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Our leadership blind spots

Movie night in our house is now a tradition. The movie selection process can begin as early as breakfast – and can sometimes take all of 12 hours to finalize. You might say that ‘quick decision making’ is an area of growth in our house. This weekend, we’d settled on “A Dog’s Purpose“. I considered this a win because I hadn’t seen it yet, and both of our daughters are fans of watching a movie many times. Make that many, many times. 

So when I got home and got the news that everyone had decided that it was too sad of a movie for the night and that they’d all agreed instead on Freaky Friday, I did a mental eye roll. After at least ten viewings, this was overdue to go the way of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and the High School Musical series. Instead of agreeing, I set out to find a new option we could all agree on. Throwing our normal democratic decision making process to the winds, I announced that we would watch The Blind Side

It’s now a decade old but I still love the feel good story of the kid who gets a chance due to the kindness of strangers. But what hit me last night was the story of Big Mike’s seeming inability to learn, as determined by a raft of elementary and middle school teachers, as the source of his failing grades. And yet despite the opinions of these so-called experts, some in his new environment who saw Mike with a fresh set of eyes saw something different. Not an inability to learn, but an inability to learn in the way classroom education is traditionally taught. 

When “they” can’t learn

In our own day to day, a similar challenge goes far beyond classroom learning. It’s about how many of us as leaders lead and informal teachers teach and communicate: in the manner that we were taught and that makes most sense to us. Or as this piece in Pioneering Collective plainly states: “With the ability to inform, persuade, and empower, communication is a leader’s most powerful tool. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and the world’s greatest leaders understand that effective leadership cannot exist without effective communication.”

So what’s effective? When our message gets through as we intend it to. A picture is indeed worth 1,000 words in this classic scene when Leanne, Big Mike’s new guardian, teaches the football coach how to do his job. She’s a designer, not a football coach, an athletic champion or a teacher. So how could she know better than the coach? She listened, watched, and saw what mattered to Mike. She adapted her approach to one that would connect with him and eloquently and quickly got her message across in a way that stuck. In fact, it stuck well enough to create an entirely new life for Mike.

How many of us chalk up our inability to get our message through to someone else’s inability, or unwillingness, to learn? How often do we lose some of the richest talent with invaluable perspectives and ideas to a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating, teaching and motivating, missing the chance to make the most of who they are? What if the solution for those we see as unteachable involves not just them needing to adapt but ourselves as well?

In response to one friend’s fawning praise, “Leanne,  you’re changing that boy’s life”, a knowing smile spreads across Leanne’s face as she says, “No, he’s changing mine.” Just as each of us are when we learn to communicate, connect and motivate those around us to make the most of who they are. A blindsiding experience to be sure.

Are we weeding out our best stuff?

With the weather turning balmy I’ve been doing more walking in our neighborhood. A month or so ago our neighbors put in this beautiful new garden in front of their house, a lovely arrangement of plants, flowers, a stone path and a sculpture of this big turtle. Every time I walk by it I smile at the grin on the chill turtle’s face. Pretty soon after they’d planted it I would see my neighbor out in front taking care of it. Every time I walked by. It became the running joke that I needed a hobby and she was becoming garden obsessed.

By the third day I finally asked what it was that motivated to get out there each day. “The damn clover” she told me. Now – to be fair, I should have known that pretty much any answer she could have given would have met with my clueless stare. I have by all accounts a black thumb when it comes to plants. In fact, I’m pretty sure if they bottled me I’d be the world’s best weed – and plant – killer. When I was pregnant my neighbor at the time, who was a masterful gardener himself, asked, “Do you think you’ll be more successful keeping kids alive than you have been with your plants?” Considering my track record, it was a fair question.

So, I know nothing about clover. Except that it’s green. And to my uneducated eye, pretty. No, my neighbor informed me, it will take over if you don’t root it out. The roots take hold and … I’m not sure what else. But all I could think was, it was the perfect contrast against the rest of the garden. It looked nice and fit really well with all the other plants they’d chosen. She wasn’t sold – and each day she or someone else in the family was out in front weeding the clover out that had somehow magically made its way back in the moonlight. I couldn’t help but wonder – it’s my inclination to pull for the underdog no doubt – if there are benefits to clover, and apparently there are.

What struck me was how much of this ‘rooting out’ of the things that seem to belong – but we’d rather they didn’t – many of us do in our own lives. The things we’re good at or drawn to or feel strong doing – but don’t think they will do much for us. I remember going through one of the personality tests at work years ago – and what emerged from the color coded system was that my strength was “earth green” – caring, encouraging, sharing, patient and relaxed. But the company’s leaders were mostly ‘fiery red’ – competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed and purposeful.

My green felt weak in comparison – so rather than tapping into how to make the most of who I am, I instead focused on being more “fiery red”. I wanted to be one of the people considered “high potential” who would be seen as a valued future leader  – and my assumption was I simply couldn’t do so by leading with encouragement, compassion and patience.

It didn’t go all that well. Could I do it? Sure. Was it harder? You bet. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. And what I lost in the process was the person people had come to know – the leader who created a great team by knowing people well enough to help them find their fit. Who created an environment where people smiled, laughed and went the extra mile for each other while exceeding the results they thought were possible. Who shared wins and struggles so everyone had the chance to learn from both.   

Quick point here – what I’m not saying is to be oblivious to the team and organization you’re a part of – the norms, behaviors and “what good looks like” of your colleagues. Fitting in matters. And what each of us brings also matters. A garden full of clover isn’t what my neighbor is going for – and I don’t blame her. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if she let some of the clover remain sprinkled in there – since clearly it wants to be there. Maybe there’s more good that it can offer than is readily apparent.