Febrary 26, 2016

This BOG Update is brought to you by Rosanne Nelson, MBA, MA/OD, Director of Leadership Development at the ACC.

Each year, my husband asks what I want for Valentine's Day. And, each year, I say the same thing: "I don't care about Valentine's Day...I care about all the days in between." After all these years, I do appreciate that he asks. And, more important, I appreciate the days in between. If those 364 days were not felt with the heart, a box of chocolates on February 14th would simply be a box of chocolates. It's taken over a decade to convince him that I really mean it. But, the truth is...while I care about any act of kindness, I care far more deeply about what's beneath the surface.

In a former organization, we used the term 'below the waterline.' A brief but powerful statement, that served the organization in ways unimaginable at the time. Ultimately, we started using the language in many of our team sessions, coaching efforts and enterprise-wide leadership programs. Such a simple sentiment that often served to diffuse most situations while enhancing the probability for shared understanding. To be clear, this quick statement did not lead to a windfall of rainbows and unicorns, but it did give clearance to ask each other "What is behind your thinking? Why is this decision uncomfortable for you? Where is your main concern (really) coming from? What beliefs or assumptions are at play?"

The statement required each of us, regardless of level within the organization, to not simply lead for the sake of leading...but, to examine the beliefs and assumptions in each of us...to look beneath the surface. As many of you have heard in the past, healthy conflict is a requirement of a healthy organization. In order to reach a state of healthy conflict, one must look below the waterline.

Back in 2004, a highly regarded CEO out of an Australia financial services organization came out with a statement that surprised his organization at the time. It was no secret that his main focus was reflective of financial benchmarks and lofty performance metrics. He rarely talked about much else. Until that day...

To a group of those that admired his tenacity and focus, he made a statement that surprised his colleagues: "If you're running a gas company, you need to know something about gas. But, I encourage you to look beneath the surface...things such as: interpersonal elements, broad-scanning interests, how big issues might affect your resources, your people...they make your business; they matter" (Treadgold 2004). At the time, this statement made the global business press. A highly admired Executive out of Australia made a seemingly bold statement.

Nearly twelve years later, his quick statement is lost in a sea of related literature that you can readily find on the bookshelves. Of note, The Heart of Leadership. Authored by a self-proclaimed 'chicken guy' out of Chik-Fil-A. Mark Miller started his career as an hourly team member back in 1977, working in the warehouse and mailroom. Today he serves as the vice president for organizational effectiveness at Chik- Fil-A. Miller addresses leadership success within a very basic framework.

Leading from above the waterline versus below the waterline.

"Ninety percent of our success as leaders will be determined by what's below the waterline. It's our leadership character that ultimately drives what we do, and why. It is a true reflection of who we really are as human beings. ...Not to neglect the remaining 10%, which is aligned to one's technical skillset." Miller is quick to remind us, as will most organizational consultants you may meet along the way: "It is rarely lack of skills that knock us off course — skills are too easy to learn. When we get stuck as a leader, it is most often an issue of the heart."

A few key traits from the above literature are listed below, as a guide. And, as you'd expect, there are assessments on the market to determine any gap therein. However, I encourage you to consider traits that are most applicable to your authentic style. One's leadership style is most often a reflection of who he/she is internally. You can fake it for a while, but eventually it will come out. Take a look beneath the waterline, and of those around you:

  1. Think: Others First. What does success look like for him or her? How will this be interpreted? What assumptions am I making?
  2. See the Potential. Leaders believe we can make a difference; we think we can make the world, or at least our part of it, better. Share that potential with your team. Encourage them to be a part of the process. What does that future look like to them? Question assumptions.
  3. Respond With Courage. Missed opportunities are often no big deal in isolation. They are, however, cumulative. Your team watches you, and how you respond to events both big and small. Be mindful of the 90% below the waterline...your beliefs / assumptions / habits...they show up when you least expect it.
  4. Seek Divergent Wisdom. Be open to input, new ideas, contrarian opinions, and views. Establish a network of counselors to call on for their advice and wisdom. Consider: what do others think is important? What is motivating those around you? How do you know?
  5. Own It. The reality is...some decisions are good, and others look differently in hindsight. Perhaps a decision was taken too quickly, or made sense at the time but looks different in the light of day. Regardless, accept it and move on to making it better. Your team will thank you for your authenticity and inclusion.

Leading from the heart is reflective of an authenticity that is not found in a book, nor learned at a seminar. Your leadership style reflects the realities beneath the waterline of your own needs, and often the needs of those that you work with each day. Character, courage, history, beliefs, baggage, assumptions... Hold true to your leadership style, and push beneath the waterline as often as you can to ensure you are leading successfully. You'll be glad you did.

Remember, it's not about one day of the year, but all the days in between.