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Leaders Ask Rather Than Direct

I was in a series of leadership offsites this week and had some interesting observations about communication. All the leaders around me were the best that I have ever worked with. They understand business and how to lead. Each leader has their own style and strengths which create their own organizational culture. Some would ask probing questions that showed they were genuinely interested in you and your success, looking for ways they could help support their own business and their colleagues’. Others would take the approach of making observational statements and providing suggestions. I started to think about how these two approaches made me feel about working with them and their organizations. The former approach made me believe the person was dedicated to our mutual success and that they would be supportive and open. The latter approach made me somewhat frustrated that they either assuming they understood situations without enough information or that they were making recommendations that were already in place. I began to think about the importance of “how” a question is asked and the implications they have on working relationships.

My focus on this subject began towards the end of the week. I was sitting in what must have been my millionth PowerPoint presentation. One leader observed that the same type of project was highlighted in 3 different presentations and that he strongly recommends they work together on a single project. I felt a little irritated because that was already happening. After my flash of frustration I started to think, “Why does this bother me?” There were 2 reasons for my reaction: 1) All 3 presentations didn’t communicate that it was the same project, and 2) The comment was directive rather than questioning. I figured the first issue was a simple lesson learned and I focused on the second. Why was it so discouraging that he observed 3 projects were similar and that they should work together? It was the directive approach which didn’t allow the people working on the project to explain their thoroughness. It was more like “dad lecturing” rather than seeking information and coaching.

My team was preparing an agenda for a manager’s offsite and presented to me their ideas. They incorporated all the ideas that we had discussed but the subject order didn’t seem to flow for me. I suggested that we talk through the flow because I didn’t understand how each item would build on one another and wanted to make sure of our success. I then stopped myself and reflected on the directive approach I witnessed relating to the 3 projects and realized that I wasn’t allowing them to show their good work and help me to understand their thought process. When they explained their approach it was clear that they were thinking about not only what we needed to accomplish but also about some internal issues I wasn’t considering which required the order they had suggested. It reinforced to me that I had the right people in the right jobs and that I need to trust them.

One of the primary roles of a leader is communication. Leaders must create and communicate a future vision in simple terms, they must help people understand the importance and urgency of goals, and they must create a supportive environment that focuses on those goals. Tactically, leaders need to help people remove emotional and personal issues from discussions and help keep people’s eyes on what is important. Our job as leaders is to help people understand their importance and help them to grow. What we need to understand is that our words can build peoples confidence in themselves and in us or they can create productivity killing frustration and discouragement. We need to show our confidence in people, giving them the opportunity to take risks, and coaching them without making decisions for them. That’s how we grow future leaders.


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