Last September we had a pretty significant accident in our home. Our two year old son had his right pinky finger in the hinge of a door when our four year old daughter decided the door needed to be closed. The result was the tip of my son’s finger being cut off and a frantic drive to the hospital for him, my wife, and myself. In order to aid the healing process, my son had to wear a cast which extended not only over top of the injured finger, but all the way down his arm and past his elbow which was at a 90 degree angle. It seems that young children are fond of pulling off protective casts, so extending it that far was necessary.
At one point during his weeks of wearing the cast, my son noticed the he had a small scrape on his leg. It was tiny indeed. I attempted to point out that the “owie” on his leg was nothing compared to his cast. No matter what I said, he was fixated on the tiny bump on his leg. To him the cast was no longer noticeable. It had become the norm.
Seeing as this is a blog about leadership, you might be wondering "What does any of this have to do with leadership?" I’m glad you asked.
Hidden In Plain Sight
No leader I’ve ever worked with had the audacity to say, “I’m a perfect leader. There’s no more growth and development for me to do.” Yet many leaders are blind to the fullness of their shortcomings. They occasionally notice a little bump in the road where they could’ve done things a touch better but they often don't see their more significant and chronic shortcomings. In that sense, they are very much like my young son who saw the small mark on his leg but longer noticed the enormous cast on his arm.
Years come and go. Followers enter and exit the organization. They whisper to each other by the water cooler. They step inside one another’s offices to say, “Hey, you’ve been here a while. How do you deal with (insert the name of the leader’s chronic shortcoming here)?”
The positional authority of leadership is inherently antagonistic to the leader receiving transparent feedback. Even the most well-intentioned of followers can find it extremely difficult to tell the boss about his/her leadership shortcomings, especially when the issue is chronic. To raise such an issue is the equivalent of telling someone at the end of a dinner party that they have some food stuck in their teeth. Not only is there the embarrassment of the moment, but there’s the added pain for all parties in realizing that it's been there all along and no one has told them about it.
So what are we to do? Answer: Proactively pursue the truth.
Three Practical Methods
There's more than one way to proactively pursue the truth about our leadership shortcomings. Below are three methods for doing so and one wise action to take afterwards regardless of which method you pick. You may find these suggestions painfully simple and somewhat obvious yet it is my experience that few leaders utilize them.
Open the Door -- One method for enabling more open dialogue is to proactively tell others about the shortcomings in your leadership that you do see, most especially those of a chronic nature. By going first, you show that it is OK to let the boss know he/she has issues on which to improve.
When that first brave soul steps forward to share feedback, resist every urge you have to be defensive or give explanation for why you might have been misunderstood. Ask as many genuinely curious follow-up questions as you can to understand the depth and nuance of the observation. Then thank that person both privately and publicly for what they’ve shared with you.
Anonymous Survey -- Another potential tool is an anonymous leadership survey. Such surveys can range from hundreds of questions covering numerous leadership categories to just a handful of open-ended questions. These surveys can be extremely effective, especially if they are already an accepted practice within your organization. Such surveys become less effective if followers are leery of whether or not the survey is actually anonymous or if they believe their qualitative survey comments might be traced back to them.
Trusted Interviewer -- A third practice is to assign a trusted person, either inside or outside of your team, to interview those you lead about what it's like to follow you. That person would then share a summary of that feedback with you. Sometimes followers feel more comfortable to share about the regular challenges they experience in following their leaders with a real person who can hear the nuances and caveats they have to share.
Do This No Matter What -- Regardless of which method you choose, a wise follow-up practice is to share back with those you lead the feedback you've received and you're plans to improve. Doing so will increase your chances for receiving helpful and transparent feedback in the future while showing those you lead that you are taking their feedback to heart.
The Win for Everyone
As leaders, our titles and power constantly limit our opportunities to hear the honest truth about our leadership. Without intentional and heartfelt pursuit of that truth, it is unlikely that any of us in leadership positions will get the full story.
Just as my son became so accustomed to the cast on his arm that he longer recognized it as a significant limiter, so too can we become blind to the chronic shortcomings we have as leaders. If we are ever to reach our leadership potential, we must exercise courage, humility, and intentionality to find and hear the truth about ourselves. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. And for most, it’s scary. In the end, though, doing so is a hallmark of great leaders and essential to becoming the best we can be.
PS Our deepest appreciation to Dr. Joshua Ratner, Dr. Manuel Trujillo, the emergency room staff at Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital, our friends the Brown’s, Themelis’s, and Boughey's, and our praying friends and family. All contributed in meaningful ways to our little one's treatment and recovery. My wife and I most especially thank God for making the human body incredibly resilient. (Who knew the tips of fingers could almost completely grow back!?!!) If you’re not squeamish and want to see before and after pictures of our son’s finger, here it is.
Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever followed a leader that was exceptional at creating space and/or process for telling him/her the truth about his/her shortcomings? If so, what did he/she do? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.