|Publisher:||New World Library|
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Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.
— ST. AUGUSTINE (354–430), author of The City of God
Even before the advent of the internet, "communication" was the number-one problem identified in surveys of organizational challenges. It's usually at the top of most lists of personal challenges as well. Let's begin with a simple exercise that illuminates the problem.
Please get a piece of blank paper and a pen or use your computer or digital device to make a list numbered 1 to 10. In a moment you'll get a word to write at the top of the list.
As soon as you've written that word, please write the first ten words you think of related to the word at the top. Put down your first ten associations with that top word as quickly as you can, without judging or editing. In a word-association exercise there are no wrong answers.
Ready? The word is: art.
After you complete your ten word associations, consider the associations that might have been written for the same word by one of your peers, your spouse, your best friend, or your boss. How many words would you have in common with that person? Most people are surprised to discover the differences that appear when they compare their results with others'. It's rare for a group to have much in common at all.
In one group, for example, Jane's first word was Warhol, the name of her favorite visual artist. Jim's first association was Garfunkel, a singer whose first name is Art. Dinah wrote martial, as she had just begun studying martial arts, while Roger, an aspiring poet, wrote heart and nine other rhyming words. The group was surprised to discover just how different their associations were.
When a group of accountants did this exercise with similar results, they became very upset. They prided themselves on their uniformity and felt that the diversity of their responses to the word mocked their standardized procedures. In their words, "We're not artists; we're accountants." They insisted that they be given a word that had something to do with their work and that they would then produce greater commonality. When they were given the word money, however, they had even less in common.
Occasionally, people do get one or two words in common, but when you explore the results further and ask them to associate ten words with the shared word, you find that they usually meant something different by the common word after all.
The Paradox Every Leader Needs to Understand
Our associations are unique. Even if we belong to a group classified in some way — accountants, artists, teachers, carpenters, secretaries, doctors, lawyers, or Cajun chefs — each of us is an individual. Each of us, as a result of heredity combined with individual experience, construes the world in our own unique way. We each are gifted with a special ability to experience and express the wonder of being alive. There is no one else like you, no one who can think and create exactly as you do.
This diversity is an important expression of the evolutionary process that helps ensure the survival of the species. Given any type of adverse circumstance that may befall humanity, there is probably someone with the special ability to overcome the challenge.
According to the Population Research Bureau (PRB), approximately 108 billion humans have populated the planet since the advent of the species. Each person who has come and gone was unique, and each of the 7.5 billion people alive today is unique. There's no one like you in all of human history. The combination of your genetic endowment and the way that genetic material is influenced by your life experience results in a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.
And yet, in so many ways, we are all the same. Our basic human needs — for air, food, shelter, security, esteem, love, and so on — are universal. Everyone, everywhere, in every culture wants respect. Leadership is the art of skillfully meeting universal human needs, including the need to be appreciated for being unique and the need for a sense of belongingness and connection.
An Art of Infinite Possibility
Our associations are unique, and they are potentially unlimited. Our minds are capable of linking any thought with any other thought. If you doubt this, try to find a word that cannot be linked to the word art. No matter how hard you search for an unrelatable word, you'll discover that your mind can connect anything to anything else.
The exercise of finding unrelatable words is particularly fun when framed as a competition. For example, when a group of biochemists were challenged to think of a word that "could not, in any way, be related to art," one clever PhD suggested that antidisestablishmentarianism couldn't be linked to art. But another erudite member of the group pointed out that the word means "opposition to the disestablishment of orthodox churches," which opposed, among other things, the practice of many popular arts. Someone else mentioned that the word antidisestablishmentarianism actually contains the letters of the word for art. Another person explained that you can automatically connect this or any other strange word with art as a member of that class of words you don't normally associate with art.
Your mind can connect anything with anything else and can make a potentially infinite number of connections with any word you hear or read, but your way of associating, of making connections, is unique. This is good news if you are interested in creative thinking. If every individual has the capacity to generate unlimited associations, and each person has a unique way of doing it, then every group possesses vast potential for ideation.
When it comes to the art of connection, however, the implications are daunting, as the potential for misunderstanding in any communication is also unlimited. My mind is capable of making an unlimited number of associations with every single word that you say, and if your way of saying things and my way of hearing things is unique to each of us, it begins to seem amazing that we can communicate at all.
When we depend on words primarily, misunderstanding is to be expected. One reason that relationships seem to be degrading is that many people rely increasingly on text and email as their means of relating with others. But emoticons do not serve as effective substitutes for the body language, voice tonality, and eye contact that help us understand the context and meaning of words.
Even with the benefit of context, misunderstanding is pandemic. How many times have you had the experience of carefully explaining something to someone, watching him nod in apparent understanding, and seeing him do something entirely different from what you thought you'd agreed upon?
The Telephone Game
Much of our communication is reminiscent of the children's game Telephone, which was a popular party activity when I was a child. I didn't imagine then that I would employ it with groups of corporate executives many years later and that it would be a hilarious and memorable team-building activity that also illuminates a fundamental difficulty in communication.
The game works best with a group of eight or more people. It begins when the facilitator whispers a phrase into the ear of the first player, who then turns and whispers it into the ear of the next person, and so on. (The whisper should be soft enough so that only the intended recipient can hear the message.) After the message goes around, the last person to receive it states the message aloud. Invariably, the original phrase goes through so much distortion in the process of sharing that the final product is not only different from the original, but often hilariously so.
For example, in a recent session, a group of twelve bankers managed to turn "Robots randomly write regulatory rulebooks" into "Blue bots rewrite regular glory books on domes." The game is amusing and highlights the extent to which our communication is subject to radical misunderstanding.
The Grand Illusion
I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
— ROBERT MCCLOSKEY, former U.S. State Department spokesman
What's the single greatest problem in communication? The illusion that it has taken place successfully! The illusion is pandemic. Misunderstanding, predicated on inaccurate assumptions, is the default setting in human relationships.
Instead of assuming that you have effectively understood someone else or been understood yourself, you can minimize misunderstanding and build relationships more effectively by embracing humility.
Humility Is the Soul of Leadership
I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.
— NELSON MANDELA (1918–2013), former president of South Africa, on February 11, 1990, the day of his release after twenty-seven years of imprisonment
If you are humble, then you will be more curious and open to learning the art of connection. You will be poised to enrich your life by building better relationships.
Humility is the catalyst of curiosity. Curiosity is the driver of continuous learning. Continuous learning is the key to developing the relationship-building skills every leader needs now. Give up assuming that you know what others are thinking and feeling. Assume that you don't know and become curious to learn.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib explain why today's best leaders have to be humble: "In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers." Reporting on a study of more than fifteen hundred global associates of multinational companies, they conclude that humility is a critical leadership factor and that it is especially important "for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included."
What are the specific behaviors associated with being perceived as a humble leader? The key elements include:
encouraging dialogue instead of debate
modeling curiosity by asking questions
Prime and Salib conclude: "When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too."
Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, a professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of Discover Your True North, agrees. He writes, "The finest leaders are keenly aware of their limitations and the importance of teams around them in creating their success." George confesses that early in his career he wasn't humble and admits that his insecurities drove him to act as though he was invulnerable and that he could solve any problem independently.
As he matured, he realized that humility allowed him to connect more effectively with others and thereby to bring out the best in the people he led. He explains:
As my inner confidence grew, I no longer needed to have all the answers or try to impress others with what I had done. I freely admitted my mistakes and learned that doing so enabled others to acknowledge their errors. I recognized vulnerability is power.... As I did so, people gained greaterconfidence in my leadership and expressed increased desire to join me in common pursuits.
Is Vulnerability Weakness or Power?
In a seminar for construction managers, the group engaged in a discussion about the importance of seeking input from work crews on job sites. Joe, a veteran senior project manager, asked, "Won't my people think I'm weak if I ask for their ideas?" This led to a passionate discussion in which many of the younger participants shared their belief that when a boss asks for their contributions, they feel respected and included. As a result, they see this as a sign of strength.
As the discussion continued, it also became clear that, although the more junior members of the group preferred it when their suggestions were acted upon, the most important point was that they felt acknowledged. As one assistant supervisor expressed it: "It is so much better when the line of communication is open, and I feel that I'm being listened to, that someone actually gives a shit."
In the old days of top-down hierarchy, Joe's concern about asking and listening may have been well founded, but that world is fading. Now being open to the influence of others is a key to expanding your influence. American educator and author Stephen R. Covey (1932–2012) emphasizes: "You become vulnerable. It's a paradox ... because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced."
In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown argues that "vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences." She refers to vulnerability as the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.
CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, Walt Bettinger, adds that a leader's real power comes from touching people's hearts and that his growth as a leader demanded that he develop qualities that initially seemed "completely unnatural." As he told the New York Times, "It requires transparency, authenticity, vulnerability."
Vulnerable is derived from the Latin vulnerare, "to wound." Synonyms for vulnerable include weak, helpless, defenseless, sitting duck, and sucker. Bettinger and Brown aren't suggesting that you be a sucker or a sitting duck. Vulnerability isn't timidity or weakness. Rather, it's an acknowledgment that we are sensitive, alive, and affected emotionally by our interactions and experiences.
More helpful words to express this quality include:
Accessible Available Approachable Open Present Receptive Responsive Unarmored
When we are open and accessible, we are able to connect with ourselves, and we make it much easier for others to connect with us.
I learned this lesson years ago, and it was a turning point in my life both personally and professionally. When I was thirty, my career was blossoming. I'd learned how to say wise words and make a positive impression on clients, but my life, especially in the area of intimate relationships, was reflecting the need for personal growth. Although I'd done considerable work on my mind and body, my emotional center hadn't received the same amount of attention. This discrepancy seemed to be playing out in a series of less than fulfilling relationships. After rationalizing that I just hadn't met the right person, I began to consider my own responsibility and asked: "How can I become the right person?" On the recommendation of a friend whose advice I heeded due to the searing accuracy of her critical feedback, I went to see a psychotherapist. This was a stretch since, having been raised by a therapist, going to therapy as a child, and studying psychology for years both academically and practically, I was skeptical, and probably arrogant, about the prospect of finding someone I'd respect.
The minute I walked into Dr. Mort Herskowitz's office, my skepticism and arrogance vanished. There was something about his penetrating gaze, purity of attention, and ease within himself that made it clear, as soon as he looked at me, that I couldn't fool him, and I soon discovered that in his presence I couldn't fool myself. He wasn't interested in anything that wasn't authentic. Mort was an uncompromising mirror of the self.
An osteopathic physician and psychiatrist, Mort trained for nine years with Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), the legendary pioneer of depth psychology. I had studied Reich's theory of character armor, the idea that our stresses and traumas stay locked in our muscles and viscera, but believed I had sorted all that out through years of various mind and body practices. Wrong!
I worked with Mort for the better part of the next twenty years, during which time he helped me surface and fully experience the anxiety, fear, shame, and anger that I didn't even know I had. Where did all this originate? Perhaps it was inherited? Or maybe it came from unresolved childhood frustrations? I don't know. The work with Mort didn't focus on analyzing or understanding the causes; rather, it was about releasing the armor and experiencing more openness and aliveness. As difficult as this was — and it's probably the most difficult work I've ever done — it was liberating.
Excerpted from "The Art of Connection"
Copyright © 2017 Michael J. Gelb.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPreface: Wheels Up!
Intro: The Secret of Health, Happiness and Leadership
1) Embrace Humility: Develop the Common Touch
2) Become a Glow Worm (Emotions are Contagious So Decide What You Will Catch and Spread)
3) Achieve the Three Liberations (Freedom from Like and Dislike, from Taking Things Personally and from Blame)
4) Cultivate Versatility: Apply the Costanza Principle
5) Monitor the Balance of Energy Exchange
6) Be RARE
7)Turn Friction into Momentum
Conclusion: Wheels Down!