Web Site: http://www.htc-consult.com
Bio: Enda Larkin has over 25 years experience in the hotel industry having held a number of senior management positions in Ireland, UK and the US. He holds a BSc in Management from Trinity College Dublin and an MBA from the European School of Management. In 1994 he founded HTC Consulting, a Geneva based firm, which specialises in working with enterprises in hospitality and tourism. Since that time, he has led numerous consulting projects for public and private sector clients throughout Europe and the Middle East. He is author of Ready to Lead? (Pearson/Prentice Hall 2007), How to Run a Great Hotel (How to Books 2009), ‘Quick Win’ Leadership (Oak Tree Press 2010) and The Impostor Leaders which is due to be published in 2011. He may be contacted via www.htc-consult.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Being “empathetic” is such an obvious foundation of effective leadership that you might assume that there would be little need to highlight its importance today. Yet, even though it is well-established that this characteristic adds greatly to a leader’s ability to engage others, some “leaders” seem clueless as to where other people are coming from, or show a complete lack of concern for their employees.
This is not an exaggeration and, worse still, I have frequently watched in shock at how some of them have a really perverted sense of how to get the best out of their employees. I thought I had seen it all in this regard until I recently came across the following incident reported in the Salt Lake City Tribune, which is summarized here:
Apparently one employee working for a motivational-coaching business has filed a law suit claiming that his former supervisor used “waterboarding” on him in front of his colleagues to make a point about how hard he expected them all to work. The suit claims that this particular boss routinely humiliated employees by drawing fake mustaches on them, pulling their chairs from under them and even slamming a paddle down on their desks.
On one occasion, the boss asked for volunteers for an unspecified new motivational exercise, which the employee says he volunteered for in order to prove his loyalty and commitment to the business. The employee alleged that the boss then led him and his colleagues to an exterior location on a hill near the office and told him to lie on the ground, with his head facing downhill. He claims the boss then ordered his colleagues to hold him down, as he proceeded to pour a gallon of water over his face and nose whilst he struggled to breathe for some time. The employee contends he was severely traumatized by the incident. The lawsuit also states that, at the end of this exercise, his boss told everyone in attendance that they should work as hard at making sales, as this particular employee had worked to breathe!
The company denies the claim
and says that although an incident did occur, it was somewhat exaggerated.
Oh well, that’s ok then, I guess.
For sure, this is an extreme example—highlighted for effect. And unlike this slightly psycho boss, most leaders don’t need to be told that people probably won’t take too kindly to being water-boarded under any circumstances. That is partially because they are sane, but I find it has more to do with the fact that they have an innate ability to be aware of, and sensitive to, the emotions and feelings of others.
When real leaders say things like “I understand where you are coming from,” they really mean it, and Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, got it right about the importance of empathy when referring to his father, the founder of the company:
“Dad once looked down at the assembly line of women and thought: ‘These are all like my own mom. They have kids, homes to take
care of and people who need them.’ It motivated him to work hard because he saw his own mom in all of them. That’s how it all begins—with respect and empathy.”
Having this ability to empathize with others not only allows the best leaders to strengthen their ties with people, but it also helps them to understand what style of leadership will work best in any given situation. Closely in tune with human nature, they are far more effective because of that fact, and have a natural tendency to build positive relationships with others.
The most successful leaders are team-oriented by nature, thinking in terms of teams and not just groups of people, with the result that they show a real concern for their employees’ levels of motivation; monitoring it, noticing if it is out of sync, finding out why and dealing with any blockages. That does not mean that they are soft touches, though, because they can quickly tell when someone is trying to pull a fast one too.
Unfortunately, studies have shown time and time again that certain “leaders” take their lack of people skills to the extreme—occasionally showing an absence of empathy comparable to that seen in the worst sociopaths. Monty Burns, that boss from hell in The Simpsons, used to welcome his employees to the start of a new week with such memorable quotes as, “Monday morning … time to pay for your two days of debauchery, you hungover drones.” No doubt for a couple of the anti-leaders that I have had the misfortune to run into, this represents a fairly accurate description of how they view their people.
The Importance of Self Awareness for Leaders
Elephants are self-aware. At least, they are, based on the findings of research conducted at Bronx Zoo with Asian elephants.
According to a study reported in LiveScience, the researchers, using specially designed mirrors, proved that elephants can indeed recognize their own reflections, something until then it was believed that only humans, apes and to some extent dolphins could do.
One of the results that surprised the researchers was just how quickly the elephants came to terms with their own image and began interacting with the mirror; they did not appear to mistake their reflections for strangers and try to greet them, as the researchers had suspected they might do. It is believed that this self-awareness contributes to the social complexity seen in elephant herds, and could be linked to the empathy and concern for others in the group that they have been known to display. Even now, the researchers believe we really only know a fraction about their true capacity for self awareness.
You would really wonder about some humans though when it comes to their levels of self-awareness.
Anyone who has ever watched a Reality TV show will know just how unaware certain people can be about who they are, and more importantly, how they act. The behavior of some of the participants on these shows – even allowing for the editing for effect – is just beyond belief. Apart from the cringe factor, what is most amazing perhaps is that, after the event, many of them do not even realize what they did, or worse still, think their behavior is somehow normal and acceptable. Certainly, watching a family of elephants would be a lot more entertaining, and probably more educational, than having to sit through an episode of Survivor, that’s for sure.
Self Awareness and Leadership Success
Self-awareness may not always get as much attention as some other leadership fundamentals, but I believe it is the most valuable in terms of raising performance. Being conscious of what they are good at, while accepting that they still have plenty to learn pushes a leader to constantly raise the personal effectiveness bar.
Unfortunately, showing any sign of ‘weakness’ is still regarded as something to be avoided in many businesses today when in reality it should be seen as a strength; employees certainly see it in a positive light and it helps to build trust and credibility with them when they recognize that their leader is willing to admit they are not the perfect diamond. In terms of self-awareness, all leaders might learn a thing or two about self-analysis, and indeed humility, from former General Mills CEO Steve Sanger who reportedly once told a gathering of his colleagues that:
“As you all know, last year my team told me that I needed to do a better job of coaching my direct reports. I just reviewed my 360-degree feedback. I have been working on becoming a better coach for the past year or so. I’m still not doing quite as well as I want, but I’m getting a lot better. My co-workers have been helping me improve. Another thing that I feel good about is the fact that my scores on ‘effectively responds to feedback’ are so high this year.”
Leaders who have high levels of self-awareness are not only better off because of that fact, but it tells us something more elementary about them. It takes honesty and real courage to admit personal failings and then to do something about them; so those who can make that journey possess the strength of character not seen in others who know themselves less well.
The best performers in any field are always very self aware, a point that Abraham Maslow, the renowned psychologist, made well when he said, ‘whereas the average individuals often have not the slightest idea of what they are, of what they want, of what their own opinions are, self-actualizing individuals have superior awareness of their own impulses, desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general’. When it comes to effective leadership in the business world, this assertion rings particularly true.
In my experience, unlike the TV wannabees, the best leaders that I have met do know themselves well and they tower over others because of it. They understand what makes them tick, recognize their strengths and weaknesses and continuously work hard to build their capacity to lead.
What I find striking about these leaders is that not only do they understand their behaviour but, more importantly, they take proactive steps to manage it. It is this action orientation towards personal improvement, based on their understanding of self, which I believe really underpins many of their strengths as leaders. Successful leaders are constantly growing and improving as a result of their experiences, both on and off-the-job, and they derive real value from those experiences by reflecting on, and learning the lessons from what they encounter. Through regular introspection – but not of the navel gazing kind – they analyze their behavior, attitudes, and values and take meaningful steps so that they continuously iron out their rough edges.
When I ask those admired leaders why it is that they push themselves to improve, I am often met with surprised looks. It’s actually not something they seem to consciously think about because it comes naturally to them to strive to raise their game. Often they will say that they do so because of a belief that standing still means falling behind. Even though they have achieved a high degree of success, they remain grounded enough to realize that the world of work is constantly evolving and this provides the motivation for them to keep building their capabilities. They understand too that there are twin forces at play which, if not responded to, will quickly see them become obsolete as leaders:
On the one hand, employee’ expectations of their leaders are becoming increasingly more demanding and this trend is set to continue, recession or no recession; even if in the short term, talented people might have to put up with life under bad leaders simply because of a tight labor market. On the other hand, superiors too are always calling for better results from their leaders throughout the business. To keep pace with and respond to these dual pressures, the best leaders appreciate that they must constantly push themselves; they know that staying ahead of the curve requires a real understanding of personal strengths and areas for improvement and constant attention to self-development if they are to meet the growing demands of superiors and subordinates.
By comparison, most of the under-performing leaders that I meet – and unfortunately I come across quite a few – seem to spend a lot of time living in cloud-cuckoo-land and it’s a major contributor to why they get so much wrong, so frequently. They only see the world from one perspective, theirs, and have a very limited or jaundiced view of themselves with the result that to varying degrees, they are often blissfully unaware of their shortcomings, or have an ability to completely ignore the signals no matter how weak or strong they may be. Even when they do recognize their failings they often seem incapable or unwilling to really address them. Certainly, my money is on the elephants over some of these leaders when it comes to self-awareness.