Terry came into my office looking pretty upset. Just a few weeks before I had made him team leader of our biggest production team and I had heard through the grapevine things were going a little rough. One of his team had already come to me to complain about his “dictatorial” style.
Despite his youth, Terry had been a fantastic team member and unquestionably committed to the success of the organization. I didn’t think anyone truly resented his promotion. But if people were starting to complain this early, then I knew I had to work with Terry on his communication style. It was going to be a long process. And I had the tough job of convincing him to change in this next meeting.
“Dr. Lauber, they’re just not listening. I’m telling them what to do, but some of them pretend they don’t hear, or make comments as soon as I leave. I don’t think I was born for leadership.”
“Terry,” I replied, “you’ve heard me say many times ‘leaders are made, not born.’ I know you have a great vision of where the team should head, and we’ve worked hard together on benchmarks and measurements of your team’s progress. I think you are doing very well in the Lights! and Camera! areas of leadership. But let’s concentrate on Action!, the communication part of team leadership. Sometimes big differences in how we’re perceived as a leader occur when we change some very simple things, like how we ask people to do things.”
Terry didn’t seem too thrilled to hear this. And the next 15 minutes were spent illustrating how he could have been perceived as “dictatorial.” I pointed out that he was talking to his team as if he was a military commander or a sports coach. And, yes, perhaps most of the movies and role modeling he’d seen on leadership demonstrated this, but it is just one of many leadership styles. I suggested instead that in our technology-driven, creative-media production team, he should start all of his requests with a softer, very congenial request, and only “firm up” his language if necessary.
I told him over time his experience and judgment would improve and he would discover when the firmer tone was necessary, but since he was nearly the same age as most of the people on his team, a collaborative, collegial tone to his requests might “grease” their delivery. I also reminded him that as the leader he was responsible for balancing the team needs against the needs and desires of each individual. Resistance to an instruction didn’t always have to be stomped out. He had to listen and sometimes make the call about whether an exception to the rule had to be made. “In the end,” I explained, “it is always better to have a team member choose to help instead of feeling forced.”
Second, I told him communication is a two-way street. Only in military and sports movies did it look like leaders simply barked commands and everyone suddenly charged into battle with shouting and single-minded effort. In the real world, communicating is a back-and-forth process. For example, he needed to find out if each team member heard and understood his request just as he meant it. I told him he would have to get good at listening and following up on people’s body language or quizzical looks. This might be difficult at first.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Experience will teach you when things are most likely to get fouled up during the communication step so you’ll become increasingly alert to feedback at just the right times.
“Finally,” I said, “you will have to learn how to deliver your instructions in your own style so they sound like you.”
I tried hard to convince him there was nothing wrong with him. His leadership style was still under development. It might go in a thousand different directions. Perhaps he would be a joking, slightly sarcastic boss; perhaps a formal and polite leader. But it would come, naturally and organically. All it took was practice, and time. Right now he needed to concentrate simply on finding a way to communicate without sounding military.
We agreed to keep meeting. And I said I would help him with his phrasing and word choice. “But,” I finished, “you must work to constantly improve. You want Terry the leader of five years from now to be substantially different, and better than Terry the leader of today.”
He left and, truthfully, I remember wondering if he was going to quit. I hoped he didn’t. I thought Terry had great potential and we sorely needed experienced, committed team leaders like him.
To finish the story, Terry and I talked often about how to communicate with his team, and over the next two years he became better at leadership and eventually held one of the top leadership positions on campus.
Terry’s communication style softened considerably over time and he discovered it was a better fit for the type of leader he truly was. Not surprisingly, it was also better for the style of team he was leading. Most importantly, I believe Terry sees himself now as a “leader in development.” He asks for feedback more than any young person I’ve ever known. So I know Terry will succeed.
The world will, I believe, find ways to reward leaders, young or old, who constantly try to improve.
This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette on Sunday, Sept. 2 and online on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 at http://www.indianagazette.com/b_community/article_3a6471e9-3000-5913-92a8-a083b7511617.html