Understanding that everyone, including you, perceives their world a little differently can have a major impact on your effectiveness as a leader. This is something that has become clear to me in my 17 years as a Vistage® Chair. When you are in a room with your peers and discuss the issues you face as a leader, you soon realize your world view is exclusive to you alone. Skilled leaders recognize none of us know it all. No one has all the answers. Rather, we must reach out for them. Knowing how to reach out and how to listen to what others offer is an invaluable skill for a leader.
When you acknowledge this truth and learn to really listen to what others can offer you, points of view become contextualized. You come to see your worldview may be limited and soliciting input from others around you may show you new avenues for action. In doing so, you open yourself to new perspectives on your problems you couldn’t have found on your own. This creates real opportunities for learning and growth to take place. The reality is leadership is not always about having a single-minded focus. Rather, real leadership is based on understanding what others can offer.
As I work with leaders as a coach, there are three practices that I encourage in order to develop an active approach to understanding the people with whom they work.
1. Making Productive Use of Assessment Tools
As I’ve just explained, the first step towards becoming a more effective leader is acknowledging other people offer a perspective on the world that can be valuable to you. But how can we access it? One fruitful method is to assess the personalities and thinking styles of your team-members. Some people in your organization might be highly intellectual; others might be very people-oriented. Some might be “left brained” and others “right brained.”
Assessment Tools are routinely used to identify individual thought patterns and personalities. One I find very useful is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI). The HBDI provides you with a map of the results for further analysis and action. This comes in the form of a color coded graph that maps an individual’s thinking preferences. The HBDI helps you understand how your team-members come to their conclusions and actions.
In other words, the HBDI can help you see how your team members see the world. It can identify the logical thinkers on your team or point out who is more prone to imaginative problem solving.
2. Reading… A lot.
Assessment tools like the HBDI give you determinate, usable data about the people with whom you work and interact. Having this sort of data is important. But unless you are the kind of person that can use it effectively, it won’t do much for you on its own. Learning to lead effectively involves achieving a heightened awareness of yourself and how you relate to other people. There is no better way to do this than by reading. And I don’t mean exclusively reading business books.
One book that I recommend is His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage by Willard F. Harley. Although this is a book about building a successful marriage, it offers great insight into the way human relationships work in all sorts of contexts. Harley argues that unless husbands and wives become aware of each other’s specific needs and dedicate themselves to meeting them, either husband or wife will seek to have those needs met by others outside of the marriage. The task lies in knowing what needs are most important to your partner. Otherwise the task of meeting them becomes immeasurably more difficult.
While this insight is most certainly useful in a marriage context, it has equally positive implications in your professional interactions. Any personal relationship, be it a marriage or a business partnership, involves emotional exchanges between two people. Such relationships are always better served when each personality, views of the world, and individual needs are understood. Harley’s book not only makes this point, but also offers up strategies for cultivating successful relationships. For this reason, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource beyond the context for which he wrote it.
This is just one example of a book that can help you reach a better understanding of yourself and your interactions with others. There are many more out there. In addition to business-centered books, Literature, History, Self-Help and Psychology books can help you expand your world-view and become more effective in the relationships that are important to you – in business and in life.
3. Developing a True Life/Work Balance
When most people think about a life/work balance, they usually think about limiting the time they spend at work so that they can pursue their lives elsewhere. I don’t think this is the way we should think about it. Rather, I think we could understand a life/work balance as a way of incorporating our lives into our work and our work into our lives. Life at work and away from it should involve opportunities for personal growth and self-affirmation. For this reason, I strongly encourage leaders to develop interests away from work, but not to think of it as something completely separate from work.
As noted, reading is one example of an interest that is enjoyable in its own right, but can provide insight into the human condition and the nature of human relationships which can be helpful at work. While I recommend reading to all my members, I think it is important to develop other interests as well. Engaging in activities that aren’t immediately connected to what we do at work brings us into contact with all sorts of different kinds of people who share that interest. If we are only ever thinking and talking about work, we might never meet these type of people. In interacting with different kinds of people, we become more attuned to what other people have to offer. By exposing ourselves to a diverse array of world-views, we become better able to communicate and think productively with people who think differently than us. This helps us connect to, and uncover, alternative perspectives on the world that might never surface if we are only at work.
Thinking about a life/work balance in this way not only makes us better at our jobs, it also makes our jobs potential sites for learning and growing as people. Rather than think of work as “on the clock” time and life as what happens once we “punch out” for the day, thinking of the two as different aspects of one over-arching project of self-discovery and growth makes our lives more meaningful and our business more successful.
These three practices, when developed together can really help you grow as a leader and as a person. The truth is good leadership is firmly planted in advancing our knowledge and understanding of others. As I work with leaders we use these three techniques to institute a practice of actively pursuing the greatest understanding of the individuals that surround them in their professional and personal lives. When this pursuit is effectively undertaken, the clarity that comes from greater communication is sure to follow.