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The Last Time A Leader Hears The Truth

There’s a story we tell during our Leading With Courage Academy workshops of the negative correlation between how a person ascends through an organization to the level of honest communication that person receives.

In this instance, a person we’ll call George becomes the President of a major division within his company. It’s a huge promotion for him and naturally, he’s feeling like a million bucks. As George admires his fancy new office and title that goes with it, a colleague walks in and says:

“George! Congratulations on your promotion! I’m very happy for you. That’s the last time you’re ever going to hear the truth.”

Where does this thinking really come from?

For one thing, leaders become used to hearing what they want to hear and being told what they want to be told. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t exist. It’s there. We see it all the time.

Want to know how we know?

Tell a leader this: "We’d like to go out and ask for direct, detailed feedback and advice from a range of people you work with. From your internal colleagues to your external colleagues and your clients, we want to know what they think about how you're doing.”

Do you think they’ll be eager to get these insights and learnings? Do they have the courage to ask, “what do you think”? Ha! No. Many of them are scared to death to get feedback! They don’t want to know, even though all of them should and could benefit from it.

The Struggle Between Humility And Arrogance

The hard truth is leaders are continually being torn between humility and arrogance. They don’t typically know where they stand on that spectrum either because it’s not like getting on a bathroom scale every day and the scale tells you, “OK, here's specifically where you are on the continuum between humility and arrogance." There’s no special reading that the leader can get. Well, unless they ask others questions like: “How am I doing,” and “What do you think?"

Make no mistake. A Leader With Courage asks those questions and welcomes the answers in order to improve upon his or her performance. If they can’t ask those questions and can’t absorb the answers in a constructive way, he or she may be the head of an organization or department, but they’re not a real leader and don’t have much courage.

As a result, everyone is afraid to tell you what you really need to hear. The truth is conspicuously absent or at the very least watered down. That’s not healthy for the culture or your long-term success.

What Rights The Ship? First, Walk The Walk And Talk The Talk.

Many leaders will talk a good game about customer service and preach how “the client always comes first.” That sounds great! So, let’s go out and talk to some clients to learn more about our performance in terms of what we’re doing well and what we can improve upon.

That loud sound you just heard was a screeching halt.

Wait. We have to actually talk to the people we serve in order to know what we’re doing well and – gulp – not so well?

Yes. You do. And that’s not all.

Next, Commit To Following Their Suggestions And Advice.

An easy out for a leader is to say, “Well, I solicited my people and our clients for advice. I’ll have to study their observations further -- at some point.” Nice try. You’re not done. Not even close. Because you have to do at least some of the things they said.

This is a hidden point of where the wheels can fall off and a leader misses a golden opportunity to learn because arrogance can’t get out of the way of humility.

“Look, some of these people we talked to aren’t like I am (a CEO, partner in a law or CPA firm, etc.), so they don’t know what I go through in this business or this role. How would they know how to steer a company? How do they know what goes on with all the responsibilities I have? They don’t. It’s interesting feedback but…”

But…nothing. As in no listening and no commitment to change. This is what the Arrogance end of the spectrum looks like. It not only hurts the leader but it ultimately hurts the company, which is why it’s Arrogance with a capital A.

From Here, Consistently Learn And Improve From Outsiders.

It may be tempting to run through an assessment or workshop one time and judge yourself from that single experience. However, true commitment that leans far more on the Humility end of the spectrum comes from ensuring there is a steady flow of feedback from the outside world, such as clients or strategic partners.

For example, I’m surprised just how many law firms, accounting firms and other professional services firms don’t have any outside advisors on their management committees or on their boards.

Why? After all, they’d never think of advising a client to forego all outside opinions, right?

So why should they have such a hard time listening to outsiders or even those from within their own ranks? It’s a bit like working for a wealth management firm, but not investing any of your own money with it.

There is such an opportunity to systematize feedback into these organizations so that leaders and those high-potential, up-and-coming emerging leaders grow from it. Just because an outsider, such as a client, isn’t a daily part of your industry or perhaps have the same title as yours doesn’t mean that they don’t have invaluable insights and advice to offer. In fact, their outside perspective may be the most useful because it will likely be the most truthful.

The Truth Hurts (But May Not Be As Painful As You Expect)

Many leaders have the false impression and worry that if they ask others for feedback, it will unleash a steady stream of negative effects.

“It’ll call attention to problems and the client will think twice about working with us.” “Some of our people will question my leadership more and want to leave.” “It’s not good for the culture to dwell on everything that’s wrong.”

“They’ll waste time talking about things that don’t make us money.”

These assumptions are not only completely false in most cases but the exact opposite occurs. Clients and other members of the organization appreciate being asked for their input. This strengthens relationships inside and outside of the organization. Leaders are seen as strong and confident for asking the opinion of others, not weak or incompetent.

The Great Ones Always See Room For Improvement

Let’s go outside the business world for a moment – think of every professional athlete you’ve watched and admired most. We’ve actually talked to a nice sampling of people involved in the sports world thus far as we write our next book about leadership in sports. From general managers to agents to coaches, we thought they would tell us that the athletes they regularly deal with are some of the most arrogant people to walk the Earth.

Not so. The best of the best performers, in their view, are admired not only for their athletic prowess but also for the humility they continue to show. Even with their national-level fame and a fortune of millions of dollars, these talented individuals are, in many ways, as humble as they were in their first year in the league. If you’ve followed any kind of team sport, you’ve seen plenty of evidence of this at work. What happens when a leader wins a championship? They talk about how they couldn’t have done it without their teammates, their management and yes, the fans. They talk about how they were lucky to win considering some mistakes they made. They are lightning-quick in their ability to give credit to others and accept responsibility for their errors and off days.

This is not just “for show.” They have a deep, sincere desire to get better and better every year so that they can have a chance to repeat as champions. The great ones welcome the feedback from coaches and trainers. They learn what they did right and wrong from recent game footage. They implement it and perfect their craft from the practice facility to game-time situations.

If they thought they didn’t need to learn anything new, what would you have in contrast?

  • A bad teammate.

  • An un-coachable player.

  • An athlete with a reputation coasting on past performance alone.

  • A client that few agents would be happy to represent.

In short, for all their talent, a key ingredient between a legend and an overhyped athlete can be profoundly influenced by where they fall on the spectrum: Humility or Arrogance.

As we ascend to our own leadership roles, the truth is harder than ever for us to find because others are frequently afraid to give it and we are often afraid to hear it.

However, if we listen with humility and seize the opportunity to improve ourselves as a result, the truth becomes a gift. And a leader becomes a Leader With Courage.

Are you ready to take the first step toward your own moment of truth? Then see how you rate in the eyes of your colleagues with a Leading With Courage℠ 360 Assessment. It’s a whole lot more than what others are saying about you – it’s real feedback and advice that you can use to uncover the blind spots, perceptions and misalignments that need your attention. Let’s talk more about it with a 15-minute consultation over the phone at 312.827.2643 or click on the link that follows to immediately schedule a 15-minute call at time that’s most convenient for you: complimentary conversation.

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