By Taavo Godtfredsen
For the last 15 years I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing and collaborating with hundreds of leading business authors and executives to get their wisdom on leadership.
I relish the opportunity to uncover new insights and innovation and especially enjoy sharing what I have learned with leaders directly to help them become even more successful. General Stanley McChrystal did not disappoint. His cool head and comforting attitude was inspiring.
Stanley McChrystal was the U.S. Army General who led the war effort in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. McChrystal is not a business leader, but what he had to say could not have been more relevant to business.
It was a strange experience when I met him, because with his reputation and standing, I imagined McChrystal as a stern, guarded man, tough as nails, firing words like bullets. He came across to me as the exact opposite. General McChrystal is approachable, somewhat soft spoken and puts everyone at around him at ease. Unlike other high level executives who can make others feel intimidated or unsure of themselves—lucky just to be in their company, Stan makes people feel important, like he is fortunate to be in their company.
General McChrystal cares not just about what you do – but who you are. He doesn’t lob easy, familiar questions at you but thoughtful questions, good questions. He asks follow up questions to learn more and listens closely to your response. When I reflect back on all of the leaders I have collaborated with, the great ones don’t just answer questions, they ask them. They have humility, or as Jim Collins describes, they are Level 5 Leaders.
One broad-ranging question I often ask leaders, as it reveals much about who they are, is “what is the most important aspect of leadership?” In the case of Stan, I almost fell out of my seat with his response. Empathy. The last word I expected from a four- star general with his war-time reputation. As he shared with me, successful leaders don’t just care for those they lead, they get perspective—by stepping directly into the shoes of their followers.
In his words, “if you can’t understand what your subordinates’ mission is like, what their role requires, their daily life, it’s very difficult to… lead them.” He tied two things together that are mission-critical for leaders today—empathy and decision-making. If we can see the world through the eyes of those we lead as well as our own, then we have a better chance of seeing the true reality of our situation and we will be able to make more effective decisions and achieve more successful outcomes.
Frances Hesselbein, whom Peter Drucker declared as the greatest CEO he ever met, poignantly shared with me, “leadership is about how to be, not how to do.” When I work with a group of leaders, I facilitate their understanding of the being part of leadership by asking them to reflect on which manager (could be a coach, teacher or family member) had the biggest impact on their success.
Once they visualise who this person is, we dig into the feeling question. I most often hear, they “made me feel…valued, special, empowered, unstoppable, important, etc…” The value of this exercise is putting the leaders in the shoes of being a follower and I quickly turn the tables on them by asking them to reflect on how their followers would answer this question about them. It creates a valuable tension—enabling leaders to think deeply about how they are being versus what they are doing and the true impact they are having on their followers.
In the case of General McChrystal, he makes everyone around him feel important —in part, because his first step is to always seek the perspective of others before sharing his own—no matter how frenzied the environment may be. If we make the effort to see the world through the eyes of those we lead, we will be much better placed to understand the true reality of our situation and make better decisions. Whether on the battlefield or in the office, that understanding is something a great leader cannot go without.
Taavo’s article was originally published in Real Business.
Taavo Godtfredsen is a Vice President and Executive Producer at Skillsoft. Follow Taavo on Twitter: @taavog
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