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2 Key Skills to Avoid Crashing Your Career on the Rocks

Posted by on in Awareness
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A Leadership Urban Legend

There is an urban legend that goes something like this. A proud U.S. Navy aircraft carrier was sailing along one dark night when the navigator noticed a light directly ahead. He quickly notified the Captain who immediately got on the radio. Here is the exchange that followed:

Captain: “Unknown vessel, you are on a collision course to our position. Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

Unknown Voice: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

Captain: “This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”

Unknown Voice: “This is a Petty Officer 2nd Class. Please divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South.”

Captain: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS NIMITZ, ONE OF THE LARGEST SHIPS IN THE UNITED STATES’ PACIFIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. WE HAVE ON BOARD AN ADMIRAL. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH. THAT IS ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP!!”

Unknown Voice: “This is a light house. It’s your call.”

This story incidentally turns out to be completely untrue (I don’t want all my Navy readers to write me nasty emails). However, it is a prime illustration of how incorrect assessments can escalate quickly and can cause significant leadership problems. Here are a couple real-world examples of leaders with whom I’ve worked and their challenges.

Maybe you identify with one of these scenarios

1. A senior leader in organization, let’s call him Dan, was frustrated. He had 2 direct reports who didn’t get along with each other and who made their distrust known to others. This escalated to the point that everyone in the organization knew about the “civil war” in Dan’s department. The smallest issues quickly escalated into a full-blown crisis. Dan, however, was afraid that by confronting the relationship problems it might cause one, or both of them, to quit.

His approach: “I pulled them into my office and told them that they need to start acting more professionally.”

 The problem: Dan incorrectly assumes that rationality and logic will win over emotion and hurt feelings. The relationship is clearly damaged. By not addressing the behaviors and the lack of trust in the working relationship, there is only one thing you can guarantee: nothing will change. Telling someone to act more professionally in this situation would be as effective as a marriage counselor telling a couple to just be nice.

2. A CEO, let’s call her Alicia, had a member of her leadership team who was technically competent in his role but who was oblivious to the way his interpersonal style put people on the defensive. People frequently complained that they would be held “hostage” in endless meetings while he argued his point until they acquiesced to his perspective.

Her approach:  She frequently says that he’s very good at what he does and it’s not her job to deal with his interpersonal skills. She said, “He’s a highly compensated professional in this organization, I shouldn’t have to tell him that this is how I expect him to behave.”

The problem: Alicia assumes that others know what is expected of them without actually being told what is expected, even when it comes to behavior. Unless she sets the expectation for what standards she will or won’t accept, everyone else is left to fill-in-the-blanks based on their own definition of what is acceptable. In this situation, what happened is that people started to actively work around this person. People started declining his meeting requests and would only share information with him as a last resort. Alicia’s team started having their own “pre-meetings” so they could prepare for arguments and be a unified front against this one person.

These examples illustrate how leaders who don’t accept the current situation in which they find themselves are setting themselves and their organizations up for breakdowns.

What is a leader to do?

There are many things these leaders need to do to address the situation described here. In each case, it starts with two fundamental steps.

1. Know yourself and challenge your assessments

What assessments are you making?

An assessment is simply an opinion or a judgment. It can never be right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, etc. It is just your opinion. A fact on the other hand, is measurable. Another person can look at the same thing and come to the same conclusion. For example, if I were to say that it’s hot in this room; that is an assessment. If I were to say, it’s 73° in this room that is a fact we can measure.

The challenge many leaders have is that they treat their assessments as if they are fact. Furthermore, they treat their assessments as logic that everyone else should share.

In the examples listed above. These leaders had what they consider to be very reasonable assessments about the situation and people they were facing and those assessments were not shared by the people there were leading. No matter how passionately you feel about an assessment, it doesn’t make it any more factual; it’s still an opinion.

Be aware of your assessments and how they are shaping your interpretation of what’s happening in front of you. You can scream at a lighthouse all you want because you don’t think that it should be there. It still won’t make it move and you’ll be the one crashed on the rocks.

2. Do your assessments match the situation?

Once you are aware of when you are dealing with an assessment or a fact, ask yourself if your assessment of the situation is trustworthy.

  • Are you standing on the deck of the ship telling the lighthouse it shouldn’t be there?
  • Ask for input from others about the situation and what options that they see.

Self-awareness and situational awareness are critical leadership capabilities that can keep your organization from crashing on the rocks.

 

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Dave Hasenbalg has spent the last 20 years leading, coaching, and consulting businesses to find solutions to real-world challenges by illuminating blind spots, building better teams, and coordinating action that produces results. He has an expertise in developing leaders, bringing about change in organizations of all sizes, and eliminating the impediments to effective execution. His practical background is as a military officer as well as a leader in cutting edge, non-profit, and Fortune 100 companies.

Comments

  • Guest
    libby Saturday, 07 February 2015

    Your analogy was prrfect for me. Thanks

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Guest Tuesday, 19 September 2017

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