Leadership — Let's Get personal

It was early in my career and I was a very junior officer in the Royal Air Force Regiment in a live combat situation. I was trying desperately to learn the ‘ropes’ while avoiding as many disasters as I could. Needless to say, I wasn’t always successful!

My commanding officer was an aloof and dispassionate man, precise in his style, rigid in approach and unforgiving in his attitude. I worked extremely hard – to stay out of trouble, out of his hair and, above all, away from his direct attention. I knew that, unlike the proverbial cat, I would have but one life. The first time I’d fail would also be the last.

After almost a year of this hell I was seconded together with my forty men to temporary duties with another commander for a six week period in a remote and highly exposed location. My new commanding officer had a reputation for exceptional performance under fire – he was a legend. As I presented myself for his initial inspection I was quaking in my boots, literally.

Our first conversation probably lasted all of ten minutes and I cannot recall any part of what he told me, nor am I clear on what I did as a result of this briefing. What I do remember, as though it was just yesterday, is how I felt as I left his bivouac!

He had shown a deep and genuine interest in me as a person. He didn’t address the Flight Commander role I played or the junior officer that I was supposed to be. He spoke to me; me the person, the apprehensive, uncertain, concerned, confused and yet passionate young man who was overwhelmingly worried that he was going to fall short of expectations.

He helped me to discover some things about my limited knowledge and skills, but much more about my will-power, my values and beliefs that were going to serve me and my men as we faced the daunting and dangerous operational challenges ahead of us.

He made me feel that we could succeed and that our contribution would be an essential part of the total unit’s success. He let me know his expectations and also that he believed in me, perhaps a little more than I believed in myself.

My focus shifted immediately – it took no more than ten minutes; all the concerns of the previous ten months evaporated like the morning mist. Now I really knew the expectations, not just his expectations of me but also mine of myself. He had moved my frame of reference one hundred and eighty degrees – simply by placing me as a person above and beyond the role that I represented.

The lesson here for business leaders is clear - leadership is not a right, a role or a responsibility – it’s a relationship. The leadership ‘switch’ is located inside other people – it’s their awareness of and belief in you and to find it you’ll need to focus on them.

Focusing on People . . .

At first blush, this seems like a contradiction. You should focus on them so that they become aware of you?

To understand how this actually occurs we need to consider some basics on how our minds work. Most of us recognize that we use two minds at the same time – our conscious / rational mind and our unconscious mind. They are independent of one another and operate in completely different ways.

The one we are most aware of and, therefore, attempt to control is the conscious mind. It is the slower, less competent of the two but at least we can influence it directly. This gives us the illusion of control.

The unconscious mind, on the other hand, is remarkably competent and ultra-fast but we are mostly unaware of its operation and we have no direct access to it. It can express itself through our conscious mind although the majority of its decisions are relayed in ways we cannot influence and so we are generally ignorant of its impact.

The problem is that it’s our unconscious mind that dictates most of our behavior – and we’re largely unaware of what it’s doing to represent us. Other people, on the other hand, have practically no access to our conscious mind and this includes our intentions, but they are very much aware of our manifested behavior.

So their responses are based on what they can observe, not on whatever it may be that we are intending. What they see and act upon then can be significantly different from what we might want.

Since we cannot see our own behavior independently of our intentions, while others can, we are obliged to use them as a mirror. This gives us the ability to see ourselves as others see us – if we are sensitive to their responses. This is a God-given gift, as the immortal bard tells us, and one we should value highly.

As leaders we are vitally interested in other peoples’ responses; our first task being to focus the need for change that may exist within them. We cannot ‘see’ their intentions but we can see their responsive behaviors – the product of their unconscious minds which they, in turn, cannot see for themselves. We stimulate, they respond; based on what response we see, we stimulate again and they, in turn, respond again.

If we note those response cues that attract them, versus those which repel or create avoidance, we will be able to access their self motivation in a positive and sustainable way. As my sainted Scottish aunt said so often, "Ye’ll attract more flies wi’ honey than wi’ vinegar, laddie”

Making It Work . . .

If our intention is to influence the behaviors of others, we must focus first on attracting them to bring them into our locus of control. To achieve this we have to appeal to the factors which create safety, security, inclusiveness, pleasure and well-being – the positive motivators or ‘attractors’. As we do this we must avoid those factors which cause discomfort, uncertainty, social exclusion and pain – the things they wish to avoid.

This is especially important because these negative factors are approximately four times more powerful or influential than their positive counterparts. This is a legacy from our long distant past when our life might well have depended on our ability to detect and respond to danger, threats and challenges, like sabre-toothed tigers and other predators.

Today, the threats are a lot less obvious. We do not expect to be confronted by tigers as we look for lunch but we can and will generate similar, visceral-level responses to a veiled threat or social slight from someone in authority.

The environment may not appear to be as dangerous as it once was but our minds still anticipate and respond to threats with powerful intensity. We’re unlikely to lose our life to predators today, but we can and do lose other things that might compare – our self esteem, material wealth, reputation, dignity or our social standing. In the face of such potential losses we will respond instinctively and definitively.

Clearly, it’s a full-time job just to stay out of trouble in our dealings with others; we all represent a potential threat on so many fronts and at all times. To secure and retain positive attention demands a whole lot more than simply not threatening or even offending others; we need to prove that we represent a safe, consistent and pleasurable benefit that’s focused on their welfare and well-being.

It sounds as though this could take extended time, and on occasions, this is true. It can also happen in seconds or minutes, however. First impressions, for good or bad, are realized in extremely brief time-frames and they can be lasting. If there’s a relationship already established, then extensive, prolonged and consistent exposures may be required to change any negative impressions.

While first impressions are different, they are not always clear-cut. Previous experiences guide us all; we create generic expectations and anticipations that are both good and bad and sometimes these can interfere with fresh encounters – we all have biases. To master these we need to know our self and particularly the stories that we tell ourselves about the world around us; these stories are intended to be protective but they can also be limiting and deceptive.

The easiest way to avoid the pitfalls and to establish safe ground is to shift the point of focus to the other person or onto the situation. ‘Knocking at someone’s door’ and politely asking to be allowed to visit with them will appeal to their innate desire to be hospitable. Like all ‘guests’ though, we must behave sensitively and not be too intrusive or overstay our welcome.

A Visitor’s Credentials . . .

Permit me to suggest six areas where we could make a world of difference in how we are perceived by others. To make the right impression and thereby attract their confidence and trust in you as the leader there are two inside jobs, two actions and two intentions that warrant our attention.

Starting with the inside jobs, we must be self aware. We have to discover who we are and what it is we really want; we must know ourselves. This means formulating a crystal clear idea of who we aspire to be, knowing the level of our desire and commitment and secure in our efficacy to achieve this.

Such self knowledge builds inner confidence and clarity of purpose that others can see for themselves. It makes us credible, trustworthy and authentic in the eyes of others and will attract them to our agenda. To become and remain credible and consistent we must pay close attention to the stories we carry in our heads that explain the world around us – these need to be credible and consistent or they will betray us.

Armed with this self-knowledge we now have to develop an awareness of others. This will entail seeking out, understanding and appreciating how and why their perspectives and perceptions might differ from ours. The differences are not a threat as long as we are secure in our own and thus can allow others to challenge us.

The visible manifestation of this open relationship is the presence of genuine interest in and respect for others. Their challenges on our positions should not be considered a threat but rather an opportunity for us, and them, to develop synergies, new perspectives and broader horizons. In this way the relationship between us will grow and prosper to mutual advantage.

The first of the two actions is to seek out and explore common ground.  What is it that we share with others; what principles, aspirations, passions, goals, standards and processes do, or could we have in common?

In an organization these may well be the strategic intent and corporate objectives that form the strategic and operating plans; in a profession they are spelled out in the admission codes of practice; in an initiative they can be detected in shared outcomes or results. They need to be thoroughly and continuously discussed and practiced so that they will serve as the markers on the horizon that will move everyone forward in the same direction

Next we need to develop capacity in our self as well as in others. Sharing opportunities for growth and development, remaining open to new ideas, fully considering the input of others, creating value through consensus and actively supporting and reinforcing others’ contribution is a powerful bond. People that grow together (develop), grow together (bond).

Lastly the two intentions, the first of which is to create other leaders - adherence to the prime directive for every leader; the second is to build and sustain hope through the ongoing demonstration of quiet enthusiasm, sensitive empathy and reasoned optimism.  These are the credentials of the real and authentic leader

The Bottom Line . . .

Are you authentic? Are you really focused on what’s real in yourself and in those you would lead? If you are not focused on others why would you expect them to respond to you and your interests?

Focus on others; find, create and nurture success in them as real persons and you will profit!  I guarantee it!

Think about it!


I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.