A Leadership Kick in the Ass
How to Learn from Rough Landings, Blunders, and Missteps
By Bill Treasurer
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2017 Bill Treasurer
All rights reserved.
Ain't That a Kick in the Pants
Isn't it funny how obvious and oblivious are so close?
— Author unknown
My work with leaders sometimes involves inviting the leader's direct reports to purposely kick him or her in the keister. One of the most effective ways of doing this is having the leader go through a 360-degree feedback process, where the people they are leading rate the leader's style and performance. The raters often include the leader him- or herself and the leader's boss(es), peers, and direct reports — hence a "360-degree" view. The feedback uses an anonymous survey consisting of quantitative data and qualitative (open-ended) questions. The idea is that people are likely to give more honest answers if they don't feel threatened that the leader will retaliate against them for their honesty. A leader's self-perception can be quite biased, so involving the broader perspective of others can be a useful development tool. While 360-degree surveys aren't perfect, having administered hundreds of them over the years, I've seen them result in positive leadership change. Sometimes dramatically so.
To be sure, it takes courage to subject oneself to a leadership 360. The feedback can be raw and hurtful. In rare instances raters will use the process as a way to get back at a leader they don't like. But mostly the feedback is helpful because it allows the leader to illuminate blind spots that may be blocking his or her effectiveness.
Sometimes Even a Butt Kick Won't Work
Meet Bruce. Bruce is a headstrong senior executive in the construction industry. He is physically imposing (six foot four) and socially dominant. He is the proverbial bull in the china shop, viewing nearly every interaction with clients, subcontractors, and direct reports ("subordinates") as a competition to be won. While Bruce has developed a strong track record of taking on the toughest and most complex projects, he also has a well-earned reputation as a controlling hard-ass who has left a trail of human wreckage in his wake.
As is often the case with leaders like Bruce, a lot of pent-up frustration spewed forth in his 360. Though he rated himself nearly perfect on every leadership question (giving himself nines and tens on a ten-point scale), the people rating him gave him ones and twos. The qualitative comments were just as bad, including one from his boss, who called him "petulant" and "irrational." One direct report called him a "blockhead," and another said he was a "brute."
Less surprising than the stark feedback was Bruce's reaction to it. He basically blew it off. He dismissed it as sour grapes from mediocre performers. It wasn't him, it was them! They were just slackers and complainers who couldn't keep up. And if it weren't for him, nothing would get done. Even when slapped with overwhelming and illuminating evidence of the need for Bruce to change, he chose to stay obnoxiously loyal to his ignorance. Blockhead was an apt description!
Thank You, Sir! May I Have Another?
Now meet Derek. Like Bruce, Derek works in the construction industry but for a larger company. He is a senior project manager who typically leads large civil engineering projects such as water treatment plants and hydroelectric dams. Derek's 360 was even more scathing than Bruce's. Words that popped out of his report included hot-tempered, explosive, unapproachable, aggressive, edgy, harsh, and impersonal. Rater comments included the following:
* Derek's a good talker and not a good listener. He will cut you off before you can finish making a point.
* He has a habit of self-promoting and blowing his own horn.
* He cuts people down in a derogatory way ... often in front of other people.
To be sure, the feedback stung Derek. At first he got a little defensive. Then he got quiet. Then he got inquisitive, asking, "How do these results compare to my peers?"
"Not too well," I confessed.
After more silence, he said, "Okay. What do I need to do?"
"Get to work," I replied.
For the next six months Derek and I spent ninety minutes every other Tuesday focused on improving his leadership. He'd use his own work situations as a petri dish to experiment with different approaches. He'd have small homework assignments, such as thinking about leaders who had left a positive and/or negative impression on him, reading leadership articles, and clarifying the kind of leader he would be proud to be. He also kept a leadership journal, reflecting on such questions as, "Why, exactly, do you want to lead others?" "What, exactly, qualifies you to lead others?" and "In what ways, exactly, would you like to make a positive difference in the lives of those whom you lead?" The key was for Derek to get as specific as possible. Hence the heavy emphasis on the word "exactly."
During our coaching sessions it also became clear that lack of self-care was an issue. Beyond work, he didn't have a life. All he did was work. He didn't make time to work out, he had no social life, and he was full of anxiety. It was easy to see why people didn't like working for him — he was a tightly coiled ball of stress, on the verge of springing loose at any moment. So we made caring for himself (self-leadership) a top priority, including joining a gym and setting aside an hour of uninterrupted "me time" at least twice a week.
Becoming a healthier, stronger, and more effective leader takes a genuine investment in yourself. Even still, the payoffs aren't instantaneous. While Derek made real improvements during our coaching time, I didn't learn how fully he had grown until some five years later. One of the advantages of having long-term consulting relationships with my leadership development clients is that I get to work with successive generations of leaders. Often the new leaders who are participating in a leadership program today were led by leaders who went through the program years before. I had originally met Derek when he was a participant in a two-year leadership program I had developed for his company. Five years after completing the program, two of Derek's direct reports got accepted to the same program. Both of them talked about what a great mentor he had become for them, how he was a positive influence on their careers, and how they hoped to lead like him someday. In my work with leaders, few things are as gratifying to hear as how a leader with whom you've worked has now become a positive influence on a new generation of leaders. Leadership is really working when leaders create new leaders.
Becoming a healthier, stronger, and more effective leader takes a genuine investment in yourself.
The difference between the reactions of Bruce and Derek to tough feedback comes down to courage. Not the kind of courage that it takes to fight, compete, or charge a hill, but the kind of courage that it takes to soberly see yourself as you really are. It's courage of a more vulnerable kind. It's the courage it takes to loosen the grip on your need to be right or perfect and admit that you are the main source of your problems and ineffectiveness. This is the courage of capitulation, disarmament, and surrender. Your old ways have lost, and unless you adopt new ways of leading, you will continue to lose over and over again. This is the courage it takes to own your leadership life. We'll explore this idea further in chapter 9.
Bruce is a grizzled fighter. Throughout his career he succeeded by outdominating and controlling others. He willed his way into building hard and complex jobs. Building the job always came first. It's where the money was made. Why should he care what people thought of him? He built the biggest and most profitable projects in the company. His exceptional results proved that he was a good leader. Based on Bruce's perspective, it's understandable that he would choose to reject his 360 feedback rather than to accept responsibility for changing.
But in rejecting the feedback of the people who had directly experienced his leadership, Bruce made the deliberate choice not to grow. Choosing otherwise would mean chipping away at his blockhead and cracking open a deeper truth about his successes; the money he made for the company had come at a great cost in human suffering. Yes, Bruce had made a lot of money for the company. But he had also cost the company a lot of money in the form of low morale, high turnover, and lost leadership potential. Not admitting that hard truth was easier than changing. Ultimately, Bruce was a coward. By failing to take responsibility for his leadership failings, he spared himself the discomfort that change causes. By not changing, Bruce was free to do more damage to the people he was charged with leading. Leadership arrogance always exacts a price.
Derek, conversely, took the more courageous path of self-discovery. He soberly looked at the leader he had become and didn't like what he (and others) had seen. He wanted to be a better leader, and that would require adopting a new leadership mind-set and awkwardly trying new leader behaviors. Rather than entrench himself against the marauding feedback invaders like Bruce did, he decided to do the legwork of improving himself. He used the feedback as a baseline against which he could gauge future progress. By using the feedback that way, he evolved from a bad leader to a good one. The difference between Bruce and Derek is that Derek used the lessons drawn from his humiliating 360 feedback to bring about positive leadership changes in himself. In his case, humiliation brought about personal transformation.
Now Discover Your Butt
There's been a lot written about "strength-based" development approaches in recent years. You're better off building on your natural strengths and talents, research suggests, than trying to improve your weaknesses. The usefulness of the strength-based approach explains its popularity. It makes good sense: put yourself in situations where your gifts and talents can be put to good use, and you'll increase the likelihood of being successful. As the great motivational theorist Abraham Maslow said, "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself."
What makes an ass kicking so painful (and useful) is that it shines a red-hot light on the parts of yourself that are holding you back and legitimately need development, often the aspects of yourself that you'd rather avoid or didn't even know existed.
Building on your strengths works best if you have a realistic hold on what your strengths actually are. Pinpointing your strengths takes a careful assessment of the totality of your makeup, and that includes acknowledging what you're not actually good at. The challenge is that our self-perception is often rosy or cloudy, causing some people to highlight the brighter aspects (while minimizing the darker elements), and others to do the opposite. What makes an ass kicking so painful (and useful) is that it shines a red-hot light on the parts of yourself that are holding you back and legitimately need development, often the aspects of yourself that you'd rather avoid or didn't even know existed. Sometimes the kick illuminates the parts of yourself that need pruning or uprooting altogether. Absent the illumination that the kick provokes, your view of your strengths is, at best, inaccurate or incomplete.
Sunshine and Shadows
Strengths are good things. Until they aren't. Past a certain point, our strengths start to cast a shadow. The leader who is comfortable speaking in public may come to hog attention. The leader who is a gifted critical thinker may become overly critical of others. The leader who is great interpersonally may place too much emphasis on subjective criteria when making decisions.
Every leader should develop and nurture his or her unique gifts and talents. To be fully developed as a leader, though, you need to go further. Every leader needs to be keenly aware that strengths can become overly potent, sometimes toxically so. The strength of drive can give way to dominance, which can become the weakness of intimidation. Likewise, the strength of confidence can slip over into the weakness of arrogance. Every leader is made up of sunshine and shadows. Paying attention only to the shiny parts of your leadership causes your shadow to grow, practically ensuring a kick in the saltshaker.
The ego's first job is self-preservation. In Bruce's case, his ego contributed to his not even being able to look at how his strengths had in fact become weaknesses. Bruce's strength at controlling and dominating the job had spilled over to his controlling and dominating people. While his win-at-all-costs drive contributed to his building big jobs, it also contributed to his losing great people. His competitive zeal resulted in his winning a lot. But it also came at the expense of everyone else around him having to lose. Admitting all that would mean deconstructing everything that, at least in his mind, had made Bruce successful. His ego simply couldn't allow for that. Changing would have required skills that he just didn't have and wasn't ready to learn. It would have meant learning how to be vulnerable, cooperative, and not in control. It would have taken a much harder ass kicking to make Bruce want to change.
And that's exactly what happened. Within two years of going through the 360 process, Bruce got sacked. The people he had led had gotten wiser, older, and less willing to take it. A few of them had themselves moved into leadership positions, and no longer felt the need to subjugate themselves to Bruce's heavy-handedness. People started complaining about Bruce more vocally to the senior executives above him. The din of the mutiny was too loud for his bosses to ignore, so out the door Bruce went. (Of course, in his eyes, it was their fault.)
How to Handle a Kick in the Butt
How does what you read about Bruce and Derek relate to you? Think back to the last time you learned a lesson the hard way. How did you react? Did you make changes to become better and stronger? Or did you entrench yourself in the conviction of your rightness? Here are some quick tips for ensuring that you're ready to benefit from whatever kicks you may next endure:
* Focus on the long game. A kick is just a momentary speed bump on your longer leadership career. The spike in pain will eventually yield to worthwhile lessons and changes. Focus on where you ultimately want your career to end up, not the detour it may have taken.
* Learn from your feelings. Pay close attention to the feelings that come up for you after you get kicked. Identify what you're feeling, precisely. Do you feel embarrassed, fearful, resentful, or something else? Then ask yourself, "What information is this feeling trying to give me?" and "What is the lesson this feeling is trying to teach me?"
* Remember, discomfort=growth. Comfort may be comfortable, but it's also stagnant. You don't grow in a zone of comfort. You grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort. The more uncomfortable the kick feels, the more growth can result.
* Broaden your view of courage. Being vulnerable, open, and receptive to change is a form of courage. Hard-charging types wrongly see courage as being fearless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Courage is fearful. The simplest definition of courage is "acting despite being afraid." Courage requires fear. As long as you keep moving forward, it's when there's a knot in your stomach, a lump in your throat, and sweat on your palms that your courage is doing its job.
* Don't be oblivious to yourself. How much might it be costing you to remain loyal to your ignorance? Self-exploration and discovery can be painful, but what is more painful in the long run is being a stunted human being, incapable of acknowledging, assimilating, or shoring up your shortcomings.
* Be your own project. Lots of people lead projects better than they lead themselves. Think about what it takes to lead a great project. You start by identifying your desired outcomes, you put together a timeline and pinpoint critical milestones, you marshal the resources the project will need to be successful, and you identify metrics to track progress. Guess what? You can manage your kick recovery the exact same way. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Leadership Kick in the Ass by Bill Treasurer. Copyright © 2017 Bill Treasurer. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.