Last week I attended a local networking group for leaders from various industries. At each meeting, they invite a speaker to kick off the meeting by sharing their thoughts on a specific aspect of leadership. There was nothing particularly earth-shattering or edgy about the presentation. It was mostly about how leaders must spend time cultivating relationships, developing trust, and maintaining a healthy workplace culture to drive higher performance and engagement from team members. It was all pretty basic and universally accepted, but the speaker did have some unique ideas about specific things a leader can do to create connections, so the presentation was still engaging. A few slides into the presentation, though, I realized that the gentleman behind me scoffed or snickered after each key point.
After the presentation was over, I made my way through the crowd to meet the heckler and hear his perspective. This was his first time at the leadership networking event, and likely his last. He explained, “These leadership theory authors are all the same. Yeah, everyone gets warm and fuzzies thinking about building camaraderie and mentoring some “high potential” (said while gesturing air quotes), but then there’s reality.” He was loud and unashamed of dismissing the speaker, who stood only a few feet away. He continued, “The reality is there’s no time for group hugs, thank you notes, and inspirational quotes. I’ve got stuff to do! I have quotas. I have KPI’s. I have 17 people in three locations and someone always has “the flu” or their “grandma” died (again with the air quotes). I have dashboards, and status reports, inventory reports, budget reports, and customers, and presentations, and (looks down at his phone) THIRTY SEVEN EMAILS SINCE I GOT HERE AND IT’S 7:00PM! I don’t care how many bean bags they put in those offices. The culture is just ‘do your work!’”
And the room was silenced.
We were all so focused on the burnout (and questionable job fit) seeping out of his pores that we didn’t notice the speaker herself had quietly joined his audience. We all waited for her to defend herself or dismiss his condescending oversimplification of her presentation, but she didn’t.
What she did next was so artful, I think many of us wish we’d been taking notes. First, she thanked him for his bold, honest perspective from the frontlines. She said she rarely hears this kind of critical feedback from a real leader and it is worth more than a million compliments in her mind. Then she asked him to share more. Question after question, she dug into the details of his daily life. The 37 emails. The mandatory travel. The constant shift of strategy. The four bi-weekly reports that all say the same thing. The Monday meetings that have nothing to do with his division. The monthly leadership call where he says the same thing he wrote in the bi-weekly status reports.
With each unfolding detail, the speaker expressed understanding and sincere empathy for the struggles and competing demands this man experienced. She asked him what he would change if he could. If he could stop doing one task, what would it be? Then, as if she was brainstorming in her own mind, she said “I wonder what it would take to get that off your plate.” He quickly shared his plan for reducing his 4 reports to one. In fact, he’d already designed the template, but had been too busy to get approval for implementation. He already created the value proposition and estimated cost savings for replacing one site visit per month with a virtual huddle but was hesitant to pitch it because his predecessor believed webcam meetings were impersonal.
In just a few short minutes, this man went from loud, abrasive and dismissive to defeated and then re-energized by his own plans. By this point, most of the crowd around him had dispersed and were pleased with seeing this miraculous transformation. But the speaker wasn’t done with her show.
She said “I wonder what your day would be like if you could eliminate all of the redundancy and unproductive tasks.” He laughed and said “I would probably have time to actually work with my team.” He looked down for a second and said “It wasn’t always like this. Would you believe I used to mentor new graduates? They’d send them all to shadow me for a few days and I’d coach them on finding the right path in the organization. But then I just had too much to manage, so….”
It was as if the words tumbled out of his mouth and landed on his chest like a ton of bricks. He couldn’t deny it any longer. Somewhere along the way, he stopped leading and started managing.
The speaker that day skillfully led him to his own realization. By welcoming his ridicule as valuable feedback, she disarmed his offensive attack. She empathized, asked questions, listened intently and got him to open up about his frustrations. Finally, she gave him confidence to take ownership over his future and make changes. And after all of that, what she uncovered was an over-worked, bruised, inexperienced frontline manager who had never received formal training, coaching, or mentoring. He was a person who had a vision for the leader he wanted to be, but when competing demands overwhelmed him, he blamed his poor leadership on the lack of time.
True leaders always find the time.
Elon Musk famously told Tesla employees they have permission to walk out of meetings and hang up on calls that offer no value. He urges everyone to push back on meeting for meeting’s sake and question rules/processes if they don’t make sense. In essence, he’s saying you’re too talented to waste your time listening in on calls. You weren’t hired to doodle. You were hired to make a difference—to lead! Stop doing things that don’t matter. There will always be things to manage, but there is no excuse for not finding time to lead.