Lots of you have asked why I say “Grace and accountability can coexist” so frequently, particularly since (a) I tend to be exceedingly direct in my approach, (b) I have a blog named “The Brazen Leader,” and (c) I coach and speak extensively on accountability cultures and what that means.
No, there’s too much, let me sum up:
Yes, I am usually direct in my speaking and coaching style. There’s good reason for that, as most of my clients are C-level, and trying to make a point to them while dancing around the yard is likely to result in eye-rolling, yawning and general disgust. Think really, really, short attention spans.
So, I go straight to the point first, then clean it up if I need to. Spoiler alert – seldom do I need to. Direct people generally need to hear things in a direct fashion. That I enjoy it is just icing on my cake.
It’s true, my blog is named The Brazen Leader (you do read my blog, right? Subscribe and follow now. Do it. See “direct in style” mentioned above). But being brazen doesn’t mean being an asshole.
1. bold and without shame.
In today’s day of milquetoast and timidity, this definition suits me just fine, and should rally all leadership to remember that leadership is a responsibility, an obligation, and a noble calling; that those who follow us don’t need a buddy, commiserator or simpatico.
They didn’t show up looking for a friend—they need us to lead. And that means doing so outwardly… decisively… boldly.
Sure, we should be understanding, and empathy is a hallmark of a successful leader. But being in front means sometimes you get in people’s face. Sometimes tough-love is the best love. And sometimes—just sometimes—it means the loneliness that comes from making the hard calls. The decisions that are best for people and organizations, even if not immediately popular.
It means being bold, and without any shame whatsoever.
It means being Brazen.
Note, I never said be a jerk or an asshole. Be Brazen.
Finally, this whole bit about how holding others (and ourselves) accountable is mean-spirited or somehow offensive needs to go the way of the dodo bird. It just ain’t so. At least, it doesn’t have to be so.
This is the crux of the matter. Holding ourselves accountable isn’t narcissistic, it’s just pulling our weight. Expecting accountability from others isn’t aggressive or forward, it’s compassionate, caring and kind. It’s knowing that we all do better when we expect the best from everyone.
As mentioned above, demonstrable empathy is a true example of successful leadership.
Empathy, at its core, is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling; taking it further, empathy includes caring for other people and having a real desire to help them. And one of the best ways to pull that off in leadership is to be clear with expectations, vicious about providing resources and support, then creating the environment where we hold each other accountable for achieving what we set out to do.
Our ultimate goal is to help each other – to steal from Army recruiting – Be all we can be. Be the best we can be.
For a leader, it means bringing kindness, empathy, and respect; It means using those as levers to help others succeed, to grow and improve.
Grace means courteous good will. Sometimes even unmerited assistance.
Accountability means personal ownership of a specific expectation or result.
You still wrestling with the memory of that bully giving you a wedgie on the crowded playground at recess in the 4th grade*? I’m probably not your guy.
I’m not a psychologist, I didn’t play one on TV, and I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And though I have no doubt that many of my coaching interactions sometimes feel like therapy to clients, they aren’t, and my endgame is always helping execs become better leaders and better versions of themselves.
Now, with that out of the way… a reasonably common refrain among managers of all levels and ilk is this phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome. Simply put (see “I’m not a psychologist” above), it’s feeling like you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, and that when discovered for what you really are, folks will judge you to be unworthy – an imposter who only achieved their position through sleight of hand, guile and chicanery.
Curiously, I see it frequently among those who appear most competent and successful. In other words, people who have likely proven their worth a multitude over.
Now, those who know me know I’m fairly direct, and have heard me use and apply Bob Newhart’s Stop It! video about a bazillion times, and this would be no different; feeling like you’re an imposter? Stop it!
Well, at least we know now why I’m no psychologist. I’d have to drive an Uber to feed myself.
But to those who face this malady, and it does sometimes seem significant to those affected, I offer a few pieces of advice:
Open your freakin’ eyes. My clients hear me frequently admonish with the question, “What’s your evidence of that?” Look, if you want to think you’re unworthy or a fraud, or believe that you haven’t actually done anything significant, I’d ask you to look around – do you not see the results of any of your efforts? Are people in your charge not better off? Are results/metrics/goals/objectives not being achieved?
They are, and those data points are what NCIS people call “evidence.” Not necessarily proof positive, put it’s in the same ballpark.
No risk, no reward. If you believe you’re a phony, and that others may sleuth around and pick up on it, you’re likely going to keep your head down, and try to stay off the radar. Lots of status quo in that world, and few leaders succeed being satisfied with status quo day-in, day-out.
There’s risk in leadership – get a helmet. If you are risk-averse because of a non-evidentiary belief, then prepare yourself; the real failure you experience won’t be nearly as imaginary.
Finally, you’re just not that clever. If you hold a reasonably senior role in an organization, do you realize how many people you have to be convinced bought your line of bullshit to reach that level? You actually think that, through your fear of being discovered, you managed to hide your incompetence, lack of delivery, and inability to provide necessary leadership to the throngs of managers and executives that promoted, mentored and supported you throughout your career to date?
Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds? “Why yes, Kevin, I completely buffaloed a Senior Director, an Ops VP and successful CEO in my meteoric – but completely baseless – ascension to this role.”
Seriously? Let me repeat – you’re just not that clever.
I understand – feeling less than fully worthy is no laughing matter (well, an occasional chuckle could be a pick-me-up); I get it. And no doubt it feels pretty real to those who experience that frustration.
But if you have no evidence of such tomfoolery, and you’ve not been cold-busted trying to do something you were obviously and completely ill-equipped to do, then cut yourself some slack.
Thinking you’re honored with a promotion is a good thing.
Humility in leadership is positive, and can be somewhat rare.
Realizing others could probably do the job at least as well as you is not an unreasonable thought, even if those promoting you felt different.
But believing that observable evidence is false? That you can lead others (and functions) while burying your head in the sand? That everyone else must have been a moron or you wouldn’t be here?
You gotta admit, it does seem a bit far-fetched.
Congrats on the role/position/responsibilities. You deserve them, and I have every confidence you’ll do well.
* Now, if you were humiliated when your 2nd grade girlfriend announced she didn’t like you anymore, we can definitely work together (Thanks, Robbie, I’m still working through that trauma).
The title above is from a book of the same name by Henry Alford, who tries to showcase the purpose and principles of this modern guide to manners — and what’s happened to them in our crazy-fast, interconnected culture. A major premise of his book is for us to know the things we should stop doing, hence the name.
And damn, is it appropriate for leadership success.
When coaching clients, there’s only a couple of ways to help them become demonstrably better at leading: Start doing things they haven’t been doing or Stop doing things they shouldn’t be doing.
In my experience, it’s infinitely easier – and a hell of a lot faster – to stop doing something than it is to learn, internalize and demonstrate a new behavior.
Why? Well, it’s likely some simple human-behavior-psychology mumbo-jumbo or such, but for me, it’s mostly just common sense. For instance:
There’s just too many of them. When your leadership scope is significant, there’s just too many of ‘em. You can stop doing something that everyone knows is a bonehead behavior, or you can ask 100-10,000 people what new change they would like to see in you and get potentially 1,000 distinct answers.
Are you ready to execute to 1,000 new behavior changes? I’m sure as hell not.
Much simpler to work at stopping the 1-2 less-than-positive behaviors we identified in our 360 survey; the results are usually consistent, and we get credit for trying, even if we don’t eliminate the behavior completely.
It ain’t baggage if you don’t carry it around.
All leaders are lugging around various pieces of baggage from our past – some real, some perceived. Some are small carry-on, under-the-seat sized; others are honkin’-big valet-carried, excess-weight, $75 checked bags.
Either way, it’s easier to jettison that baggage – knowing you won’t have to lug it anymore – than to try and make everyone forget about the baggage with new smoke and mirrors.
It’s like kids eating their vegetables. They don’t want to, but they’ll do it — but only because they have to, and mainly just to stay out of trouble.
Convincing some leaders to do new things is equally hard. Many times, they think others will see them as “soft,” or worse, “weak.” Other times, they may feel like they’re giving in to the entitlement mentality (don’t even get me started on how ubiquitous across all generations that can be).
Then there are the test-drives – trying out new behaviors, multiple times on multiple people, all to see if it works for them.
On the other hand, simply refraining from doing something seems altogether easier, and feels more like altering others’ perceptions than changing their personal, specific behaviors.
It’s a win all around.
Finally, no “Stop It” commentary can possibly be published without mention of Bob Newhart’s famous Stop It skit from Saturday Night Live. I use it with most of my coaching clients, and I’s funny as hell. A keeper.
In changing your leadership impact now – immediately – today – focus on what you can stop doing, allowing yourself the time to add “start doing” behaviors over time.
A couple of years or so ago, I wrote an article about what you lose when you ascend into senior leadership (especially CXO-level). You may gain a lot – dinero, status, authority, new biz cards, etc. – but you also lose a few things. One of those things I wrote about was your ability to merely suggest.
You lose that right when you join the senior leader ranks, since your suggestions will almost always be implemented – much to your feigned shock. Your suggestions sound like, well, more than just suggestions. And even if they didn’t, it’s easy to draw a line between your suggestions and “I thought that’s what you wanted,” and making the boss happy is a small price to pay to get you out of my hair or off my ass.
Oops, did I say that last line out loud?
It’s true, though, that your suggestions sound less like spit-balling, brain-storming or thinking out loud, and more like “Here’s what you should do.” It just is – deal with it.
There’s also that big, honkin’ tail you lug around behind you.
You know what I mean.
Abrupt changes in direction from your position create massive movements, ripples, and gnashing of teeth at every level below you on that chiseled-in-sand org chart of yours. You unilaterally make what you think is a minor course correction, and that “tail” of yours causes plans to shift, objectives to be altered, directives to be rescinded, even people to be hired or fired.
That’s some big tail.
Back in the days when we could travel… <sigh>, people wearing backpacks on their backs while navigating airplane aisles would irritate the crap out of me. Like a protruding shell on a turtle’s back, these ignoramuses would whip around to talk to someone or eyeball an open overhead bin, oblivious to the carnage being caused by that rip-stop nylon bulge affixed just above their butt.
That suitcase-sized lump on their back acted just like that senior leader tail I mention above. Ignorant of the impact to others, whipping around that tail can cause damage far greater than just a pissed off couple of passengers in first class.
And don’t think for a minute that, as long as you don’t change course quickly, the tail is harmless. Just having that tail causes consternation. A couple of real-world examples:
You want to go visit the office in Dubuque. Your regional VP calls the office ahead of you, tells them you’re coming, and to “get the place cleaned up.”
That honklin’ big tail of yours…
You stroll down the hall, feeling generous since there’s a hole in your schedule, deciding now would be a good time to have a little personal chat with another senior leader. You poke your head in, ask if she’s got a minute, and 30 minutes later you leave, content that you’ve nurtured the relationship and shown that you care.
In reality, you just cost her 30 minutes she’ll never get back and was probably planning on using for something meaningful.
But your damned honkin’ big tail got in the way.
I don’t tell you these things so you’ll intentionally avoid making priority shifts, course corrections or plan changes. I don’t do it so you won’t go to Dubuque or take some time to chat with another senior leader about softball schedules and their secret stash of Blanton’s.
Just realize, there’s this honkin’ big tail behind you, and take the swath it makes into account when you do these things. Understand that, try as you might, that thing is going to swing wide in your wake, and create some turbulence no matter how much you wish it to be different.
Be aware, acknowledge the impact, and be prepared for (and demand) lots of inputs from those affected.
Both before and after swinging that thing.
Sort of a “Tail Mitigation Initiative.” TMI for short.
And after thinking about the backpack bozos on United, maybe I don’t really miss traveling after all…
As the consultant, I’m supposed to offer advice, coaching and counsel to my clients. They pay me to bring a concentrated expertise and specific judgment that likely don’t exist in their organization.
But there goes another year-end, and I have to say I learned a ton from my clients this past year. Some of it completely useless and won’t be shared here (you know who you are); other morsels of wisdom have been found to be surprisingly valuable, and I thought I’d share those tidbits with you today.
2020 Lessons Learned from my Clients – the Top 10:
With no proven experts, all inputs matter. I don’t care who you are, how much you’ve learned since March or how others are fawning over your apparently newfound wisdom. No one knew shit about a pandemic when this started. No one had a roadmap for dealing with all the drama, the virus, the social distancing, masks and so on. So, since no one knew anything, we took input from everyone. Admittedly, some input turned out to be snake oil. But the fact we asked and listened to everyone – from college kids to CEOs, and everyone was on a fairly level playing field — we muddled through it.
We need to get better at setting clear results-based expectations. C’mon, admit it. Most executives inexperienced with wholesale work from home were afraid. Not of required work not getting done – we had decent measures for most of the really important stuff. No, we were afraid that some employees may actually be sitting at home NOT working during work hours. Even if they were getting the job done. Ask 100 execs if they are “activity” people or “results” people. 100/100 will claim to be results-focused, all the while wondering whether Jim is working or actually watching All My Children (is that still on?).
I’ve got a cutting-edge idea… set clear expectations for results, identify some general parameters (say, a meeting Wednesday at 10:00), then hold people accountable for results.
C’mon, just take a couple of Xanax; you can do it!
Flexibility is most important. See #2 above. Assuming no deadline to the contrary, what do you care if something gets done at 3:00 in the afternoon or 3:00 in the morning? Desired results in a quality fashion – that’s all that matters. We’ve learned that flexibility with employees is critical… and simply human. If it matters to them and doesn’t impact you, learn to say yes. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.
People need people. We are social beings, and that’s never been made as true as during this apocalypse. We lost the ability to easily go face-to-face and had zoom thrust upon us. Suck it up. It’s the new “new.” We’ve had to figure out how to maintain those social needs without physical proximity. We’re texting people in our organizations who prior to the birth of the Maskasaurus didn’t even have our cell number. We have video happy hours (mine are outside, and involve cigars), and even video dinners. People need people, but we ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Connections can come in many flavors. Some are meetings, which slightly resemble old meetings (by the way, if your ‘new’ meetings on video are identical to your ‘old’ meetings in person, you’re doing it wrong), some are simply direct contacts. Either way, we take ‘em where we can get ‘em.
Leadership must be visible. Never as true than it is today. Be it video, face-to-face, slack, text or smoke signals, leadership has never needed to be as visible as it is today. Folks need to know that we understand their challenges, that we’re here for them when needed, and frankly, that we give a shit about what they’re going through. You can still be out front while sitting in front of a webcam.
Facts beat assumptions – ASK. This isn’t new, but it certainly has become painfully obvious. Not everyone reacts the same to crisis. Not everyone needs the same support while working from home. Not everyone has a good webcam, coffee before 8:00am, or makeup before 8:30. See #3 about flexibility, then get good at asking. Don’t assume you know what someone needs without a conversation, since, in all likelihood, you’re gonna guess wrong.
Empathy rocks. To coin a trite phrase likely coined by some trite consultant, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Empathy is a muscle – exercise it, you’ll get good at it. Or at least better. We need folks to perform, even with the world seemingly coming to an end. And since we still need them, it’s pretty fair that they still need us. Meeting them where they are – understanding that their burdens, though different from yours, are just as heavy – goes a long way to making things flow. Besides, humans care about humans (ignore the politicians).
Pivot – think Jiu Jitsu, not MMA. Resilience is overrated. Wait a minute, hear me out… Resilience as commonly defined is our ability to overcome or recover from obstacles. In other words, to take whatever life dishes out, then move on without having a breakdown of sorts. Change that thinking a bit. Our best clients have learned to take the momentum from change and adversity, embrace it, then pivot that energy to a well-thought new direction.
Not just a reactive mode of “you hit, I bleed,” but more like, “you throw a punch, I deflect it and make you fall on your ass.” See? Different.
The world stops for nothing. This shouldn’t have been such a learning opportunity, but it was. Remember when Covid first hit? Most thought, “oh well, we’ll hunker down, it’ll pass, and we’ll move on. ”Yeah, HAHAHA! Riiiight…It’s still here. We had to find ways to continue our course, or as one client said, “We need to return to the business of running our business.”
Just a list of 10 of the most significant lessons I learned from my clients in 2020. Some of them, it seems, are pretty sharp.