When I say “leader,” you likely see a speaker. You likely see someone separated from the crowd, perhaps facing them. That was me in my lecture last week to 80 non-MBA graduate school students. But add a couple elements to the picture.
Before I began speaking, I asked for a couple volunteers to take careful “laboratory” notes. And I invited my colleague Laura to address “the followers.” I left the room. Laura explained to them that when I returned to speak about a topic on my mind, she would be standing behind me. She told them she would signal three types of non-verbal feedback that she would like them to give me. She told me later that the three instructions were, “show great interest,” “express boredom,” and “look confused or opposed” to what he is saying.
I came back in the room and started speaking about a topic that I am finding fascinating and will write about in a forthcoming Read2Lead (how values need to be simultaneously authentic and real and yet also provide some “stretch” toward ideals). I started well enough. This group of students have been quite keen, curious and engaged. And they felt that way. Until they didn’t. I could not see Laura behind me, but I could feel how she had taken them away from me. I felt myself trying harder. I kind of liked the challenge. But I could feel the challenge. At one point I heard myself emit this high-volume “ummmm,” which surprised me as I’m not an um-and-ahhh guy. I had designed this experiment, but it was proving harder than I expected.
The students “came back.” Mind you, they were always physically there. But they had obviously vacated at Laura’s signal. Now, I started to gain some momentum, hearing myself making sense, but again they stopped bringing out my best. This time they were scrunching up their faces, as if offended or just disagreeing with me. They might as well have said “talk to the hand” and held a stop right in my face. I plowed ahead, but I didn’t find myself convincing. Indeed, I was really having trouble thinking at all, let alone putting emotion and conviction into it. I was moving in mental sludge, trying to open doors that wouldn’t open, looking for words that typically flowed but were now hiding out of range of my speaking self. It was painful to not feel understood and even worse was that I didn’t feel like I was making sense.
The exercise lasted about seven minutes. It was brutally long, with the feel of a nightmare in which things are moving slowly and everything you try to work…doesn’t. I was so glad we were done. I could hardly allow the debrief from the observers, because I was in such a hurry to say how awful it was and how glad I was that it was over. And the debrief was clinical and clarifying. One observer said, “when I was instructed to not care, I didn’t; and right now I don’t think I could tell you the first thing about what you were talking about.” He posited that he didn’t think others were listening to the content, and he turned and asked for a show of response. Hands waved that they also weren’t listening, and people chimed in to say, “nope. I didn’t follow him, nor do I remember what he was saying.” Others noted my fidgeting. My pauses. My “um’s.”
Is the point obvious? As my friend John Gillis says about LeadingX2: “No one leads alone.” And in this case they were refusing to let me lead. I was not independent of that. It was as if my brain was hooked up to them. Have you ever had someone remotely take over your computer and you watch them move your cursor and start to look at your files, without you having any consent or control? That’s what it was like; somebody had taken over.
Everyday leadership works. And in this case, it doesn’t. I shared with the class that there were 5 people in the front two rows who for the prior 4 weeks had been doing the opposite. They had been listening, nodding, smiling, asking questions, and it was as if they had been lubricating my brain. I had been functioning at a high speed of cognition, emotion, and communication, in large part because of their interest. Others had come to office hours, sharing their thoughts, questions, experience and pushback. In prior weeks, seeing their faces in the audience there was connection. A student I had taught – and admired – the year before in the school of public policy was a dependable listener; I knew she was working the ideas I was sharing, and so when I had been lecturing to 80 people, but seeing her face among them, I had confidence and ease in what I was doing.
I hope the point is obvious: “followers” can lead “leaders” out, bringing out their best. The Latin root of education is educare, “to lead out,” it is about bringing others out. And in this case, my leaders, my educators failed me, failed to lead me out, to bring out my best. How do you listen? What untapped potential do you have to lead your leaders, to evoke their best, so that they, as well as you, can
Lead with your best self!