278 Improve Your Leadership By Turning The Knob (4 Benefits)

Improve Your Leadership By Turning The Knob - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 278

F. Scott Fitzgerald was quoted in a 1936 Esquire article.

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

First rate leadership certainly demands the ability to see a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. If you’re thinking, “Yes, collaboration and consensus are important” — I might agree with you, but those have nothing to do with my point in today’s show. Table both of those ideas for the moment because I’m going to focus on YOU and YOUR leadership, not on collaboration or consensus building.

Your leadership can have a dramatic geometric shift with just a slight turn of the perspective knob. Sometimes you might have to turn the knob further. Either way, it requires a willingness to make the adjustment so you can be more effective.

My podcasting studio has some professional audio gear that is easily tweaked. Some of these contraptions can be adjusted ever so slightly and it can alter the sound pretty dramatically.

turning knobs inside the yellow studio

Lots of knobs. Lots of turning that can happen. One slight adjustment can alter the sound dramatically.

That’s what tweaking is all about.

to make small adjustments

It doesn’t mean the smallness of the adjustment mirrors the size of the outcome. Look at that knob in the upper right hand corner of the picture. The one labelled, FADER.” You see how close that knob is to -10? It’s not quite all the way to -10, but it’s close. If I turn that knob to the right enough to be dead center on the -10 the sound isn’t as good. Hard to believe such a small adjustment can make a big difference. Welcome to the world of tweaking!

Your leadership is the same way. We could apply this to many facets of your leadership, but today I want to apply it to just one – your need to make the best decisions possible. More specifically, your need to solve problems based on the best evidence possible.

Turning knobs is necessary when something changes. If I use a different microphone, many of those knobs you see pictured have to be adjusted. Things rarely can be nailed down and left alone because audio is just like leadership (and decision making or problem solving). It’s not happening in a vacuum. There are variables that are constantly affecting things.

3 Ways Knob Turning Will Benefit Your Leadership (plus a bonus 4th)

a. Your willingness muscle will be more flexible and agile.

Leaders can become rigid in their thinking and their approach. It’s dangerous.

The other day I was doing some office work and the movie Pearl Harbor came on. I’d never seen it. The world in 1945 was a very different world. The inability to know where the Japanese fleet was, and how far out the attacking planes might be put the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in a deadly vulnerable position. The strategy of the Japanese commanders succeeded in catching the Americans off guard. But that strategy wouldn’t work today because of radar and satellite technology. What once worked wouldn’t necessarily work again. The foolishness of such a notion in warfare tactics seems obvious to us, but we can be blind to our own leadership foolishness. Maybe the tactics or strategy we employed last year worked magnificently. That doesn’t mean they’ll succeed at all this year.

Leaders can fall in love with their ideas, tactics and conclusions. More so if those things have served them well in the past. And like most things that once worked – they work until they don’t. The key is to abandon them before they cause us too much harm. But I’m urging you to embrace something even more progressive and innovative — the willingness to explore alternatives to what has worked in the past.

The knobs are there. You may as well turn them and see what happens. Just like my audio gear, your leadership has lots of knobs — many options and combinations. Those knobs are there to be turned sometimes. Exploring improvement is a habit, just like failing to explore improvement. Your leadership isn’t benefited by locking and loading one path.

After I go to the gym and workout I’ll spend 15 minutes or so stretching. I focus on my hamstrings because I’ve always had really tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can cause lower back pain, but I avoid that because I take the time to stretch them. Stretching them keeps them flexible and helps me combat stiffness (or back pain). It’s a pretty small investment in time and effort, but the payoff is big! It’s a knob I’m willing, even anxious, to turn so I can improve.

What knobs are you afraid to turn? What knobs have you set and forgot about?

b. Your ability to get closer to the truth is enhanced by your ability to turn the knobs.

In a future episode (I’m planning for it to be episode 280), I’m going to talk about evidence-based leadership. Turning the knobs on your leadership is mandatory.

You’re paid to solve problems and make decisions. The better your evidence, the better your decisions. The better your evidence, the better your conclusions.

Leaders who practice knee-jerk management ignore evidence. They’re often disinterested in it. They know what they know and nobody can tell them differently. That’s poor leadership. It’s also foolish.

Instead, you want to be a leader who more often than not gets it right. None of us are right all the time, but you can improve your rightness by leaning harder on evidence before you decide, or before you draw a conclusion.

Have you ever made a decision before you even had to?

You had more time to gather evidence, but your mind was made up and you went forward. Another day, another week might have been available, but you didn’t see the need to delay. Your speed wasn’t a competitive advantage. Quickness got you nothing, but still you went for it. Maybe it was impatience. Maybe it was your closed mind. Maybe you thought you already had all the information necessary to confirm your rightness. You just couldn’t resist holding off.

It’s another bad leadership habit that can be difficult to break, especially if you don’t get your hands on the knobs. Impatience during times when you could take more time isn’t virtue. It’s a curse lending itself to foster increased knee-jerk management.

A few weeks ago a senior executive was talking to me about millennials – 30 somethings in the workplace. We were wondering what future leadership adjustments might be required for teams comprised of this generation. I observed that as a baby boomer I wasn’t sure a broad brush could properly define me, or my generation. I’m equally convinced that it’s likely impossible to do so with Generation Y or the millennials. People are individuals and we be fit various categories, but it doesn’t mean those categories accurate depict us. For example, I break many molds for my generation. I’m tech savvy. So much so that my millennial kids rely on me for technical support. I know more about web technologies, new media, social media and the rest of it than both of my kids put together. I also break the mold in the stereotypical materialistic view of life held by many baby boomers. My generation was very interested in getting ahead and making money. I’m not immune from that, but I’m far more interested – and always have been – in getting something done and in making a difference. I acknowledge the facets of being a baby boomer that have likely influenced me, but in many ways I can more easily identify with millennials and other generations bent more toward service and living with purpose.

As we talked this senior executive remarked about a millennial employee who had made a faux pas in a meeting. The millennial had said something “sucked” and this senior leader thought it was inappropriate. “When did this happen,” I asked. “A few years ago,” he said. “Did you talk with him about it?” I asked. “No, but I haven’t forgotten it,” he said.

And I thought to myself – “Man alive, turn that knob already.” But I said nothing. I just listened, taking in the information, formulating a strategy – committed to turning my own knobs knowing that I didn’t have to decide anything right in that very moment. I was in fact-finding mode. Gathering more evidence so I could help this senior leader improve his own leadership. But first, I had to make sure I was handling up on my own leadership.

At some point I’ll be able to discuss this very issue with him. I’ll remind him of our discussion and how he’s pegged this millennial employee forevermore based on a poor choice of wording in a meeting. By the way, the meeting was an internal meeting amongst teammates. There were no outside customers or external people in the meeting. The senior leader even acknowledged to me that he was fairly sure nobody else in the meeting had a problem with it. But he did. And I could sense some judgment being rendered even to the others in the meeting because he alone felt it was improper.

In that moment — and even later on — he didn’t turn any knobs. He didn’t turn the knob to ask the question, “Does this millennial employee even know what he said, and that he should choose his words more carefully?” What about the knob that has him feeling a specific way about this employee that may not properly characterize this employee?

I’m not saying what the employee said was proper. That’s not the point. The point is, I’m not sure I can draw any conclusions from it without more evidence. The willingness and openness to get more evidence is the knob turning that will better serve this senior executive. Right now, he’s not developed the habit of twisting and tweaking the knobs necessary to bring about a clearer sound. That’s where I come in. I’m there to help him learn how to better do that so he can become a more effective — and evidence-based leader.

c. Your ability to foster innovation, creativity and all the best possible solutions is enhanced when your team knows you’re willing to turn the knobs.

Employees know if the boss is open to ideas. Your employees know what they can say to you and what they’d better refrain from saying. You don’t likely think of yourself as a person who fosters “yes men” but you might be exactly that kind of a leader. Every team knows the boss well enough to know how receptive the boss is to anything. They may not all manage it well, but they know.

I sit in a large conference room filled with executives. At the head of the table is the divisional big boss. Like many leaders he’s strong-willed and opinionated. After he presents a problem to the group he quickly chimes in with his thoughts. He goes on to tell the team what he doesn’t want to hear or see. I look around the room and if air were visible, you’d have seen it all rush right out of the room. A collective switch was flipped by all the people seated at the table. They all – to a man and woman – flipped their brain into the OFF position. Well, not entirely. They flipped their brain into the OFF position on what they may have thought was the best solution. Instead the wheels appeared to be turning to find a solution that would fit with the constraints the boss had just put upon them by telling them what he wanted and what he didn’t want in a solution. He didn’t turn a knob, instead opting to make sure his team know every knob was firmly fixed without room for tweaking. The team responded in kind.

Privately, he laments how his team isn’t as creative as he’d like. “There’s not enough innovation,” he says. He hasn’t yet figured out why. By turning the knob on holding his opinions in such settings to himself, he could foster more creativity and innovation. If he’d just turn the knob that lets him speak last instead of first – when it comes to stating his initial opinion – he might find his mind being more open and he’d most certainly foster greater dialogue among his team. How big of a turn is that? Not much really, but that doesn’t mean he’ll have an easy time of it.

There are inherent benefits of being a knob turner. People know you’re willing to make adjustments. They know you’re open-minded. That alone can serve you to be a more effective leader because it will foster more ideas, better ideas and a variety of diverse opinions.


d. Your willingness and ability to turn knobs demands you learn to be a more effective communicator. 

It may be a chicken versus egg quandary. I’m not sure which comes first – the ability to properly communicate or the ability to turn the knobs. I know one can’t be had without the other. They hinge on each other. Repeatedly I’ve seen people who worked hard to turn knobs more effectively and seen them enhance their communication skills, too. But I’ve not seen it work the other way around – improved communication doesn’t necessarily make one better at turning knobs. And I think I know why.

If you’re going to embrace knob turning you must communicate. Any respectable knob turning leader has learned to ask questions. Turning knobs necessarily means you refrain from jumping to conclusions, even if they’re the right conclusions. Like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid running away from that posse in that famous movie scene. You only jump when you have to.

We all know that false assumptions are killers, but still some leaders continue to make them. We assume the young person in the meeting knows not to use the word “suck” in a meeting. But what if he thinks nothing of it? What if we corrected him with a conversation and he never did it again?

These things require communication. They require being willing to engage in candid conversations so we all improve our understanding.

How fair would it be for a parent of an elementary aged child to judge that kid based on all the stupid things he says? It’d be grossly unfair. Parents correct their children when they say and do improper things. It doesn’t mean they’re rebellious or stupid. They just don’t know what they don’t know – until we teach them. We shouldn’t tolerate their rebellion, but we do tolerate their ignorance or inexperience. We handle this by talking with them and explaining things to them. We ask them questions. We answer their questions. Those same techniques are required by every leader who would become more accomplished at turning knobs to become a great leader.


You need rigidity in one area of your leadership. Non-negotiable standards. That’s it.

You should be inflexible in your expecting good behavior and good performance. Minimum standards must be held sacred.

Flexibility should characterize the rest. Even in non-negotiable standards it’s wise to exercise caution in drawing a conclusion. For example, a leader can complain about a person lying, violation of a non-negotiable standard. Upon further investigation and conversation, turns out the person wasn’t lying at all. He merely didn’t know what he didn’t know. He made a statement based on his limited knowledge of the facts and it sounded like lying, but it wasn’t. When he was more fully informed it changed everything. He acknowledged that he “just didn’t know.” Okay, is he a liar or is he uninformed? Being uninformed wasn’t a non-negotiable standard for this company. That’s knob turning in action.

Give yourself the opportunity for a bigger, clearer sound. Turn some knobs. See if you can’t gain some insight with a slight adjustment. Make a full quarter of a turn if you want…you can always turn it back. Twist and tweak. You may find that you’ll be able to create a leadership that is monumentally better than anything you’ve ever created before.


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277 Empathy: Leadership’s Top Ingredient

Empathy Leadership's Top Ingredient - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Episode 277

Photo courtesy of Flicker user @gagilas

I was a young leader when it first happened. An employee was going through a divorce. Not just any divorce (is there such a thing?), but an especially hurtful one. His wife had been having an affair. She didn’t want him anymore. He was crushed.

Everybody felt awful for him, but nobody knew what to say really. I was watching it from a distance required of leadership. I expressed my sympathies, but not much else. At first.

He moved out of the house into an apartment close to work. They put the house up for sale and he wrestled with all the details required of starting part of your life over.

As the weeks rolled on his performance, which had once been high, was continuing to slip. For weeks I let it go because I know he was struggling to get back on his emotional feet. My gut told me he needed time. But I was watching. Closely.

It was years ago and I can’t be sure how long I sat on the sidelines watching his performance, but it may not have been soon enough. I had never dealt with such a thing before. I was in my 20’s and had no clue what divorce felt like, or what my leadership support should look like. I was figuring it out in realtime just like he was. Two men in unchartered water. Me, determined to serve him as best I could, but struggling how. Him, determined to hang on, survive and get past this pain but struggling how.

At some point after reviewing his performance slide I made up my mind that I was going to have to sit down with him and have a difficult conversation. The truth of the situation dawned on me at some point while I observed his pain, and his performance. My role was to serve him. Namely, to help him – and all the employees – perform and achieve as much as they could. I had always viewed my role as a leader to knock down the roadblocks or speed bumps that might prevent employees from doing their best work. Regularly I had told employees that if not for that work, then I had no purpose. It wasn’t idealism. It was (and still is) reality.

Empathy Is Easy. Or It’s Not.

For me empathy was always easy. I never remember a time when it was difficult. Even as a little kid. If anything life hasn’t hardened me in that regard. It has made me more sensitive, knowing the hardships that life can dole out.

On the playground, I was the peacemaker. I didn’t want kids to get in trouble. I sure didn’t want somebody to get hurt. I didn’t insert myself with kids I didn’t know unless we were all playing together and an argument broke out.

I was a communicator and quick to negotiate a solution to avoid the strife. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes kids were just bent on fighting. Meanwhile, my empathy grew with my height and maturity. I’m confident that my empathy today is higher than it’s ever been and I suspect it’ll be even higher in the future.

The day arrived that I was intent on having the tough conversation with my divorcing employee. I called him to my office. I was nervous, but I had thought this through and knew the words would come easily to me because as with most things — I was going to speak from my heart. I cared about him and his performance. I wasn’t his buddy or personal friend. I was his boss. My actions resulted from my obligation to serve him.

As we sat together I told him I was sorry he was enduring such tough times. I couldn’t relate or understand because I had never endured what he was going through. I told him so. Mainly, I told him I owed him better and I apologized for taking so long to talk to him. I was worried about him and his professional performance, which had always been very high. Understandably, it slipped, but it was continuing to erode and I knew it was time to tell him my commitment to him was intact.

“I can’t do much to help you away from work, but I’m devoted to help you excel here — and get back to your typical high performance.”

I told him I had no idea what life was like away from work, but I knew that letting his career go south wasn’t going to help. I expressed two basic thoughts: my devotion to help his perform well and my expectation that he’d get back into his prior form.

Within less than 10 minutes I was done and his relief was visible. I stood up, he stood up. I told him how confident I was that he could reclaim his prior position of being an excellent performer. I extended my hand to shake his and he looked at me able only to say, “Thank you.” I gave him a brief hug and told him he’d get through this and that I was determined to help his succeed “here” (at work).

His performance started to slowly accelerate. It wasn’t some proverbial switch flip. Coworkers noticed things changed right away – for the better – but it was a couple of weeks before his actual performance started going up. To his credit he kept it going up and got back on track.

I tell that story because empathy is what drove me to do it. Empathy drives every good leader to properly serve the people of the organization. Confronting somebody’s poor performance may seem an odd way of showing empathy, but it’s the best way if you’re going to be an effective leader.

The Words Leaders Use

Control. Accountability. More. Better. My. Mine. I.

These depict the kind of leader we are. They speak to what’s in our heart.

Pay attention to your heart, your emotions, your feelings and your reality. Pay more attention to those things in the people you lead. They need your very best if they’re going to deliver their very best. You owe them that. Empathy is your biggest ingredient for being the most effective leader possible. Don’t leave it out. Don’t skimp on it. Use the appropriate amount and you’ll see your people respond positively.


Photograph courtesy of Flicker user @gagilas

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276 Leadership & The Stories You Tell

Leadership & The Stories You Tell

A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

Didn’t we all grow up hearing stories? I did.

Parents read stories to us. Teachers did, too. At church we heard preachers tell us stories, too. The Bible has lots of great stories.

Parents, teacher and preachers aren’t the only people in our lives who tell stories though. Leaders do, too. You’re a leader. You tell stories.

That doesn’t mean you’re good at it. Or that your stories are good. Or effective in helping you lead better.

Pay Attention Today

It can be challenging to be in the moment. Leaders are often challenged with pre-occupation. We’ve got a lot of things on our calendar, our mind and our plate. Those are just the things involving our agenda. Then, we’ve got the dozens of small (and large) interruptions. I hear you moaning your approval right now. But wait a minute…

Who or what is the recipient of your leadership?

Hint: it’s always a who. It’s only a what if you’re describing a team, department or organization. People comprise all of those. So, even if you answer with a what, it’s still people.

Sadly, too many leaders allow themselves to become distracted with stuff instead of people. People perform. Leaders lead. That is, leaders help people perform better. When they fail to do that, they fail in their role to lead. But we can go into more detail on that work later. Today, I want to concentrate on one aspect of leadership to helps people perform better – stories.

I started paying attention to stories in the workplace when I was still a teenager. Every boss I ever had told stories. Some didn’t tell good stories. Others didn’t tell the stories very well. But they all told stories. Some kind of stories.

In elementary school I often gauged my affection for my teacher based on her (they were all women) ability to tell or read stories well. I cared about the performance or the ability to read aloud well. I also paid attention to the kind of stories they selected. We’ve all got a preference for certain kinds of stories. My interest, even as a little kid, was mostly sparked by stories that could have been true. Fantasy and sci-fi kind of stuff wasn’t appealing to me as a little kid. It’s still not. For example, my third grade teacher read The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. That was my kind of story.

When I began to work in businesses, first as a salesperson, I paid careful attention to the stories the boss told. I knew it would give me insight into his values, his concerns, his worldview, his philosophies and anything else that might help me be a better employee. One of my earliest strengths as a salesperson was preparation. I was fanatical about studying the products I was selling. I was bent on knowing more than anybody else about the stereo gear I was selling. It wasn’t an ego-based thing. It was a practical thing designed to give me the biggest edge in selling more products and serving more customers. I knew that if I could teach a customer about a feature that meant a lot to them, then I could make the sale. The salesperson who shows us that one thing that makes all the difference — that’s the salesperson we tend to like the most, and the one most likely to get our money. It was a game for me and the name of the game was “intel.” I wanted my intel (or intelligence) to be superior to anybody else in the market. The boss would tell stories and that would give me intel I could use to be a more valuable employee. Besides, I enjoyed figuring out why certain people told certain stories, or certain kinds of stories.

Selling was – and still is – very story-driven for me. So is coaching. And consulting. I can see a client’s eyes light up with an “Oh-now-I-get-it” moment after I tell a very brief story, or use an illustration (which is really just a micro story) that resonates with them. It happens all the time and I’m constantly searching for that connection because it means I’ve done my work well.

So the boss is always talking about his stuff. His car, his house, his vacation, his family. It’s all about him. All the time. You ever had a boss like that? If you’ve got any experience at all, it’s highly likely. Some bosses are that self-centered. I hope that’s not you, but if it is — Stop It! Get your mind off yourself at work and start thinking about your people.

One of my earliest bosses was like this, but my immediate boss was just the opposite. Thankfully. My immediate boss was a pretty remarkable, attentive guy. The stories he told dealt with merchandise, shoppers and employees. He was quite focused on the merchandise so I knew product knowledge was important to him. He wanted his staff to be among the most knowledgeable salespeople around. I was already bent to increase my intel, including product knowledge, so that wasn’t hard for me. I would sometimes urge fellow employees to stop wasting their downtime in nonsense and to spend it brushing up on their product knowledge so they could perform better. If it’s important to the boss, it better be important to the employees.

Years later I learned that I could employ the same intel strategies to figure anybody out. When you sit down to negotiate with somebody and you have no idea what kind of stories they like to tell, you’re in a less desirable position than if you’ve heard them tell lots of stories. It’s why two of the fundamental things I urge all my clients to do is listen and ask questions. It’s common for me to teach people my personal selling philosophy. There are basically only two selling philosophies, but they’re very opposing in their tactics, viewpoint and implementation.

Selling Philosophy #1

As long as I’m talking, I’m selling.

Selling Philosophy #2

As long as you’re talking, you’re buying.

I’m solidly in the second camp. I don’t have any tolerance for people entrenched in that first camp. If I can’t move somebody from camp #1 to camp #2, then I’ll quit. That’s how important it is to me. That’s how much I believe in the superiority of #2. That first strategy is just too selfish, too.

Even leaders who don’t consider themselves salespeople — every leader is a salesperson (the great leaders are strong salespeople) — employ one of these strategies in their own leadership style. It goes beyond listening and talking. It’s the urge of the leader to employ one more than the other to influence and persuade.

Look at yourself closely. Are you a leader who sits down with somebody – or a group of people – and you hold forth without much interaction or open mind? You think, “The more I talk the more they’ll understand. The more I talk the more they’ll buy in.”

Yes, there are times that a leader needs to hold forth, but not all the time. For example, when a leader is trying to educate a staff on some history that might be relevant, or some decision already reached (and how that decision was reached), then holding forth is educational.

Tell Me Enough Stories, I’ll Tell You Your Story

But let’s consider your storytelling habits as a leader. If I can hear you tell enough stories I can figure out how you roll. I’ll go you one better — even if you’re not a leader, tell me enough stories and I’ll tell you your story. I may not have the details down cold, but I’ll pretty much have you figured out. There’s no magic to it. It’s what’s in our heart comes out in our speech. Our stories reveal us. They can even betray us if we’re trying to pretend to be something we’re not.

Join in a group conversation. Put as many people as you want in the conversation. There can be as few as 2 or as many as you want. Enter a person who always has a story to trump your story, or the other guy’s story. If everybody is standing around, he’s always leaning forward slightly, sometimes on his toes, anxious to speak as soon as there’s a lull in the conversation. Let me watch him and hear him for just a few minutes and I’ll likely be able to tell you quite a lot about him, especially if he’s able to insert himself with enough stories.

The same is true for you, and me and anybody else. It’s especially true of leaders because all leaders have stories to tell. And they tell them. To somebody. Sometime.

I’m not making a distinction between the more quiet leader and the more outgoing one. That’s personality and style. I don’t care about that because there’s not one personality or style most suited for leadership. Effective leaders come in all varieties. Even quiet leaders tell stories. They just may not tell as many, or to as many people. No matter, today’s show still applies.

So you’re looking inside at your own story crafting, right?

Do you have any favorite stories? What are they? What’s their theme?

What about the impromptu stories? You know, the ones that just erupt in every day life at the office?

I’ve sat down and spent hundreds of hours in conversation with a single leader. I’ve also sat down and spent just a handful of hours with a single leader. The first just gives me more opportunities to hear stories. In both cases, I’ve had enough time to hear at least a few stories. It’s like anything else, the more data you have the more valid things become. And the more clear they are.

I’m sitting with a CEO. He’s like most CEO’s, willing to carry the conversation and more than willing to make it about himself. He’s not pompous or arrogant. Just confident and doing what good CEO’s do. Trying to be impressive. He’s not working it too hard. I’m not offended or put off. He’s affable. Even a bit charming. It’s not unattractive.

He recites a business success story. It’s an opportunity he got out of the clear blue. It’s a good story and I give him appropriate feedback bragging on his good fortune. Instantly, he follows it up with another story. Just like the first one, it’s a story about serendipity. A business deal landed in his lap – one he wasn’t looking for, but one that he couldn’t ignore. Again, I compliment him. This continues for a few more stories and after half an hour I have pieced together some common denominators in these stories: a) he’s well known in his space, b) his notoriety in this space brings him unexpected opportunities, c) people offer him deals others would think are too good to be true, but they do it because they know he can bring them more business and d) he’s a smart operator who knows how to take advantage of and make the most of these opportunities.

We talk a bit longer. Not a single story about an employee. No team member’s name or position enters the conversation. Not a single story about a customer either.

Now before you think I’m judging the character of this man, tap the brakes. That’s not the objective of this. The objective is to unearth some intel on his leadership. Just like my boss who had a propensity for product knowledge. It is what it is. I don’t judge it, I just try to deal with it the best way possible.

I engage some employees and listen to their stories. Guess what? They tell stories about the boss. About the deals that come his way. About his prowess to turn a good deal into a great deal. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I go around and find story after story about the boss. And sooner than later it’s clear that the boss is the culture. The organization’s success is built on the art of the deal. And the boss is a king of deals. Again, nothing wrong with it. It is what it is. It’s a culture and leadership is is deal-based.

Why The Stories Matter

Leaders, more so than other employees, can tell the stories they most want to tell. They’ve got a built-in audience that can’t walk out on them. Employees are forced to listen — well, maybe more accurately, they’re forced to sit in silence, giving audience to the boss. But employees tell stories, too. All our stories matter because they reveal some important things.

1. Our stories reveal our values

A single story may not show much, but as leaders we tell lots of stories. The cumulative effect of our stories shows our professional and personal values.

I catch myself telling story after story about the collective failure of leaders, if only occasionally, to serve people who have no idea there’s a problem. For example, a company hires a new employee. It’s a small company that has no HR department. Onboarding isn’t some structured, formal process. It’s mostly done by forcing the new employee to acclimate themselves. It works well enough, but it could be much better.

A few weeks in the new employee unwittingly commits a faux pau in a meeting when he says something that rankles the big boss. As the team is discussing a matter, this newest employee makes a statement in mid-stream, “I don’t know why we do that.” He wasn’t mean-spirited about it. He just blurted it out probably without realizing how it may have sounded, especially as the new kid. Nobody said anything to him, but later the CEO remarked, “Who does he think he is?”

“Did you speak with him about it?” I asked. Nope. He didn’t. But he told me the story about it. It wasn’t the first story like that I had heard from him. This leader – like most leaders – valued “knowing your place.” This newest team member blew it by alerting to the CEO that he had yet to learn his place. I suspect the new employee hadn’t spent enough time hearing the stories to really understand how things roll. Rather than keep silence and take his time figuring it out, this person – with an assertive personality and a sense of proactivity that got him the job – had inadvertently stepped in it. But he didn’t know it. I led the parade for a senior executive to pull him aside and talk with him about it. Not a hard discussion, but a necessary one.

What do you value as a leader? Let me hear your stories and I’ll know what they are.

A few lessons on this point…if you’re in a new situation and you don’t yet know the lay of the land…keep quiet. Pay close attention to how others behave, how they talk, when they talk and how they posture themselves. Be aware and learn before you violate a value you know nothing about.

2. Our stories reveal what we think matters most

This CEO didn’t focus on the purpose of the meeting where the new employee stumbled. I still couldn’t tell you the business problem that was being discussed. That wasn’t shared with me. Not because it wasn’t important – it was bound to be because the staff gathered to discuss it. But it paled in comparison to what the newest team member had done. That one simple statement — “I don’t know why we do that” — trumped anything else that happened. It was a point of discussion among the senior leaders. For days they wondered exactly what the CEO wondered about this new employee, “What was HE thinking?”

Again, I don’t judge these things too much (it’s human nature to judge them a little bit). I just observe them and figure out how to make the wisest use of them. So when I sat down with this employee after the fact, we talked about it. He was completely innocent of anything malicious. He genuinely did want to know why the company did a certain thing, but rather than ask the question (something he was a bit afraid to do because he wanted to display greater confidence), he blurted out the statement, “I don’t know why we do that.” He wasn’t even aware that’s exactly how he had said it until the senior executive engaged him in conversation about it. He had since gone to the CEO to apologize and he made the rounds apologizing to the others present in the meeting. It wasn’t his intention to come across as he had. Now, he was worried and anxious. Only 6 weeks or so on the job and he feared he might should begin a new job search. Instead, I encouraged him to keep his head up, pay closer attention to how others behaved, how they talked and the stories they told (especially the CEO’s stories). I urged him to learn the priorities of the company by listening to and looking for common themes of the stories.

Every leader displays the priorities by the stories they tell. You could argue with those priorities – at your own peril – but a better strategy is to listen and learn. As for leaders, if you’re not happy with the priorities of the organization…examine the stories you’re telling. Look closely. You’ll likely find that these priorities you don’t much care for are woven throughout your own stories. Craft stories to emphasize the priorities you want.

3. Our stories reveal how we see problems (and what we see as problems)

The CEO in this illustration used a one-sentence story (once you understood the context of what happened), “Who does he think he is?” Translation: he was completely out of line. Maybe, but it wasn’t exactly as it appeared or seemed. Even so the CEO saw knowing your place as the problem and it was manifested in a single statement by a meeting participant who happened to be the newest employee.

Did I think it was a big deal? No, but it didn’t much matter what I thought. What mattered is what the CEO thought. He thought it was not just a problem, but a BIG problem. He was preoccupied by it, too. The actual business challenge was given no conversation or story time, but the new employees misspeak was given a lot of conversation. The CEO cared more about the culture of his team than he did conquering the actual problem. Now before you knee-jerk react to all this, don’t. The CEO knew his team would solve the business problem. He was more concerned about the difficulty of solving the possible culture issue with this new employee. Was his reaction the smartest? No, he’d tell you that now (yes, I had a small role to play in that). But he admits it really irked him in the moment and he admits he got very preoccupied by it. Part of my work involved helping him – as a leader – not let perceived problems become problems. It turned out to be “much a do about nothing.” He and his senior leaders lost some time and attention to it though. They waxed on and on for a few days about it until I was able to persuade them to just have a direct conversation with the new employee.

4. Our stories reveal our leadership style

This CEO had a style that everybody needed to understand, especially the new guy. He’s an emotional guy, quick to pull the trigger on an assumption. Do I really need to tell you that after telling you his story? Of course not. It shows, right? That’s what stories do.

It’s up to the leader if he or she wants to alter that style. In this case, the leader is wrestling with his style. Nothing is going to change him emotionally, but he is learning to slow down his trigger finger on jumping to conclusions. He’s doing that because he wants to and because he thinks it will make him more effective as a leader. I think he’s right, but again, that’s his call. Not mine. My job is to help him explore and find better ways to serve his organization as a more effective leader.

Tell More Intentional Stories

I want to help you improve your own leadership by helping you tell stories that will serve your purposes. Take a very good look at your stories. Sit down with your trusted lieutenants. Solicit their help to dissect your stories and what they signal to the organization. Where the stories convey something other than what you want to convey, then don’t just change the stories. Examine why you’re telling them. What is it that compels you to tell that story? What irks you? What satisfies you? Avoid the cursory glance and go deeper.

Give this the time is deserves. Don’t expect a single sit down session with your inner circle to do the job. You’ve likely been telling these stories without that much thought or strategy. They’re just the stories you’re telling. That means looking at them is going to require more diligent consideration. Ask questions. Then ask them again, and ask more of them. Collect your own answers and the ones of the people you trust most.

Now, give yourself some more time to craft the stories that will best serve the organization. Don’t mistake these as contrivances. A contrivance is something that appears to be something it’s not. Your stories are going to be genuine and serve a genuine purpose. They’re going to be honest, not acts of deceit.

For example, one senior leader I know always told stories of poor conduct. Story after story would be filled with annoyances of things employees had done. Sometimes the stories would be about inappropriate things said, or inappropriate attire. Never were the stories about the actual work of the person. In fact, when asked about the work of any particular person who was the subject of a story, he’s often say, “Oh their work is pretty good.” Truth is, their work didn’t matter as much as these missteps in behavior. After considerable time coaching this leader he realized his stories – and his outlook – weren’t beneficial to the organization or his leadership. These things still irritated him, but he learned more profitable ways to deal with it. Namely, he started being more direct in helping these employees understand what they were doing – often without even knowing it – and how they could fix it. That made him feel better because he now felt he was doing something positive to remedy the situation, whereas before he simply felt like he was venting (and he had convinced himself that’s all he could do). In time, he began to craft stories that had a different theme. He wanted his organization to be laser focused on performance so he started telling stories of success and failure that were pointed directly at the output people produced. The team saw the shift, although most couldn’t pinpoint what exactly had changed. They just started to concentrate on what the boss was talking about — the stories he was telling.

If you’re not spending enough time looking at and crafting the stories that best serve your organization, START. And don’t stop.


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275 Leading Under Duress

Leading Under Duress - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Episode 275


It’s stress. A constraint. A real challenge.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945 to discuss their joint occupation of Germany and plans for postwar Europe. Leadership in time of war is among the highest stress leadership anybody can experience. I don’t know firsthand, but how can anything be more stressful? Millions of lives on the line. Entire countries at risk. Enormous financial strain on economies. It’s also when great leaders emerge.

The Many Faces of Duress

Actually, the two faces of it. There are many shades of grey, but let’s just distill duress into 2 groups: internal and external. Internal is the pressure you put on yourself.

Duress can be prompted by something external, but it’s more about you. For example, the student who wants to perform well can put pressure on themselves to score a perfect 100. The exam is the event prompting the pressure, but the exam doesn’t care if you pass it or fail it. The teacher doesn’t likely care if you score a 100 or an 80. But you care. That’s internal duress.

External duress is mostly driven by something putting a demand on you. A board of directors can put pressure on a CEO to elevate profits by at least 10% this quarter. If the company is lagging behind the profit forecast, that may be a tall order that creates lots of pressure for the CEO. Here’s the thing — external duress like this can create a slew of internal duress points. The CEO may start to wonder if the board wants to get rid of him. Duress can morph and adapt like the most vile monster of any horror movie.

Every leader faces both forms of duress at various times. Most leaders are under daily duress. That’s why they’re leaders. They’re people empowered to solve problems and make the harder decisions. If there is no duress, what’s the point of leadership? Better said, if there’s no problem to be solved, no plan to be enacted or no strategy to be implemented — what are you doing here?

The Work Of The Leader May Not Look Like Work At All

“What does he do all day?” asks an employee of a leader. I wonder what the questioner means. Are they implying anything? Do they not think the leader does anything?

Turns out they don’t think she does anything. They never see the work product of their leader. I find that interesting so I dig a little deeper.

“Tell me what you know about her (the leader) work?” I ask. The employee stares off into space. There’s some eye blinking and pursing of the lips. Followed by some shrugging. Eventually, he says, “I’m honestly not sure.”

“Describe her interaction with you, or with other staffers,” I ask. He goes on to tell me about a variety of meetings, mostly held by his boss. Different people are involved in these meetings, but they’re described mostly as “a major waste of time.”

I’m getting nowhere. So I ask, “Tell me some decisions that she makes.” Now we’re getting somewhere. This employee begins reciting a number of decisions – some he thinks are smart and others he’s not quite sure about. This employee doesn’t have a clear understanding of what he’s seeing. He’s young, pretty inexperienced and only 8 months into his career. He’s learning. It gives me an opportunity to serve him by educating him how the world really works. That includes the work of a leader whose work doesn’t always look like work.

Gathering information. Collecting and evaluating evidence. Thinking. Collaborating with others. Deciding. Communicating. Making sure it gets done. These are some of the basic activities of a leader. There may be a report distributed, a presentation delivered or a spreadsheet shared, but the work product of a leader can be much less visible than the work product of the rest of the organization. But if the duress is open enough, visible enough and large enough — the work can be more easily seen.

War may be the best illustration. In their book, Leadership: Combat Leaders and LessonsJames Abrahamson and Andrew O’Meara collect the stories of various military leadership. One story is told by retired U.S. Army Brigadier General William J. Mullen III. His story came from the war in Viet Nam.


Flying bullets most certainly complicate decision making. But sometimes in our organizations there are other moments of duress that provide bigger opportunities for people to see the work of the leader. Some rise to the occasion. Others don’t.

Some Have It. Others Just Say, “I’ve Had It.”

Few things determine the quality of leadership more than increased levels of duress.

The very best leaders shine under pressure. They do their best work when the heat is on.

The poorest leaders wilt. Some wilt sooner than others, but eventually all poor leaders give way to the duress.

What makes the difference? My work has led me to see some common denominators in the leaders who excel when the intensity grows. You’ll be quick to see the things that are likely missing in the leaders who fail when challenges get heavy.

These are the qualities I observe in high performance leaders – the ones who perform best under duress…

1. They keep calm.

Panicked leaders are ineffective. Always. Show me an overly excited or emotional leader and I’ll show you somebody who will most certainly crack when the PSI increases.

Calm and deliberate are qualities of the best leaders. In fact, the greater the pressure, the more calm they get. They have an ability – innate or learned, I’m not sure – to counter-react the energy of the challenge. If the challenge intensity grows increasingly hotter and hotter, this leader gets cooler and cooler. The zig and zag of it is something they master. The more the constraint zigs, they zag. The organization responds in kind.

I can spend thirty minutes with most leaders and tell you about their team. If the leader is anxious or nervous, you know their team is going to reflect it. Sure, they’ll be exceptions, but mostly the team will mirror the emotions and the energy of the leader. On the flipside, let me spend 30 minutes with a person who is the right hand of the leader and I’ll likely be able to tell you how the leader is wired. That’s the power of leadership.

2. They’re communicative.

The most effective leaders during troubled times also have a commitment to make sure the team is fully informed. This includes sharing information, but it goes into collecting it as well.

Communication is at least a 2-way street, sometimes more, depending on how many people are involved in the process. Great leaders are great listeners and great investigators. They gather information and evidence. They don’t sit by the hotline waiting for the phone to ring. They’re out knocking on doors talking to people. Imagine the homicide detective who just lets the clues and evidence land in his lap. They’d be fired right away because you’ll never get to the truth sitting on your hands. You’ve got to go get the clues the evidence you need to solve the crime. The great leader knows that they’ve got to go find what they need to solve their problems — and the problems of their organization — so they go chase it. That’s done with communication – talking with and listening to people.

3. They’re candid.

When duress is hammering away, the great leader elevates their directness. All the best leaders I’ve ever known were candid and direct. Even blunt. But when things are tough, they get more direct because they understand the situation.

People expect it when times are tough. For starters, speed matters. During warfare, when bullets are flying, short, loud and direct commands save lives. Troops are trained to take orders partly because when the heat is on our military understand the necessity of instant compliance. Don’t think. Don’t argue. Just do it. When the commander says, “GO!” — you GO. That’s a pretty direct (candid) directive.

Poor leaders struggle to be so direct, even under duress. They want to loiter around in language that is unclear and less direct. I’ve got some theories about it, but nothing I’ve fully vetted enough to hang my hat on. Only suspicions really. Sometimes I’ve seen leaders do this and thought, “They’re working too hard to appear smart. ” I think it can be a problem among the less effective leaders. They’re overly concerned about how they appear. So they spend more time in meandering language. But sometimes I’ve seen leaders who didn’t know what to do so they tried to mask it by using big gobs of business-speak and other ambiguous language. And then there are times when I’ve seen leaders who just weren’t yet committed to a course of action so they talked in waffling language leaving people to wonder what they were saying. No matter the reason, ineffective leaders find it impossible or overly difficult to be as direct and as candid as necessary to elevate the performance of their team under duress.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Only if the tough leader can be direct enough to lead the going.

4. They’re open.

That means they’re open-minded. They don’t conclude things before they’ve soberly considered as much data as possible. Sometimes the time constraint is severe giving leaders very little time to consider very much. If a loaded gun is aimed at you, there’s no time to debate. You’d just better react. But if you’re planning a SWAT team arrest of a known felon, then you’ve got some time to craft the strategy that can best keep folks safe.

Great leaders under duress avoid preconceived conclusions or assumptions. Partly because they’re calm and intentional in gathering data, but mostly because they understand the situation. When the pressure is growing the risks grow, too. That makes the decision-making more critical and the margin for error small. That’s why the most effective leaders are open to information, evidence and perspectives.

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas he earned the reputation of being a leader who surrounded himself with bright people. I know the liberal media and comedians had a hay day depicting him as hick idiot, but I think they got it wrong. I don’t care about the politics. Think what you want. Do what you want. But when it comes to leadership under duress President George W. Bush faced something in 9-11 that equals few things faced by sitting presidents of our country. There’s enough evidence to prove he gathered as much information as he could, listened and was open to suggestions and observations. History can determine if he got it right or not, but he did what he had to do with the resources and information available to him at the time.

That’s what all great leaders do. They don’t form a knee-jerk opinion or implement some half-baked strategy. They maintain an open mind to give themselves the best opportunity for a great decision.

5. They demand evidence.

Evidence may not be truth, but it leads to truth. The great leaders elevate this — and all these other traits — under moments of high duress.

Great leaders demand to know more. During stressful times, the leader won’t simply allow a lieutenant to offer an opinion with explaining why they hold that opinion. Or how they formed that opinion.

Poor leaders just accept things on first blush. Somebody reports something and they swallow it, taking it as fact. What if they’re wrong? The downside potential is simply too great for the effective leader. So, they ask questions and probe.

Some time back I was sitting with an executive who was telling me a story of something that had happened inside his company. The right hand person of a divisional manager went to another divisional manager to get some insight. That divisional manager went to this executive to report how odd she thought it was for this person to come to her, instead of her boss. The executive appropriately asked, “How do you know she didn’t?” Well, that stumped the divisional manager. She didn’t know if this person had first gone to his boss or not. She assumed he hadn’t, but was forced to admit that she didn’t know. A very small thing that could have become something bigger except for an effective leader – an executive willing to demand evidence and refusing to let assumptions rule the day.

6. They’re decisive.

This involves a couple of distinct things. One, they don’t waffle. A big part of this involves their ability to distinguish between the fact-finding, data-gathering phase of problem-solving and the decision phase. During periods of gathering and discovery the effective leader is open, doing everything possible to facilitate the best input possible from others. Two, after the decisions is made they don’t back down unless new evidence or facts warrant it.

It’s common to see poor leaders do just the opposite. They’re not open during the gathering phase, often making sure they impose their opinions on the team. That results in people shutting down and not being as forthcoming as they might like. And once the decision is made, the poor leader can change his mind without any new evidence. They just decide they don’t want to do what was first decided. Or they withdraw permission to do something previously decided — but without any real explanation. Poor leaders often have buyer’s remorse in the time between the decision and execution. As a result, you may see lots of starting and stopping, but not much meaningful action.

The truly good or great leader is able to move forward with 80% accuracy and own the decision. There’s always more data to be gathered. More information that might help. More questions to be answered. But duress doesn’t often afford all the time in the world. A decision must eventually be made and great leaders don’t drag their feet to make the best decision possible with the information they’ve got. And they don’t often backtrack that decision unless new information or evidence is presented.

7. They foster confidence.

Because of all these qualities, the great leader is able to use moments of extreme duress to the advantage of the organization. The people on the team of such a leader grow confident in their ability to navigate troubles. A novice sailor can sail clam waters. But when a storm erupts, you want to know the Captain is seasoned and strong. Watching a captain perform in the storm proves their worthiness of the task. Sailors will more likely work for the captain capable of that kind of leadership because he makes them feel safer.

It’s no different on your team. When it hits the fan people look closely at leadership. You have to answer the bell and do well in order to keep the troops performing well. When a leader’s team loses confidence, then the leader is usually — and appropriately — at greater personal risk. Odd isn’t it? When the leader is under the most intense personal duress is when the leader isn’t performing well. There’s a big lesson, and a great place to end today’s show. Step up your game and perform. It’s the best course of action during tough times. Fail and you might as well pack your bags because it can be tough to recover from a poor leadership job when you were needed the most.


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