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.