Don’t just tell me you understand, show me!

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. ~Daniel Goleman

There are three kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy. These definitions were going through my mind as we experienced upheaval in cities across the country this past week.

Practice the Right Kind of Empathy

Daniel Goleman, author of best-selling Emotional Intelligence defines the first type of empathy, cognitive empathy as “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.” This type of empathy is what we might find helpful in the workplace or in financial negotiations.

The second kind of empathy is emotional empathy. Goleman tells us that this is “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” This may be the empathy we have with close friends or family members.

The third kind is compassionate empathy. “With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but we are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” Compassionate empathy strikes a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy.

Example of Compassionate Empathy

I believe that one of the many challenges of the last week is that while some people are practicing cognitive empathy (saying you understand) what is needed is really compassionate empathy (showing you understand).

We’ve all likely seen the images of police officers around the country, and the world, taking a knee in a symbol of solidarity. They are showing that they understand. The sheriff in Flint, Michigan who put down his club and said he didn’t want to join them in a protest but in a parade. Which was received with smiles and cheers.

Compassionate empathy is a reflection of bold grace. It’s about not only letting your brain intellectually process what the other person(s) might be experiencing. It’s also about allowing yourself to feel what they might be feeling. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their perspective; but it does mean you need to care about their perspective.

That said, officers taking a knee is not going to resolve the pain that has accumulated over decades. However, it is at least a step in the right direction. It’s leading in a time of crisis upon crisis with bold grace.

This week look for ways that you can “take a knee” and practice bold grace through compassionate empathy.

Leaders Stretch to the Edge

You have to stretch to get close to the edge. ~Sara Little Turnbull (inventor of the N95)

The N95. In February you could have said the N95 mask and I would have asked what you were talking about. Three months later, all you need to say is N95 and I know exactly what it is you would be referencing. I only recently learned the story behind the N95.

Sara Little Turnbull was a design consultant working for 3M in 1958 focusing on gift wrap and fabric. What seemed to be an appropriate division for a woman in the 1950s. 3M used a unique fabric called Shapeen that could mold to a specific shape. Turnbull first created those pre-made bows for gift wrapping.

Stretch to New Ideas

She was intrigued by all of the potential uses for Shapeen. So much so, she came up with over 100 ideas. On that list was a design for a molded bra cup, which 3M enlisted her to design. [I do find it ironic that I’ve seen several people fashion face masks from bra cups. If they only knew!]

A few years later, Turnbull was caring for three family members all of whom required the care of a physician. She saw the health care workers constantly fussing with their masks that tied in the back. Then came yet another idea. Use that same moldable fabric and make a mask that would be both more comfortable and a better fit.

In 1961 3M patented the first lightweight medical mask based on Sara’s design. It did resemble a bra cup, was disposable, and included an elastic band that went around the ears and a nose clip. But there was a problem. It didn’t really work. Pathogens still got past the nonwoven material.

It’s reported that Sara always said that 90% of her career was made up of failure. To Sara, that was not defeating for anyone who wanted to innovate or create new horizons.

The N95 a technological feat that took years and years of work across multiple continents. And it all started with Sara Little Turnbull, who was famous for saying, “If you don’t stretch, you don’t know where the edge is.”

Bold Grace on the Edge

Sara’s mindset can teach us a great deal about leading with bold grace.

  • Be Bold: Willing to take risks; knowing that 90% of what she created likely wouldn’t work.
  • With Grace: Willing to be a player in creating something great; knowing that she likely would not be the sole creator.
  • On the Edge: Willing to chart new territory; knowing that she would need to stretch in order to get close to the edge.

Here we are in 2020 and now the N95 has become a common household term we all recognize. All thanks to a woman who was living, and leading, with bold grace. Thank you, Sara Little Turnbull.

[Note, Sara “Little” Turnbull was 4’11”.]

Leadership Decision Dumping

When you face a problem, solve it then and there if you have the facts necessary to make a decision. Don’t keep putting off decisions. ~Dale Carnegie

Donation dumping. I volunteer at a thrift store so the news story on donation dumping caught my attention. At one of the large Salvation Army thrift stores in Chicago someone had broken the steel gate in order to get in and leave their unwanted COVID-19 spring cleaning items. Yes, they actually broke in, in order to leave (not take) items. That’s one of the many pandemic paradoxes.

Decision Dumping

Another paradox that I’ve noticed is the number of leaders who are also “spring cleaning.” They aren’t donation dumping but they are decision dumping.

The number of people who have been thrust into the ranks of the unemployed is staggering. I recognize that many of these decisions were gut-wrenchingly difficult, yet necessary given that there were literally no revenues to make payroll. The pain caused by all of this should not be taken lightly. But I’m talking about something different in this paradox.

I’m referencing people in leadership positions whose performance has been lackluster for some time. There likely should have been consequences for their lack of performance or maybe simply lack of a good fit for the role or the organization. And now, suddenly, they are being let go.

It’s hard to deal with leaders who just aren’t working out. But it seems that leaders find it especially hard to deal with issues on their own leadership team.

However, as the crisis began to escalate and stay at home orders were being put in place leaving organizations with only days to prepare, something started to happen. Bold decisions were being made that were not only to pivot due to the pandemic, but were also decisions that had been procrastinated for some time to let leadership team members go. I’m guessing leaders found it less difficult to make those decisions because now they are one of many other decisions amidst the COVID chaos.  

At what cost?

My next question for this has been “At what cost is this to their organization?” In other words, had this problem been acted on sooner, would the organization have been better prepared to maneuver through the current crisis?

So why is this a paradox? Well, as Jim Collins says, one of the key roles of a great leader is to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. If that’s a key role, then why does it take something extreme like a crisis for the leader to take action on what is critical to leading the organization?

My intention is not to encourage leaders to suddenly let their leadership team go. My intention is to encourage leaders to stop delaying difficult conversations. Be bold: name what’s not working. With grace: give people a chance (and support) to self-correct. Don’t wait for something as catastrophic and rare as a pandemic to make decisions that should be part of the leader’s role, day-in and day-out.

Don’t wait for a pandemic to start “decision dumping.” Make decisions, even difficult ones, and lead with bold grace.

Is your communication an illusion?

The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished. ~George Bernard Shaw

Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

Are you judging people based on expectations you’ve never communicated? Most of us would quickly respond with “no!” to that question. But, maybe we should all take a step back and consider our actual actions and thoughts before we assume our innocence too hastily.

Dr. Sunnie Giles recently surveyed nearly 200 leaders, worldwide, and asked what they believe are the most critical leadership competencies. One of the top three competencies was communicate clear expectations. I paused and thought about that for a minute. Contemplating what keeps us from communicating clear expectations since that seems fairly straightforward. Examples soon began to flood my mind.

Don’t Hold People Accountable to Expectations You’ve Not Communicated

I recall a nonprofit leader I once worked with who let someone go because they didn’t meet their expectation for dollars raised. Interestingly, the person who was let go exceeded the approved fundraising goal. But the leader had never communicated his real expectation. Why not? Good question. He wasn’t sure they could reach the goal he had in mind and only wanted to approve goals he was confident people could reach. In the end, who did this benefit? Absolutely no one.

Don’t Assume Your Subtleties Communicate Expectations

Another leader came to mind who wanted someone he supervised to change their behavior. He said that he was “subtle” about his expectation but believed (or likely assumed) the person understood. He feared coming across harsh or commanding. What happened? The behavior did not change and eventually the employee resigned. Again, the lack of communicating clear expectations benefited no one.

Don’t Let the Relationship Hinder Clear Expectations

For good measure, here’s one more example that I’ve seen a number of times. Even people who are more commanding by nature will sometimes hold back and not fully state their expectations. In this case, I’ve found the reason to be because they have a more personal relationship with the individual – a trusted confidant or even a relative. From a distance, what I frequently see is a person longing for clarity and knowing the real expectation from the leader. Because there is more of a relationship, I think the leader believes that stating their real expectation might cause the person to feel vulnerable. And typically, people who are more commanding by nature fear vulnerability. So, you guessed it, again, this benefits no one.

Be SMART When Communicating Expectations

Expectations typically fall into two broad categories: task-related/quantitative expectations and interpersonal/behavioral expectations. Both are critical to organizational success. How do you know if you are communicating clear expectations? Use the acronym many times used to establish goals: SMART.

S – SPECIFIC. Are you being really specific with what you expect? It’s not fair to be critical of someone (or even think critically of them) if you haven’t been as specific with your communication as what you truly expect.

M – MEASURABLE. Will the person know when they have succeeded (either quantitatively or behaviorally)? Have you painted a clear picture of success?

A – ACHIEVABLE. Have you communicated expectations that are both challenging and achievable?

R – RELEVANT. Have you communicated the why or the relevancy of your expectation? What is the outcome or result?

T – TIME. If you expect something completed or behavior changed, have you communicated within what timeframe? Did you communicate the timeframe in such a way that it sounds flexible or firm?

Communicating your true expectation is bold. Communicating your expectation clearly requires grace. Keep leading with bold grace.  

In a crisis, leaders straddle the fence.

Crises are most often over-managed and under-led.  ~ Eric McNulty & Leonard Marcus

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

I mentioned in previous posts that I moved to a new home a few weeks ago, during the pandemic stay-at-home order. As the order extends into May, I frequently think about something my movers did when we arrived at my new home. It’s a metaphor for the challenge leaders face in the COVID crisis. The movers assumed that if something was in a specific room at my previous home that it would go in that same room in my new home. That was not always the case.

I used the opportunity of everything I own being loaded in a truck into an uncertain and chaotic state, to reimagine how it could function even better in a completely new state once it arrived at my new home.

Take Advantage of the COVID Opportunity

That’s how I see effective leaders manage through the crisis of COVID-19. They aren’t looking for ways to return to “normal” (i.e., put everything back in the same room from which it came). They are taking advantage of the opportunity (albeit a forced opportunity) to reimagine how their organizations could be even better when the metaphorical moving truck finally arrives at their new home.

Eric McNulty and Leonard Marcus in HBR recently said, “For nearly two decades, we’ve researched and observed public and private-sector executives in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. What we’ve learned is that crises are most often over-managed and under-led.” “Leading involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome over this arc of time. The focus needs to be on what is likely to come next and readying to meet it. That means seeing beyond the immediate to anticipate the next three, four, or five obstacles.”

I’ve also seen another perspective that McNulty and Marcus highlight. Leaders who are jumping in to help with an all-hands-on-deck mindset and are being seduced by the adrenaline of managing in a crisis. Personally, I think it can build morale for leaders to roll up their sleeves and join those on the frontline, but, only for a time. A critical part of leadership is preparing the organization for the future and leaders simply can’t do that if they are sucked into day-to-day crisis response, especially over time.

Leaders Straddle the Fence

This is where leaders really have to straddle the fence. Demonstrating that they are empathetic regarding the current day-to-day challenges (show grace), while at same time, planning and preparing for the future (being bold).

I’ll admit, this is far easier said than done. Here’s one way to straddle the fence.

  • Start small. At the end of every day, write down one thing you did to plan or prepare for the future.
  • If you need more accountability, ask someone to check-in with you and ask what you are doing to prepare your organization for the future.
  • Then, strive for more than half of your time being spent on planning long-term and preparing for the future.

Straddle the fence and lead with bold grace.