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

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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