“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant…” –Max DePree
When considering one of my favorite leadership-defining quotes, many (to include myself) focus on the aspects of gratitude and servant leadership. But what about the leader’s first responsibility to define reality? What does that mean and what does that look like?
Leaders defining reality means seeking and surfacing the truth for the team. Improving team performance requires change. To prove the need for change, the team must face their honest reality. This can require addressing brutal facts that have been hidden or ignored. It can be just like any process to recovery – the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Leaders must create a climate within the team where the truth is spoken and heard. This applies up, down, and across the team where no one is above the truth or not responsible to share and address it. Within our high-performing team, we need to have people willing to speak the truth and, more importantly, leaders willing to hear the truth. To enable this team climate of open feedback loops and where people feel safe to speak “truth to power,” I believe there are a few behaviors that leaders should initiate:
- Cultivate leader approachability and humility.
- Lead with questions to seek to understand.
- Be open to discourse.
- Have the candor to put issues within the team on the table.
- Establish “red flag” mechanisms within the team.
Cultivate Leader Approachability and Humility
Teammates need to feel safe and comfortable to speak the hard truth and bring it to you. This requires leaders to be approachable and demonstrate personal humility. As we discuss often on this blog, leadership is a people-centric business, so we must have high-levels of people orientation. Leaders must be present, both in “going to where the people are” (not defaulting to hiding in the office) and being fully invested in the moment whenever interacting with others (active, empathetic listening and not being distracted by your phone).
This also calls for leaders to be quick to listen and slow to judge. Approachable leaders are able to self-regulate their emotions.
Lead with Questions to Seek to Understand
Leaders certainly do not have all the answers, but we are responsible for finding and actioning the answers. To ensure the truth is sought within the team, leaders should lead with questions. There can be great freedom when a leader is confident and capable in saying, “I don’t know. What do you think?”. This is how we can find the brutal facts to determine our team’s honest reality.
Two of my favorite leader questions include, “what’s on your mind?” and, following their initial response and discussion, “what else?”. These questions, learned from Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit, enable me to get insight into the relevant issues on others’ minds and keeps the agenda focused on them (rather than my own preconceived and contrived one). These questions are just one simple example on how leaders can keep an honest pulse on what is going on within their team – on the truth.
In leading with questions, however, leaders should seek to understand and not leverage this mechanism as a form of manipulation, such as asking affirming questions to get others to agree with us or our agenda. We must be genuine in our pursuit of the truth.
Be Open to Discourse
Surfacing truth within the team, especially fed bottom-up, can be sensitive. Facts shared can give a perception of disagreement with leaders, can come off as challenging authority and insubordinate, or can even upset team dynamics and cohesion. But leaders must display a desire for the truth, which requires transparent dialog and debate.
Similar to being able to say “I don’t know,” leaders should be comfortable and confident in entertaining discourse within the team. We cannot be afraid of it. Disagreement is healthy and necessary for team improvement. Such dialog can start in informal, one-on-one meetings where others may feel more comfortable to share their thoughts. With time and repetition, such opportunities can expand as the team sees the positive impacts and gain assurance in their contributions to improve the team.
It can, however, digress into ineffectiveness or potentially undermine some leaders if not addressed well. While being open to discourse, leaders must ensure it remains professional and that debate centers around ideas and does not target people.
Have the Candor to Put Issues Within the Team on the Table
Organizational culture is built on underlying beliefs and assumptions within the team. Good or bad, there are many assumptions or things that go unsaid which drive how we interact and do business. Teams can sometimes have negative or even toxic assumptions or beliefs that hinder team performance all because people are unable or unwilling to address them. When leaders identify these deep-rooted issues, we have a responsibility to “put them on the table” for the team.
Doing this can be painful, bringing a lot of disruption to the team, especially if issues have been in place for a long time. But unaddressed assumptions or beliefs can serve as a glass ceiling to the team’s growth and potential.
Leaders can put issues on the table by starting to ask questions, addressing why we do things a certain way or allow this or that. But leaders must be deliberate and sensitive in their search for the truth or unearthing team skeletons. Bringing issues to light should not turn into a witch hunt; I believe leaders should seek to solve problems and confront reality with the team to improve it. We should not be out to place blame. In doing that, we can cancel all trust and safety built within the team.
Establish “Red Flag” Mechanisms Within the Team
Though leader behaviors like approachability, leading with questions, and engaging in debate can all encourage a climate of truth-sharing on the team, I think teams need to have formalized systems for people to raise “red flags” in real-team (or as close to it as possible). Despite our best efforts, some may never feel comfortable bringing issues or the truth to leaders face-to-face. Further, many informal leader methods introduced above will often have delayed impacts. This means that through many of the mechanisms above, leaders may confront the truth, but it is often later, after the fact when much of the damage or impact is done.
We should consider implementing more formal systems on the team for people to raise red flags more immediately. Some organizations have anonymous hotlines or emails to allow people to voice concerns, which can be feasible. The infamous “suggestion box” method can be another. No matter the method, they should encourage members to address issues (privately or publicly) in the moment or close to real-time, versus through a survey or sensing sessions, which can report belated issues.
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