Thousands of books on leadership exist. And yet, new ones keep to be added. Why? What makes leadership so hard to master? I ask expert Bart Provost.
Hi Bart, welcome to our studio.
Thank you very much for inviting me.
Today is our topic: leadership. But if I look at leadership books and big theories, then it seems to me that's always for CEO's of very big companies. But I have a small or medium-sized company. Maybe ten or three people. How can I apply leadership in my environment?
Well, it's a very good question. I mean: if you consider all the books and models and theories about leadership...
It's true, I mean: you should regard them as very good to have them in your mental backpack. So that you can take the one out, the one model or the one book or the one theory that suits your needs. At the moment something happens.
Better to consider them kind of like a Google Glass. Where you have like enhanced reality. Augmented reality. Where you can see things through your glasses and get augmented reality information. And that's exactly what it is about.
I mean: the main thing that leaders are lacking, or managers are lacking, of companies...
Whether they are a three-size, or three-staff company, or a three thousand-staff company.
The main thing is that in many cases leaders, they don't have a clue what the effect is of their own behaviour on other people, on their co-workers. And so, the more of this information you have, on your Google Glass installed, the more it allows you to look at a certain, very concrete, specific situation. And see like: what is really happening here? And that's the nice thing about it. And the moment you do that, you can decide. Like: okay, I have to give co-workers a feedback. I have to fire someone. I have to correct someone. I have to motivate someone. And at that moment, I can look at the situation and see what's really happening. And then I can decide, like: okay, this is the insight.
So, in order to have this Google Glass and you could call it even like a meta-position, where you look at things from a distance.
Of course, the first thing you need to know, that's the first absolute criterium you have to meet, is know yourself. Because if you have, yourself, no clue what the effect of your behaviour is on your co-workers, you're just going somewhere. Stumbling in the dark. But you have no idea where you're going. So, that's a typical thing. In order to do that, you need to realize one thing.
It's really funny, how so many leaders in training say: but why doesn't my co-worker reason in the same way as I do? Or: why doesn't my co-worker realize that this X-Y-Z is this important?
It's so obvious that we need to go that way.
And then of course I have to tell them like: okay, but there is a reason why you're sitting on that chair. And having that position. And not your co-worker. In many cases, leaders they have a different set of beliefs. Things they believe to be true, about how to manage a team. How to manage a department. How to manage a company. In comparison with their co-workers. I mean, just to give you a silly example.
I often compare a company with a tree full of monkeys. Right, take the average triangle-size tree. There's only room for one monkey in the top of the tree. And on all the branches below, you have more and more and more monkeys. I mean, the higher up in the tree you are, the more you can see of the Savannah, right? So, if I'm being a leader and the people below me, the monkeys on the branches below me, they ask me, like: hey, we're hungry, can we go down and gather some fruits and nuts? And I just go: yeah, whatever you like. They climb down. And I forgot to mention the three Lionesses, out on a hunt. There might be much less monkeys in my tree, than there were before.
So, it's because I have this bigger overview, that I see different things. That I have different beliefs. And a different order or structure of my value system. And that's the first thing. My co-workers are not me.
They're not mini-mes. It's not like that. They have their own values. They have their own, or value-structure, and they have their own beliefs. So, that's the first thing. Know who you are. And you could call this, with a simple word: awareness. Become more conscious, become more aware of what the effect of your behaviour is, on your co-workers. Become more aware of the fact that you're different than all your co-workers.
The nice thing is: as a leader you have, like, a membership card of the club of human beings. Right? And the fun thing is, the interesting thing, the difficult thing at the same time, is that all your co-workers, they also have this membership card.
And they're all different.
They're all different. So, that's the nice thing. Because it offers some opportunities. But it's a tricky thing as well. Because all of your co-workers are different people, right?
Okay, if you look at the people who are working for you then. Sometimes you want to do good for them. And propose, for example: I have a new opportunity for you.
And then that doesn't work. There's resistance.
How do you deal with that?
Well and at that moment, it's nice to have a model, on your Google Glass. An augmented reality that allows you, like: what is going on here?
Now, maybe a silly question. What do you think? One of your co-workers isn't delivering as promised. Or isn't delivering as you agreed with him. Or as what you gave to him or her as an assignment, right? What's the first thing that a manager or leader does?
Go to him or her. And say: okay, this isn't what we agreed upon. Or: this isn't what I'm expecting.
Right, absolutely. So, we're talking about execution. You didn't execute what I told you to. Or what I think we agreed upon. What do you need to improve the quality of it? Or to meet the deadlines, and so on. So, we're talking about the execution. Of the job.
Whereas, one of the two questions you might ask, is maybe like: yes, but did I have a commitment of my co-worker, at all? Did I have a real commitment? Or did I just shove it down his throat? So, that is a really important one.
And the second one is like: okay, but what is happening with my co-worker? What are these resistances? So, in fact it's like a three-step model.
First, what you need to do is like: build a connection between your co-worker and yourself. In order to go across some resistances that might be there. To build a very good rapport between yourself and your co-worker.
The second one is like: build a commitment. And when building a commitment, it's like negotiating about: what is the best way to do it? Like: this is what I want as a leader. And as your leader, I can decide, because of my hierarchical function. I can decide that this is the target for you, or this is the target for the department. So, this is what we need to do. How do you think...
And this is what I would like and this is what you would like. Okay, let's come up with a new solution. Kind of like a negotiation of a win-win solution for both of us.
And then only the third one is execution.
What most leaders don't do, is visit the first two ones. Like, go in deep connection with your co-workers, first of all. And then go towards commitment. It's mainly like: no, no, no, let's look at execution. Why isn't it good enough? Why isn't it timely enough? And then start forcing and putting some weight on it.
Now, on that commitment. In a big company that's, I think, more easy than in a small company. You have a lot of employees. You have a task to be done. And you go out, looking for the best fit to do that task.
In a small company, if you're, for example, one owner and two employees, in a company. Yes, there are certain tasks, that just need to be done.
And if both of your employees say: hm, I don't like it. Not for me.
Well, and that's the interesting part. I mean, if you start negotiating with your co-worker, or co-workers, on: okay, this is the task that needs to be done. And they start negotiating. That's when they leave the context.
So, the mainly point, the starting point, before we go for the three. Like: okay, first connection, then commitment and then execution.
The first thing is: what is the context? And in the context...
Like the context of the company. Like: what's the kind of customer we work for? Which line of business are we in? And so on.
It's also: we're a three people- company. Not a three thousand people company. So, I mean, opportunities for growth in here, forget it. I mean: if you want to become the next CEO of a company, it won't be in this one. Because I'm the CEO of this three people company.
So, it's the context. The context determines everything. And within the context, I also have like: okay, if this is the context of the company. Then this is what we should do. This is our objective. So, in order to meet the objectives, this is what we need to do.
And then we have to go back to the win-win negotiation.
On which we talked earlier.
Sure. Absolutely. Because if someone...
Let's take the example...
You see that now, more and more. People starting to negotiate about: being able to work from home, right? Now, I want to be able to work from home, like three days out of five. Because I don't have to commute back and forth, to work. Okay. It's all nice. And I believe that it makes up for a good balance between personal life and professional life. Absolutely. But let's go back to the context. Right? We're a three people-company. It's impossible that you work from home, for this or this reason. Or it's impossible that you work three days from home, for this or this reason. If that's the context. I can understand that you want to do this. But the context doesn't allow it. For instance.
And then of course you have, within the context: I want to maximize, together with you, your balance between personal and professional life. Are there any other ways in which we can do that?
Starting earlier, or whatever.
And then you're...
Or maybe allowing you to leave earlier. Pick up the kids from school. Make food. And then, afterwards, start working, every single day, from 7:30 or 8 pm until 10 pm. Like, doing the extra hours.
That brings me to the next problem, I think a lot of leaders are facing. For example, you have a talk with...
Take the example of the three people-company. That's an easy example. You have one person, who you trust 100%. Who comes to you: okay, I want to work from home, three days a week. And you agree and that works.
But you also have the other person. And he will come to your door and say: I want that too. Because she wants it and it's fair that I also...
But maybe you don't have the same trust in that person yet.
How do you deal with that?
Well, I take my Google Glass and I go like: hm, what's the situation here?
First, I want to go into connection with that person. And I want to make sure, that he or she understands what the context is. What the objective is of the company. And then we're going in connection. I can...
And that is about daring to tell your co-worker, like: I know I have given Jessica, for instance, the permission to do this. And the reason is: because I can fully, 100%, trust her. That the quality and the quantity of her work, is as we agreed upon. Quite frankly, with you, I've seen some examples...
And then you name them concretely. And that doesn't give me too much trust. That, when I let you work from your home office, that either the quality or the quantity will be okay. So, that's what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid of that. So, if you hear me saying that. How can you take away this fear with me? What are you willing to do, in order to help me overcome my fear?
And maybe first prove that you're up for it.
For instance, right.
Okay, so, what about a trial period? What if I work home one day a week. And then, after a period, an evaluation period of, like, two months. Then you see and you sit together with me. Okay, that would be a good idea. But now we're negotiating.
But it's about daring to show what's happening with me, when you ask me that question. And it's not about: I can't trust you and I can trust her. I can trust her quality and quantity, as agreed upon. I'm not sure about the quality and quantity that I agreed upon with you. So, how can you help me overcome my lack of trust. About quality and quantity. And then we're talking. Then we're negotiating. And that means opening up. It's like: you have to open up.
Instead of saying: no, we're not going to do that. One is already good enough.
Or than making sure that it's really righteous. Okay, I'm going to take two days away from Jessica and I'm going to give two days to you. And these are all the kind of semi-solutions, compromise-solutions, that leaders offer.
No, it's about really getting into connection. Opening up and daring to share your fears. Daring to share what you're afraid of. And what's troubling your mind.
But is that like Brené Brown says? Vulnerability?
Well what she says is like: intentional vulnerability equals courage.
If I have the intention to go out in a context, of which I know that it is potentially dangerous. Then that's what they call courage.
If you take a soldier going to the war, knowing that he or she can be shot. Okay, that we call courage. You know that you're vulnerable. And intentionally you go in that war.
Like a firefighter does. Going into a house in flames. You know that they can be hurt or killed even. But still they do it. That's what we call courage.
So, that's what Brené Brown is talking about. It's like you're opening a bit up. Because how can I expect you to share your resistances with me? Towards any assignment I give you, for instance. If I don't open up to you? I have to set the good example. If I can open up to you and show my, call it vulnerability, to you. Then you will feel safe enough to open up to me as well. So, I have to be, as a leader, it's my hierarchical function to open up to you, in a vulnerable way. And to dare say something about: this is what I'm afraid of.
But that's for most of us...
For some reason in society we learn to keep up a wall. And to hide those feelings.
Oh yes, absolutely.
Yes, for many reasons. Because the biggest fear we have, the biggest fear any human being has, is being rejected. Right?
So, and if I know something about you, I find out something about your pain' and what you're suffering and all the troubles in your mind, you might use it against me, some moment. For instance.
But in the real world...
You might manipulate me.
... it most of the time strengthens relationships. It does, actually, the opposite thing.
Of course. If you just look...
Someone shows up at work and starts crying in the middle of the office. And everyone: what's happening? I just lost my, whatever: husband, wife, mother, daughter, dog, anything. I mean, have you ever seen people bonding so much, as when people show emotions, right?
So, if you do open up that vulnerability, it's a very strong bond between people. And that's what most leaders tend to forget. Because I have to be the leader, I always have to be strong. No, you can share your doubts. You can...
Suppose I have to reorganize the company, because my foreign executive committee decided. And they gave me the assignment, like: you have to fire 50% of staff. Why would it be stupid to share with people this is breaking my heart. I don't know what to do about it. I tried to negotiate to see if we could come up with some other possibility. But it's not. And quite frankly, I have no clue how we're going to do this. There is not a text book that says: this is how you fire 50% of your staff in a good way. Doesn't exist. Because people are different. So, I'm lost in this. And it's breaking my heart, and so on.
I mean, you will build up far more trust from your people, when they see that you do open up towards them. Then when you start building up this beautiful window dressing thing. Like: hey, I'm here, I'm the alpha-male. I can do it. Don't fear, I'm the best. Isn't really helpful there.
Maybe one to conclude with.
You already mentioned resistance. That's one of the most difficult things, I think, as a leader. To deal with. In one of your staff members.
True. And one of the most beautiful things. In fact, resistance is a gift. Because the moment...
That, you need to explain.
Resistance is a gift, because by sharing resistance, people reveal what they consider to be important. They reveal what they think, or find are their needs, their interests, their desires. So, it's beautiful. Because they reveal a little bit. They open the door of their soul, to say like: well, I don't agree with you, because...
Hm, interesting. What's behind that? Okay. Now, if we look at it. There are three kinds of resistances that you have to work with, as a leader.
The first one is over here [points to head], the second one over here [points to heart] and the third one over here [points to belly]. It's a bit of a mnemonic, kind of like a memory trick.
So, the first one, over here, is about: I don't get it, I don't understand it. I don't know why. Why do I need to do something differently?
But that's an easy one, I think. You can share, as a leader, more information. Background. Whatever is needed to solve that.
At face value, yes. You can share information. Like: okay, this is the context. It's going very bad with the company. And that's why we need to reorganize. Okay, right.
Just know that many of the resistances on these two levels [points to heart and belly], are being formulated in this way.
People are: yes, but I don't know why we should do this.
Okay, there can be more below the surface.
And in many cases, these two [points to heart and belly]. This one the trickiest one [points to belly].
This one [points to heart] is: I don't want to. Right? Symbol of the heart. I don't want to. I don't want to change. I don't like it. Because you're afraid, or...? Well, it might be because you're afraid. It might be because you don't like the idea. Might be because you think like: well, the future image that my leader is holding up doesn't please me. For reason X-Y-Z. And so on. Been there, done that. Seen it before. It didn't work in the past and so on. All these kinds of things are like: I don't want it.
And then this one [points to belly] is the trickiest one. So, these two ones [points to heart and belly] can be translated as well as knowledge questions. Like: I don't understand.
This one [points to belly] is: I don't trust you. I don't trust you, as a leader. I don't trust you as the person, being told by higher management that you should come tell us this. Because they have a second, an underlying reason why they want to do all this, for instance.
What do you do, as a leader, if somebody of your team comes up to you and says: I don't trust you as a leader?
Well, chances are...
Well, be grateful. Right? Be grateful. Because, if someone shows up at your office door and says: I don't trust you as a leader. That means that you already have established such a security, that your co-workers are willing to share such a feedback. Of which they know that it's going to hurt your ego. Welcome in the club of human beings. Right? So, you must have done something all right. Okay? So, that's the good news about it. Right?
Now, on the other hand, of course, if someone says that...
Like, okay, you can share. How would it make you feel? If some of your co-workers said like: hey Kevin, I don't really like you as a leader. I don't trust you as a leader. I don't trust your leadership skills.
That hurts. Like hell.
Sure, yes. So, exactly, say that.
Wow, what you're telling me now. That hurts like hell. I'm trying my utmost best to do...
Wow, really. Okay. Would it be okay if I asked some questions about it? And what is the behaviour that you see with me, the behaviour that I demonstrate, that you...
That's already very strong leadership, if you are able to react like that. Because...
Absolutely, yes. Now, let's say that most people, they will be completely bedazzled. Like: what's happening here? Well, average, normal human being will go like: what? Who do you think you are?
Get out of my office.
True. That's the ego talking, right? And then hopefully, at some moment you come back to your senses. And then you go like: okay, that was my first reaction. I apologize for it. And that was mainly a reaction that spoke out of the hurt. That I felt, when you said that to me. Because what I see is that you consider me not to be a good leader. Whereas my intention is to be the best possible leader, that I can offer you. And the fact that you gave me this feedback, oh my god, that hurt. That's the reason why I reacted as I did.
Now version 2.0 is immediately like: oh my god, can I share how this comes across. That's doing it immediately. That's version 2.0. Right? But it's a path of growth. Being a leader.
Now and at that moment you can start sharing. Like: okay, what's the behaviour that you observe, that makes you come to the conclusion that I'm not a good leader? I'm not a leader to be trusted. What's the behaviour that you're lacking? By which you come to the conclusion that I'm a leader not to be trusted.
Imagine the richness of the conversation that you have. When you allow yourself into this connection with other people. To learn what they really think about you. So, in order to do that...
And that's why I complimented you. You must have done something right. It's like establishing a context in which people feel safe and secure, to dare share it. So, that's the first thing you need to do. And then afterwards it's like asking questions about it. Like: okay. And why is that?
Okay. And what do you expect from a leader?
Maybe I don't have to agree with what you say. Right? Because I see things in a different way. And because I'm higher up in the mountain. Or higher up in my tree. I can see the Savannah. I can see more of the Savannah than you can see. But I understand that you see it like that. Okay, what would you need, and so on. To be committed to my leadership style. Then we're talking about the second thing.
Connection and then commitment.
Are you still committed to this company? Still committed to the job, and so on. Where the context is that I'm still going to remain your leader. Hm, how can we meet? And how can we come to a win-win solution for the both of us?
Yes, and then the circle is round.
Bart, thank you very much for enlightening us on leadership.
And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.