Watch the Noise – You Can Lose Your Message

In an outstanding example of failing to understand psychological noise, a British Ambulance service has apologized for asking 4,000 employees to rate how cool Adolf Hitler was as a leader.  What’s that, you ask?  How did they get to this point?  Excellent question.

Initial plan for survey? Maybe...

This explosive question was part of a survey designed to tease out employee opinions on the topic of leadership.  The idea, I suppose, was to galvanize these thousands of workers into thinking about what makes a good leadership figure in the hopes of fostering the climate necessary to grow leaders within the organization.  In actuality, what happened is that workers completing the survey found the message drowned out in the noise surrounding Hitler’s very name.

What’s this about noise?  Simple stuff really – as leaders and communicators, we all need to be aware of things, or noise, that reduce the strength of our signal.  In technical terms (supposing one was building a radio) this means controlling the signal to noise ratio.  In any case, we can break noise down into three broad categories:

  • Physical Noise – interference created by physical conditions such as cold or hunger.  In the practical sense this can be overcome in the business setting through simple measures like making sure everyone attending a meeting has a chair, making refreshments available, or scheduling health breaks.
  • Psychological Noise – interference caused by forces within us.  Extreme feelings, beliefs or trauma from past experiences are included in this category.  Dropping Hitler into a leadership survey to rate his coolness certainly qualifies.  The less noticeable instances of noise (i.e. someone’s family problems interfering in their ability to listen) can only be dealt with if you know the people you are dealing with.  In other words, you need to be an engaged leader to combat psychological noise…
  • Semantic Noise – interference caused by language issues.  I often see this when someone speaks in jargon or acronyms.  Local dialects might count too…  Easy fix – monitor your communications to remove jargon and gigantic words that nobody has ever heard before.  Hint – if you see people accessing an online dictionary while reading your memo, you may have lost your signal to semantic noise…

The ambulance company’s survey example goes from bad to worse.  Not only did they choose poorly in using Hitler as an example, their “after-action” comments sound like they’re defending their choice.  At the end of the day, no one will remember the attempt to inspire leadership within the ambulance employees, but everyone will remember being asked about Adolf Hitler as a “cool” leader.  Psychological noise at its best.

Anyone care to share an example of noise interfering with leadership?

Three Things You Need in a Leader

Timing is everything.  Even as British politicians sort through the confusion that is a hung parliament to arrive at a coalition government, a leadership conference was taking place well below street level, in the War Room used by Sir Winston Churchill to run operations in 1940.  This conference, staged by the The Said School of Business (Oxford University), included government, industry and military leaders in a forum designed to identify what it takes to lead in the modern world.

What did they come up with?  Well, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the event, they identified these desirable traits:

  • a leader needs moral courage
  • a leader needs to be able to take risks
  • a leader needs passion

Although this seems to be a simplified list when compared with all of the scholarly literature on leadership, it speaks to me.  I admire it for its very simplicity.  In fact, if you can find these three things within yourself, you have what it takes to lead.  If you can’t?  Consider stepping back.

Emotional Intelligence – Leadership’s Missing Link

You will not believe what I found while strolling around the leadership blogosphere.  I actually found a top 25 list of the worst bosses of 2009.  I’m not naive, I know these people exist.  I know that we are surrounded by far more bad leadership examples than good ones.  Unfortunately, I also know something else: we learn by example.

Curious, I looked further.  The publishers of this terrifying list have a Facebook page.  And a hugely strong Twitter presence.  In fact, they have over 8,000 followers on Twitter and almost 400 folks that “like” them on Facebook, meaning that a requirement exists to highlight and share examples of sickeningly ineffective leaders.  If you take the time to review these sites, you’ll see something somewhat disturbing: there is no lack of material for them to publish.

eBossWatch’s list is extensive and includes everything from garden variety harassment to felonies.  Some highlights from the list?

  • One super-genius was sued for workplace bullying and disability discrimination by a former soldier who received a Purple Heart and who lost his hand and suffered other serious injuries in an explosion while serving in Iraq.  Great example, don’t you think?
  • One so-called leader’s employees recorded a four hour meeting that took place late last year where our “hero” used hundreds of obscenities and ordered one of the supervisors to physically attack an equipment operator.  Imagine running across that in the boardroom?
  • One former city manager  was fired in April after only 18 months on the job after creating what City Council members called “a culture of fear” that included publicly embarrassing several employees.  While a “culture of fear” seems vague and nebulous, can we agree that it’s not a good thing?

After the requisite 20 minutes of processing time, I found myself wondering what these characters all had in common.  It isn’t that they are stupid – that’s too easy and doesn’t account for the fact that they were able to find themselves in these positions – after all, one of them directed NASA…  The answer I arrived at?  They all lack emotional intelligence.  EQ, as it’s known, is critical to leadership success because it allows us to interact appropriately with other people.  An example: consider Sheldon in this video clip from the  The Big Bang Theory; he’s really bright but not so good with people.

Sheldon Cooper - EI's poster child?

Here are some of the traits of the emotionally intelligent leader (drawn from Daniel Goleman’s mixed model of EQ):

  • Self-awareness.  This involves recognizing your own emotions and the impact they can have on your decision-making process.  Ties into “listening to your gut”
  • Self-management.  Once aware of your emotions, the next step is to control them.  This step is critical in the face of changing circumstances; after all if you’re anything like me, you might not always be getting your own way…
  • Social awareness. This refers to empathy, or understanding of the feelings and emotions of those around you and comprehension of how they all tie into the social framework.  This category is at the heart of people skills
  • Relationship management. This refers to our ability to create and manage interpersonal relationships, inspire others, influence groups, and act as mentors to develop people.

Now, armed with my almost criminal over-simplification of the vast body of work that’s been done on emotional intelligence, have another look at eBossWatch’s dreaded list.  See what I mean?  These people are all missing something and I think we know what it is.

Do you have an example of a really good leader who has these traits?  How about a really poor one who doesn’t?  C’mon, tell us a story…

7 Great Leadership Blogs

Now that I’ve managed to post into the double-digits, I’ve discovered that there are some blogs that I keep returning to as I wander my way around the inter-web.  These bloggers are professional leaders, mentors, coaches, and business people.  They work together to discuss leadership and communication issues and respond nicely to new bloggers like myself.  Each approaches the complex ideals of modern leadership in their own way.

Here are some of my favorites (they’re in no particular order, in fact they’re all equally excellent):

  • Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog.  Wally takes on various issues, indexes his blogs for ease of searching, and responds promptly to questions and comments.  Everyone who takes the time to comment gains additional value from his immediate and welcoming response.  Wally also uses his influence to point to other blogs with a “top five post” every week.
  • Mike Myatt’s N2 Growth Blog.  In his role as a strategic leader, Mike provides tremendous value in his posts.  In fact, his recently posted leadership test provides a great deal of food for thought.
  • Make Work Meaningful.  This collaborative site features many blog authors and serves as a one-stop shopping locale for all things leadership.  Broad topics include coaching, leadership, and organizational culture.  Not only does this group of people provide great value, they welcome the input of others.
  • Gwyn Teatro’s You’re Not the Boss of Me.  I stumbled onto Gwyn’s fantastic blog quite by accident and immediately began following her posts.  As a well-established HR professional, Gwyn has some great thoughts on leadership that I think you’ll find rewarding.  Plus her blog has a great title!
  • Commander, Submarine Group Ten.  Why the heck does this one make my list of favourites?  Well, there’s the fact that it’s a Navy blog.  How cool is that?  The real reason?  Rear-Admiral Bruner is in the process of dealing with some large organizational changes that focus on emotive issues – women in submarines chief among them.  He has a tremendous leadership challenge and is using social media to reach out and engage with his sailors.  His strong leadership shines through on his blog and is worth watching as the USN makes changes.
  • Michael Hyatt’s Leadership Blog.  Michael is the CEO of a large publishing house and provides great value through his blog.  I am not alone in my thoughts on his posts – he routinely makes it through my postrank.com filter unscathed!
  • John Baldoni’s Lead by Example Blog.   I found John’s blog through an article that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review on leadership presence.  I’ve been trying for 2o years to explain the concept of command presence to people and John’s article provided some great guidance.  Definitely worth a look.

Go ahead and let me know if you follow a leadership blog that you think I would enjoy.  I have also changed my wordpress layout and welcome comments/suggestions on the new format.  Thanks!

The Elusive Command Presence

Edward Fox as Lt. Gen Horrocks in "A Bridge Too Far"

Over the last 20 years, I have been assessed on my command presence.  I have been given vague guidance about what this elusive presence is.  I’ve even been told a few times that I don’t have it.  Other times I have been complimented on it.  But what is this thing, this so called “command presence?”

It’s one of those nebulous concept that doesn’t really have a concrete definition.  Command itself refers to concepts like coordination, direction and control.  Presence, in this case, refers to one’s force of personality.  When I combine these two concepts in my mind, my imagination produces someone 12 feet tall.  Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any of these commanding behemoths in my travels, so I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Or is it?

John Baldoni’s recent blog for the Harvard Business Review was all about this very thing – leadership presence.  He breaks it down nicely into manageable chunks that serve to reduce my mental image down to a human of average height.  He concentrates on some broad areas: situational awareness, confidence, humility, and hope.

Have a read of John’s post.  Close your eyes and see if you can conjure up a mental image.  Let me know what you see.

The Symphony Conducter Isn’t All Bad

I just read another great post by Wally Bock on leadership. In his most recent post, Wally takes aim at the management metaphor that is provided by the symphony conductor.  Wally provides a great argument against this leadership example; the conductor stands out in front, above his orchestra and exerts utter control.  To make matters worse, the conductor gets to take the full credit for the orchestra’s performance – in fact, the conductor is often the only performer to take a bow.  When you view it like that, Wally’s right; this model can’t possibly reflect the modern collaborative approach to leadership.  Or is he?

Management or leadership?

Consider the concept of the high reliability organization (HRO).  These organizations are defined by the price of failure.  They are exemplified by places like submarine control rooms, hospital emergency rooms or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.  For these organizations the price of failure is measured not only in big money, but in lives.  The people who work in HROs, much like our orchestra, are professionals who don’t need to be told every aspect of their job.  They do, however, require someone to coordinate their activities and set the priorities – I can’t see anyone putting together an orchestra, handing out sheet music to provide the goal and then stepping back – the result would be very hard to listen to.  In other words, they need a conductor.

Let’s go over the conductor’s role again.  As the leader, he or she selects the music – or, perhaps better seen as the organization’s goal – and then sets the tempo.  Communicating using nothing but body language, the conductor coordinates the activities of a vast array of highly trained specialists.  With a gesture, he or she influences the outcome – bringing in the violins to take over the melody, initiating the flute sections’ counter-melody, reducing the volume of the percussion section so that Swan Lake can continue to awe and amaze.  As Wally points out, the conductor doesn’t wade through the orchestra pit to begin moving somebody’s fingers around the strings of a violin.  Quite the opposite – as the leader, the conductor steps up so that he or she can see and be seen.  Armed with the whole situational picture that cannot be seen by the 3rd flute, the conductor tweaks the machine to make magic.

So what is the conductor really doing?  Is he or she conducting a management activity? Nope.  When you roll in coordination, influence and communication, the conductor is coming dangerously close to exercising command.

Groupthink – The Enemy of Command

“If everyone’s thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton

Have you ever wondered how you ended up carrying out a really awful plan?  One that should have easily been cut during the group brainstorming session as someone’s weak attempt at humour?  The likely culprit is a phenomenon known as “Groupthink”.  This special form of dysfunction is the enemy of command because it creates an atmosphere of limited solutions.

Groupthink? Maybe. Bad idea? Definitely.

Groupthink is what happens when we all focus on one solution or pathway to solve a problem.  It can be caused by too many of the same personality type, overly aggressive leadership, or poor communication.  Here’s a pretty good run-down of the symptoms associated with groupthink.

So now you’ve found it, how can you prevent it?

  • Avoid “situating the estimate.” In other words, when faced with a problem, don’t jump to your preferred solution in advance of your team.  Don’t even hint at your preference – let their ideas come out; you may be surprised to find out that your preferred solution is the one that is the least useful.
  • Solicit opinions in reverse order of seniority. Find out what the junior folks think first – this avoids the pressures associated with disagreeing with more experienced members of the team.  Only works if you have created an environment where your junior team members feel comfortable in providing honest input.
  • Use sub-groups. At the risk of sounding like the two Fed-Ex guys trying to get the box to Germany, you may want to break into groups.  Groups working the same problem may widen the solution field.

Have you got an example of groupthink?  What did you do about it and did it work?