’s the courage to have uncomfortable conversations with those you lead. It’s the courage to tell the truth when the truth is highly inconvenient.

I’ve been fortunate to be led by leaders who had the courage to tell me the truth about my performance. I’ve also been led by leaders who didn’t. Guess which ones had the most positive impact on my career. There was stuff I certainly didn’t want to hear but hearing it helped me grow. I’d bet the guys leading me would have preferred not to have the conversation either but they stepped up and led.

Conversations require two-way communication, often up close and personal. That’s just too scary for a weak leader or a leader by title only. Even otherwise strong leaders can be challenged with difficult conversations.

It is important for a leader to initiate difficult conversations but it is absolutely vital that a leader engage in difficult conversations when they are initiated by one of their followers. Leaders who think they can solve a problem by avoiding it or who believe their followers will just forget about it are dead wrong.

I know it’s not easy, I don’t like difficult conversations anymore than anyone else. I’ve also attempted to avoid my share of tough talks. But I’ve learned that solves nothing and it’s not an effective way to lead. Failing to face up to these difficult conversations is failing to lead.

Here are a couple of thoughts that may make your next difficult conversation just a little easier.

Write out what you want to say. Sometimes it’s just easier to write it out, take your time with it, put it away for a day and see if it’s still what you want to say after some time has passed. Write it just the way you would say it. I wouldn’t recommend that you read it to the person you want to converse with but the preparation involved in writing it out is likely to make the actual conversation much easier.

Practice it, and not just in your head. Say it out loud, it will sound different. You need to check your tone of voice, you need to take out the little “I know it all” and “you don’t know nothing” peaks and valleys in your voice. Almost everything we say is clearer the second time we say it so find a quiet place and have the first conversation with yourself.

Remember, if you’re doing all the talking it’s a speech not a conversation. Let the other person talk, in fact, take the pressure off yourself. Let the other person do a great deal of talking while you demonstrate that other important characteristic of a good leader, listening skills.

9 thoughts on “Failing to Lead

  1. Steve this reminds me of the book Crucial Conversations that I read a while back. It details how important these conversations are. I like your points of writing this out and making sure you are listening too. Pause and let what you said soak in and give the other person time to think and talk.

    1. Thanks Tom, I can’t even count the times I messed hearing something that could have made a difference because I was focused on what I wanted to say next instead of LISTENING to what was being said. It caused me to say some pretty stupid stuff… It’s still a lesson I learn every once in a while πŸ™‚

  2. Great post Steve. Although personally, I wish we could toss out the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ because I lean towards the idea that those words prove to be more of a stumbling block then helpful, but that’s for another post and conversation sometime! : )

    Any person, whether we hold a title or not, would benefit from learning how to have difficult conversations. So why isn’t it happening MORE? Perhaps that’s an important question to answer, although not so simple because each person is different and the internal blocks may not be exactly the same.

    Here’s what I’d like to see more of…

    Far too often I see well meaning leaders say things like… ‘we teach what we most need to learn and/or heal’. And they obviously believe this and live it out because while they keep preaching and teaching and writing all of the steps on how to do THIS and how to do THAT… or How to have a courageous conversation… you might be waiting for hell to freeze over before you actually EXPERIENCE the same leader having a courageous conversation… with YOU… if/when there is a problem.

    So is teaching what we most need to learn… is that really a wise idea here? Or might it be helpful to wait to teach something when the leader has already learned it and can PRACTICE it?

    Too much THEORY and not enough LIVING it.

    Then we might see a more monumental shift in leadership and seriously close the gap between theory/head knowledge and true enlightenment that is capable of carrying it out.

    That said, back to the practical.

    A leader who is having difficulty with courageous conversations will need to explore why they aren’t having them.

    Why do they fear having them?
    What are they afraid will happen?
    What are they trying to prevent?
    What are they trying to protect?
    What is the worst thing that can happen by being honest and having a tough conversation?
    What is the worst thing that can happen if they continue to put it off?

    Now I can also say this ‘gap’ isn’t a black and white issue either. ALL of us are going to have this gap in varying degrees throughout our life. So it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation. Perhaps the goal is to become progressively more aware and skilled in speaking our truths with enough skill and love to be more effective communicators.

    I know on my own journey, it’s been one that has vacillated between two extremes at times! Where as at one point when I was younger (childhood, teenager etc) I was afraid to speak up for multiple reasons. Eventually I swung the other way.. The silence scream (if you will) turned into a very audible YELL that would no longer be held back. An improvement? Certainly. When it came to myself. Helpful to everyone else? Not exactly. Not if our ‘truth’ is not graced with enough love. And that takes time.

    It takes time for us even after finding our voices to learn self control and discipline. To know how to speak with not only our own best interests at heart, but who we are speaking to as well. It takes wisdom to know when speaking the truth is ENOUGH … it will stand on its own. Or when our truth needs to have plenty of love laced in the words in order to BUILD UP someone else who is perhaps ‘erring’ and hurting but if you cut too deep… you can cripple them.

    And well… many of us are GREAT at swinging axes and then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and forget to even look and see if the person we so generously ‘helped’ with our honesty is still alive and breathing! (grins… take this as a humorous joke and also with some truth in it at the same time!)

    Even to be speak with honesty is an art. A skill. That we need to learn to be more effective.

    Thank goodness for GRACE because we all need plenty of it while we continue to learn along the way!

    : )

    1. Excellent points as always. I think add to your list of why difficult conversations aren’t being had this: some leaders, or at least people in leadership positions, are just lazy. They don’t care enough to confront with compassion so that dodge and weave and hope the problem doesn’t touch them.

      I think the key to effective communication in these tough situations is to just THKNK before speaking. Put yourself in the others person’s shoes and think about how what you’re about to say will sound to them.

      I’d bet if we did that consistently all of our communications would be better.

      1. You raise another excellent point Steve. ‘They don’t care enough…’

        I was thinking about this after I initially read your comment. It occurred to me that this is very much a part of why a person would or wouldn’t choose to have a difficult conversation with someone.

        In my experience, when I care about someone, I have generally extended a great amount of effort to try to communicate. In my case, that effort is an extension of the other persons worth and value to me.

        In turn, because of this, I will tend to view others who don’t even TRY to communicate with me as to be those who don’t really care about me. Or don’t value me enough to try. Now this isn’t to say that it’s a 100% FACT or TRUTH, yet it definitely has an impact on how I perceive things when communications are poor.

        It could very well be someone who doesn’t try really DOES care but is too overwhelmed, too busy, too shy, too … fill in the blank here.

        Frankly, all of it are based on assumptions until another person actually attempts to communicate and validates our own assumptions as fact or fiction.

        Bottom line is until that conversation happens, we dwell in the land of assumption.

        As to the great point in your 2nd paragraph about thinking before speaking. Boy, am I guilty! : ) How often do we consciously take the time to think before we say something. Far too often, I’m quick to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind and with speedy fingers typing to add to the equation.. well that can set up a host of communication issues!

        In addition to this, not only would it be a good idea for us to think about what we want to say first, but to know our purpose for the communication. What is our ultimate purpose and intention for the communication?

        Simply knowing that might be a huge leap in improving communications sometimes.

        Sometimes I may not have a a majorly deep purpose to my communications other then the desire to establish a connection and get to know someone. (i.e. networking, friendships, etc)

        At other times, like when I comment on a blog post, it’s to add my piece of the puzzle to the ‘big picture’. etc.

        Yet in other ways, we may not always be consciously clear of what our ultimate purpose for the communication is. Is it to persuade? An attempt to change someone’s mind or decision? Is it to try and get someone to buy something? Are we giving to ‘get’ something? etc

        It’s important to know. Because if we don’t, the other person may pick up on it.

        Thanks again for great topic/discussion Steve. : )

      2. Purpose for communicating? Now there’s a thought! πŸ™‚

        I would never get in front of 500 people without a purpose and objective. But one on one? I …. and most other people do it all the time. That’s scary when you consider that the one on one conversations are some of the most important in our lives. That’s just dumb when you think about it.

        I think even the hardest conversations are easier when you plan it out and have some sort of goal in mind. Having said that, most people believe that are such good communicators that they just wing it…. and that my friend is where miscommunication comes from πŸ™‚

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