June 2011: The Clairvoyant LeaderJune 1, 2011
I once facilitated a heated high school faculty meeting, at which the principal stood and said:
“I don’t think anyone here wants to continue this debate much longer. We need to agree to disagree, and move on.”
Did the principal know the preferences of each of the 85 faculty members? If so, how did she gain such certainty?
Did others share her need to “agree to disagree” or were some interested in further vetting the issues?
The cost of “group speak”
At a moment when she could have gained credibility by taking a clear “I” position (e.g., “I don’t believe this debate is central to our mission, and I won’t participate in it after today.”) the principal exercised weak leadership by speaking for others. Several faculty members reported that they viewed the principal as “controlling,” “manipulative,” and “forcing her own agenda.”
Why do leaders fall into the trap of speaking for others without acquiring first-hand information? Do they feel an exaggerated responsibility for protecting their staffs, employees and customers from the rigor of thinking for themselves? Are they trying to push their own point without looking pushy? Or are they following the lead of advertisers (“For the look women love, you need Blaze teeth whitener”) and politicians (“The American people are fed up”)?
Regardless of the contributing reasons, pretending to know what is best for others or stating their thoughts, feelings, positions and preferences, compromises their autonomy and initiative. Instead of seeding confidence and maturity, speaking for others promotes obedience and dependence.
Deception and trickery
The biggest negative about speaking for others is its deception. Who can know the mind of another? Clairvoyant leadership stimulates a scintillating conviction – “I know what you’re thinking” – but it’s actually a pretentious trick. I have a hard enough time knowing my own thoughts, much less another’s.
The medicine for this deception is knowing and speaking one’s own position or viewpoint. What do I want? What is my position? What do I believe? In the majority of leadership interactions, replacing “speaking for others” with one’s own position, want, need or thought results in a clearer message.
To spell this out, I have listed several “speaking for others” phrases, followed by the underlying and more skillfully-delivered message:
• “Joe is confused right now and we need to help him.”
(“I’m going to ask Joe if he’s confused or needs help.”)
• “Others have shared with me their concerns about your smoking.”
(“I’m concerned about your smoking”)
• “We need a 15-minute break.”
(“I would appreciate a 15-minute break”)
• “I don’t think anyone here would want to shift directions at this point.”
(“I don’t want to shift directions at this point. I’m interested in how others think.”)
• ”As a team, we all know this has been the roughest year in our history.”
(“My own view is that this is the roughest year in our history”)
• “Linda knows how I feel about this.”
(“I’ve told Linda how I feel about this.”)
• “You’re really making it difficult for us to follow you.”
(“I’m having difficulty following you…”)
• “We’re a tight family and we all believe in an afterlife.”
(“I perceive us as a tight family; I would like to hear what each person believes about an afterlife.”)
The comfort of speaking for others
There’s great comfort in speaking for our children, spouses, employees and bosses: It produces a cozy feeling of togetherness and feeds the fantasy of agreement which is often mistaken for credibility.
But agreement does not produce credibility. Gaining credibility takes time, as participants are willing to “be known” by their own positions instead of hiding in generalizations about others.
The discipline and focus of accurate language should not be under-estimated. Leaders who want to be taken seriously resist the false certainty of clairvoyance, trusting instead the strength of their own clearly-stated beliefs and desires.
It’s a shift that can make a difference.
© 2011 Leadership Coaching, Inc. All rights reserved.