Don’t Hit the Stop Button

This was originally published on March 7, 2011


About 10 years ago I was working on a book based on tens of interviews. I never quite finished it, but it taught me a lot. One of the lessons was this: Never turn the tape recorder off until you’re out of the interviewee’s presence.  You see, I was asking politicians about politics, character, and spirituality, and often their answers seemed rehearsed. I had the sense that I was just the latest audience, like they were replaying old tapes for me.  Then one time, I noticed as I was packing up my notes something that had happened before.  We were engaged in casual conversation, and my interviewee started to say much more interesting and spontaneous things. I hadn’t hit the stop button yet, so I let the tape continue to roll. I got the greatest stuff – and repeatedly did – only after the formal interview was over.

What does this have to do with leadership? Well it all has to do with where and how you’re listening. Think about some of the places that generate the least candor, spontaneity, or unguarded conversations:

  • the staff meeting
  • the dinner table
  • the committee meeting (a humorous aside: I saw a resume online where someone said they served on the “committee on committees” at their organization. Seriously!  Now that had to be one hot bed of innovation – doncha think?)
  • a meeting at the boss’s conference table

If you want to lead, you’ve got to know what’s really going on. And that means avoiding those places that tend to be stiff and formal. And perhaps more importantly it means being willing to waste some time, to sit for a while after the formal meeting is over, after the tape recorder has been turned off, so to speak. It’s not that you don’t have a staff person come to your office, or that you don’t have your teenager sit with you at the kitchen table.  But sometimes you have to go to their space, to appreciate their world, especially, when it’s always assumed that it’s their job to appreciate and conform to your world.

The subject of my interviews dropped the façade of their roles, in great part because I dropped my own. The tape recorder was primarily just a symbol of that role. When I let myself be a little more human – for instance, sharing how something they said struck me emotionally, giving them some feedback on what I heard, or telling a story about another person I had interviewed – it was as though it gave them permission to also be more casual and more candid. As Kouzes and Posner write, “leaders [must] go first,” when it comes to the risk-taking behavior of opening up and sharing the rougher edges.

If you want to know what’s really going on, then as you work with your followers this week, pay attention to these three things: (1) Real places create real candor; formal structures create formality.  (2) If you really want their views, you should stand and sit in their places and see their world. (3)  If you want them to risk sharing the unvarnished truth, then go first by sharing your not-so-perfect and pretty world.

And since I can’t easily come to your office or have a beer with you, hit the comment button, or hit reply to let me know what you’re thinking about Reading for Leading, as you

Lead with your best self!


  • The other half of the lesson is that you are never “off the record” until the interviewer has left the room.

  • Dan, Thanks for your weekly RFL, I look forward to and enjoy reading them every week. I once believed that Leaders where more like Superman, infallible and powerful people. Over the past few years, I’m learning that real leaders bleed too. Some of our favorite leaders openly share their struggles and their followers rally around them. Today’s RFL again showed me that leadership also means being real. Superman is cool, but not real. I’m not aware of anyone who can related to a leader who appears to ‘have it all’ without some sort of struggle or sacrifice. Thanks again for helping me to be real with others.

  • Christine,
    Darned good point. I felt a little surreptitious at times by keeping the tape rolling. But it seemed a natural extension of the conversation.
    p.s. the tape’s still rolling 🙂

  • I have had similar experience, and agree that a formal structure encourages formal response. There is a time and a place for both, which a good leader understands and uses. If educating and training staff is a high priority, or if you need to bring to light some ugly truths in order to acknowledge, understand, begin to address, and move forward, more informal time is probably necessary. It comes back to being authentic and being trustING as well as trustED, like everything else in life.

    I’ve had the pleasure of learning about generative interviewing, which sounds like what you were doing, Dan. See the glossary definition at

    I look forward to reading your insights on Monday–thank you for sharing. I wish you *could* come to my office or grab a beer with me!

  • Marjory,
    Thanks for sharing the thoughts and the resource.
    Maybe we should have a DFL – “drinking for leading” day before we head out for our teaching stint at Berkeley. Might be fun 🙂

  • This was a great read this morning. I have unconsciously taken this approach. Now to see it put into words it makes alot more sense. You described it perfectly and it really is very effective when it becomes natural in it’s use.

    Could you give some thought to writing an RFL on using meetings effectively. I see meetings taking up so much time with our staff everyday. There is the pre meeting by a small group to determine outcomes of the main meeting, then the main meeting for “concensus”, then the post meeting with a small group where the decision and action actually happens. One of my personal goals this year is to cut the meetings down and have what meetings we do have be meaningful.
    Hows California?

  • Dad,

    Something I’ve realized about my GREATEST professors here at college is that they make themselves incredibly approachable–they tell students that they can be contacted at any hour and demonstrate an openness to informal meetings. One of my professors this semester took us to Buffalo Wild Wings and bought the first round (of wings, of course) for anyone that decided to show up. It was a cool moment for students to “chill” with their professor. Consider how many loyal students you’ve had here for years! Maybe a DFL (minus the formality of RFL, of course) is in order!! I would personally love to meet some of the characters that I only know by your comment pages. 🙂

  • Dan:

    Once again, great point on leadership communication. To add to your thoughts, I like the idea of leading by walking around. To your point, as a leader you need to take the initiative weekly to go to your people’s space, by asking, listening, then being actionable by supporting their needs for success. When we wrap ourselves in the vestiges of powers (bosses office, team meetings, board rooms, etc.), there is only one truth (the person in charge). Along with your point on “committee on committees”, I’ve always wondered is it possible for “Vision/Mission Statements” when created by a select group of owners/executives/board members or a consultant actually shared by anyone who actually does the work of execution or reflected of an organizations true culture?

  • Contrast with with your advice to leaders to be prepared with things to say in a previous RFL. In it you described how Governor Granholm would walk around a room of people and be prepared for each one of them. This is good advice, but when we look at it from the perspective of the listener, or the reporter, writer, voter, employee; then we also see a weakness in the strategy, if the leader only has prepared statements. The questioner can be disappointed to get the same answers the other reporter got a week ago, and then no matter how many follow up questions they ask, the reporter only gets reworded canned statements, or worse, the reporter gets teh questions spoken back to them in the form of a declarative sentence.

    I can make a contrast between the leader who is prepared to speak, and will have a full conversation with people they meet, be they reporters, employees, or anyone. Have what you say off the record be consistent with what you say on the record. Respond to the question instead of swtiching subjects or talking about any noun in the question without answering the question itself.

    But for the person asking the question, they need to understand that what happens after the candid statements are made is essential to communication. If the reporter, employee, or whoever then takes the candid statement, only ot misuse it, communication ends. I had the opportunity to take direct quotes from elected officials I interviewed, and if quoted directly would have made them look like fools, but knew that the direct quote was not at all what they meant. I did not use quotes that I thought would misrepresent what a person stood for; and when asked for copies of tapes form interviews, I would never give them out. I erased them one week after publication to avoid the possibility of them being stolen. In politics what may appear like paranoia in other circumstances makes sense. Especially when you consider what kind of people asked for copies of the tapes!

  • Hi Dan,

    I love the idea of leading where people actually are, and not in strictly formal settings. But, what if I’ve been forcibly removed from the leadership of my organization? Can I still lead? Is leading from where I am similar to leading where people are? If so, how is this best done?

    Any advice from you (or your readers) would be much appreciated!

  • Dan:
    Great leadership is a constant dance between the scripted, “on-air” parts and the authentic, come straight-out-of-your-heart pieces. Both are important. There are times when others need us to stay in our leadership, be strong, and lead with our well thought-out strategy/plan/response. At other times, letting others see our humanity and vulnerability can be more powerful than anything. AND it is knowing when each isneeded that makes for a true leader. This is not to say that scripted means false, only that it means ‘stay with the script’. It helps me to use a movie scipt metaphor to illustrate: a powerful screenwriter will write the script to communicate a movie’s point beautifully. It is the actor who knows his/her craft well that can see inside the written lines, knowing when to stay on script because that’s where the most inspiration is, and when to improvise to make the scene real, meaningful and in-the-moment.

  • MBWA – management by walking around really does work. I have a layer of management between myself and the folks doing the work. When I spend 2-3 hrs walking around to the various teams, chatting, and asking about how various things are working I get the best feedback for good forward decisions without a ‘filter’.

    As a result, our department meetings have gotten much better at a two-way free flow of information — still not as good as the walk-arounds though.

  • I am listening. I read your e-mail column every week. It helps to keep me focused and reminds me why I am doing what I do. I never thought of myself as a leader at home, church, and with my friends, but I finally think I am really beginning to get it. When I open myself up (and as a result become vulnerable,) others feel more comfortable relating to me. No relating=no relationship=no leadership. There has to be a connection to start the trust going.

  • An aside to an aside – I’ve been in at least one academic setting with a Committee on Committees – it basically meant the group that worked on membership so that committees had appropriate people on them with a balance as to gender and diversity. For once it isn’t as bad (or as wasteful) as the title sounds!

  • Dan,

    Recently I had a series of one on one meeting with all of my employees regarding their goals and view for our department. Being new to management I was unsure what the best way to conduct these meetings would be. At first I had a list of questions that I would read through and take notes as the employee answered them. The more sessions I had the more I noticed that all of the individuals were more open when they were able to control the flow and or topic of the conversation. I found that the most effective way to get “good” answers was to allow the employee to answer the question without ever asking them. By starting out our meeting with small talk I could steer the conversation in the direction I wanted it to go without taking the employee out of their comfort zone. This allowed me to get a lot of good feedback that I feel I would not have gotten in a normal Q & A format. That being said, I have been reading you reading for leading since I met you at the last November at the U of M. While I have found a lot of useful information in all of them, this particular post I felt hit the closest to home for me.

    Thank you!

  • I’m one of those who generally does not post comments. However, it doesn’t mean I’m not engaged. Quite the opposite! I OFTEN forward Dan’s current letter to specific individuals for whom I think it might apply. I have run off copies and sprinkled them around our faculty room. His topic is often discussed with my principal…bringing depth of ideals and goals to what is often a too fast paced public education arena.
    Thank you for allowing me to read and enjoy and not badgering me to always reply. Because, as you can see, I CAN reply….I just don’t do it very often.

  • Hi, Chuck!

    If you’ve been “forcibly removed,” I’m thinking it must have been from a position where you may have had some positional or administrative power to hire, fire, train, etc. This is different from leadership. Every janitor and secretary can lead. Every staffer can obtain power. Maybe not positional / administrative power, but expertise power, affiliative power, “spiritual” (meaning inspiring / charismatic / visionary ) power. Affiliative power is having friends. Visionary power is the ability to transmit a goal to people in ways that makes them want to sign on.

    …or so I believe.

    People are forcibly removed from positions of power for a variety of reasons. Perhaps their workstyle doesn’t match that of co-workers. Perhaps their work ethic is higher or lower than their superiors in the organization. Perhaps they abused their power. Perhaps the powers-that-be are afraid of their affiliative and expertise power.

    Everyone can lead by setting example, as in “be the change you wish to see.” One never knows who will follow, but you can lead in your own life by living with integrity.

    I’m thinking that people who want followers are misled. People who want to make good leaders are good leaders. Ironic, eh? (as we always said in da U.P.)!

  • Hi, Mark!

    Re meetings, it sounds like you’re in a way bureaucratic setting, with 5-year plans, goals, objectives, outcomes, etc. Although accountability is fine, it stifles creativity and responsiveness to the current reality. Maybe a virtual meeting, via a listserv (email reply all) where you lay out the issue, the facts, the strategies that you can think of, and invite participants to vote on the strategies, bring up more facts, or propose new or refined strategies? People don’t like to leave their cubes. Let creativity flow by allowing them to participate or ignore, as they wish.

  • Hi, Dan!

    Re learning what a person really wants to know, here are two questions that I advise jobseekers to ask when they get to the “Do you have any questions for us?” part of the interview:

    Do you like working here? (Then watch the eyes of the panel members. Rolling upward? All glancing to one person, as if to ask “Do we dare answer?”)

    Is there any reason why you yourself would not hire me today? That’s after they’ve said that they have to check with the boss, or corporate, or after they’ve interviewed some more people, etc. The jobseeker has to be prepared for what may be unpleasant answers, but things they need to learn. Like, “Because you have body odor… your perfume’s too strong… you have bad breath…” etc.

    Hopefully, they know enough to ask “When will you be making your decision?”

  • Dan,

    I look forward to the RFL’s each Monday. I find many to be well worth the wait. The pearls of wisdom I have been able to garner have formed a nice and long “pearl necklace” if you will.

    This week’s RFL is so important I think because looking at things from others’ perspective is an art that is so lost on many “leaders” of today, as they seek to force their perspective on their subordinates and oftentimes on their peers as well.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Let’s not forget the value of time in the car! With bosses you get to understand their way of thinking and get to know them on a more personal level, with your staff they can learn how human you are. With your kids, you can either be the fly on the wall as you listen to how they interact with their friends and when you get them alone they can open up and share their world. Take advantage of windshild time!

  • Dan, you don’t look like you drink, you’re in such good shape. I listen to your audio for RFL every week instead of reading it because you really have a nice voice. I hope when you leave state you still do you RFL.

  • Reminds me of Tom Peters’ MBWA: Management By Walking Around.

    or the great philosopher, Yogi Berra: ” You can observe a lot by watching.”

  • Dan —

    I enjoyed this piece and the comments — and will just defend “Committee on Committees” in one context which is that for the Faculty Senate at another university (not my current one), this committee made committee membership assignments for faculty senators. What is humorous (and naive) is that someone would list this on a CV without explanation. It is a very odd name for anything!


  • I love your RFL but times you seem like the politicians when it comes to certain people has it harder. Truth is- whites has it hardest when it comes to justice, (unless you have money). We don’t get justice because nobody tears up any towns for white victims, so politicians won’t bother making sure that the crime is investigated, looked into. You can do anything to a white person and it’s, f*** you. Maybe one day over a beer (if were possible-I know you said you can’t-but it’s 5 years old), I could tell you a true story of a white victim and how the police for 11 years kept stalking and abusing her for constantly trying to get someone to listen.. Even went as high as Bill Clinton but at that time didn’t realize being white It was impossible to get help, so it was, “hire a lawyer”. Then Obama, ” we need to focus on what really matters”. But we all see what happens depending who the victims are. I do love your articles. And hey, I’ll buy the beer 🙂 . I had my first taste of beer recently, yuck.

  • Thanks for the post Dan! This was extremely relevant during my most recent interview. I learned a lot during the interview but was able to really dig a lot deeper when the phone stopped recording.

    I also loved your first point “Real places create real candor; formal structures create formality”. When meeting with important people, I am always trying to find places that fit the “formal” mold. The meetings become very formal. However, when I am meeting people at cafes or grabbing lunch, the conversations become more “real”.

    Great point, great article!!

  • Love this post because, as always, it is spot on!! I had two “real” conversations today and I loved it!! It feels good to be real!!

  • >