Last night I stayed up late to finish a little cotton sundress I was knitting for my granddaughter. When I got to the bottom of the skirt, the pattern called for a ‘picot bind off.’ I’d never done that technique before, and the instructions in the pattern didn’t help – I couldn’t figure it out.
So, of course, I got online and Googled “picot bind off.” And within moments, I had dozens of options. I went on Youtube and watched a very clear and simple video example of the technique, and was able to complete it easily.
This morning I told my husband about it, and we started talking about how the internet has transformed human learning.
Two hundred years ago, I would only have been able to learn a new knitting technique if someone in my village or town knew it and could show it to me.
One hundred years ago, I might have been able to read it in a book (but, as I discovered, that’s often not a very efficient way to learn).
Fifty years ago, I could have read it in a book or magazine, and then if I knew an expert knitter, and he or she knew this particular stitch, I could have called him or her on the phone and asked to be walked through the instructions.
But it’s only in this past 10 years or so that our options for learning have exploded in this amazing way. Now, within a few minutes and a couple of clicks, I can find a video and/or written explanation of pretty much any knitting technique that exists.
Every single day, we use the internet to gain knowledge we would not, in any past human era, have been able to find. “To google” (as in, I’ll just google it) has become a verb so common over the past decade that it doesn’t even seem fantastic to us anymore. All the knowledge of the world and all of man’s creation is at our fingertips: most all art, music, writing, insight; information on any possible subject. It’s more than any of us could ever take in.
When I think about it this way, it makes me want to be a little more discriminating in my time online. If all the food in the world was available to me right now, I’d want to select the best, freshest, most delicious. Now that the planet’s knowledge is spread out before me…I want to choose to fill my brain with those things that will be most interesting, helpful, fun, inspiring, thought-provoking.
William Morris, the English writer and artist, once said, “Only have in your house what you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” A good prescription for what we put in our brains, as well.
A couple of months ago, my publicist Barbara sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in writing an endorsement for a book called Change-friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. I generally feel both flattered and wary when I get these requests; I worry that I won’t like the book. But this one resonated for me; it’s very accessible and wise – and I felt very much aligned with the author, Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan.
I wrote an endorsement for Rodger; he asked me to do a guest interview for his blog; I asked him to return the favor. With every interchange, we feel more like kindred spirits! Here’s a little more about Rodger – hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did.
Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is widely known for his expertise in leadership development, organizational culture, and the strategic management of change. Early in his career he was an award-winning journalist and university professor. He’s been an officer at two Fortune 500 companies. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide, a consulting firm focusing on human performance. Rodger’s clients have ranged from cabinet officers in two White House administrations to senior executives in some of the world’s best companies in several industries.
In your book Change-friendly Leadership, you talk about how to help employees accept change, rather than resist it. If you had to pick the single most powerful tool in the leader’s toolkit for increasing people’s openness to change, what would it be?
Listening. Really listening. This requires using your eyes and your heart as well as your ears. Effective leaders listen to learn and understand rather than to rebut and overpower. They exercise influence rather than authority. They’re willing to be influenced rather than assuming that the views of others should always be subservient to theirs. Change-Friendly people tend to be good conversationalists. And the best conversationalists are usually people who ask good questions. They don’t interrogate, they simply ask meaningful questions that other people are willing to answer. People who are really good at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of others tend to ask questions that evoke that engagement. As I frequently tell my clients, we are most effective when we talk so other people will listen and when we listen so other people will talk.
What’s the least change-friendly thing you see leaders doing?
I suppose that would be the opposite of the good listening behavior I described in my answer to the previous question. Too many people try to lead by title, by authority, and by power. They try to bring about change by executive fiat, with heavy reliance on high-testosterone sloganeering. None of that works. In fact, those tactics usually do no more than foster cynicism and resistance.
When confronted with change, most people tune in to their favorite internal radio station: WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? That’s not to suggest that most people are selfish. It’s simply a fact that personal context is usually the first filter we use to evaluate our environment. It’s especially true when we’re asked to participate in some sort of change.
Many leaders are so focused on compliance that they forget the importance of commitment. These are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can and should be mutually reinforcing. For example, you want people to follow safety standards. That’s compliance. But they are more likely to comply when they understand and buy in to the reasons for the safety standards. That’s commitment. Commitment is about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Leaders cannot be truly effective unless and until they genuinely listen to and engage the heads, hearts, and hopes of their people.
I’d love to know how you became involved in this area – what led you to your interest in leading through change?
My interest in leadership issues was first sprouted when I was a university undergraduate. That interest blossomed into full-scale passion when I covered business and politics as a young journalist. One of my early editors was Jim Lehrer (later of PBS television fame) who taught me how to connect the dots between what people aspire to and what they actually accomplish. Later, as a university professor, I worked with a range of change issues – from helping students improve their academic performance to navigating the white water of faculty politics. I worked for cabinet officers in two White House administrations and closely observed what works and what does not work in dealing with change issues. I was an officer in two Fortune 500 corporations, and had the opportunity to lead a number of major change efforts. Finally, I’ve helped clients in many industries dealing with a wide range of challenges involving change. My PhD program [Purdue University] focused on organizational behavior. So my academic and professional experiences, combined with my life-long interest and involvement in human relationships, have brought me to where I am today. My interest in leading change came early in my life, and it’s been my major focus for the past 40 years.
If you had an hour with a smart young Gen-Yer, about to start his or her first management job, what would you share?
I would say, stay alert. Stay focused. Notice the behaviors that foster fear and disrespect and cynicism. Reject them. Then notice the behaviors that build trust and collaboration and respect and mutual purpose. Embrace those behaviors and practice them yourself until they become your automatic, default behaviors.
Early in my career I was in London and I met a man who worked for Scotland Yard. He was famous for his work with counterfeit currency. In our conversation I said, “To become such an expert you must spend an enormous amount of time studying counterfeits.” And he said, “No. In fact, I seldom look at counterfeits. I focus on the real stuff. I invest my time in examining authentic currency, then when I see a counterfeit I can instantly identify it as a fake.” As a consultant in leadership and change issues, I follow that model. I focus on the “real stuff,” then I can immediately identify inferior practices. That’s the counsel I’d give any smart young person who wants to succeed.
What do you hope your legacy is – that is, how do you want to leave the world a better place?
Everything I try to do – with my clients, with my friends, with my family, with people in my various communities – is aimed at improving relationships. Even the word “relationships” sounds touchy-feely to some people, but it’s through relationships that we accomplish the most important things in life. We don’t add our greatest value by virtue of our technical skills, although those can be vital. We add our greatest value by virtue of how well we relate to and with other human beings. I want to leave a legacy of helping people with their most important relationships.
As the pub date for Leading So People Will Follow draws closer, I’m getting more opportunities to talk about the Leading model to various audiences, and it’s really fun seeing the responses I get.
For instance, a couple of months ago I had the chance to speak at the HRPS (HR People & Strategy) Global Summit in NYC. I had been told ahead of time that it was a ‘tough crowd’ – high level HR folks who have heard it all and are skeptical about anything not backed by exhaustive data. It was a little daunting!
But in actual fact, they were a wonderful group. We had a great conversation about leaders and what makes them ‘followable.’ I shared the six attributes – far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy – and they really seemed to resonate. As we talked about them, it seemed as though the audience was reflecting both on the leaders in their organizations and on themselves as leaders. A couple of people told heartfelt, moving stories about great leaders they had known, people who made a significant impact on those around them.
One man told us the story of a woman who had been hired to run a maximum security men’s prison. She had never run a prison before, and everyone assumed she would fail. But she was such a good leader - and especially, so courageous and trustworthy – that she earned the respect not only of the guards and staff, but of the prisoners as well. The room was silent as he spoke of her.
The whole experience with the HRPS group reinforced my belief that nearly all of us long for good, honorable, fully followable leaders. And that our longing for good leadership is much deeper than any cynical I’ve-heard-it-all-before intellectualization. It’s wired into us as a kind of group survival mechanism. Good leaders feel safe to follow – and bad leaders feel dangerous. We’ll obey them, but we never completely ‘sign up.’
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean “follow” in some mindless, Attack of the Pod People kind of way. I don’t mean that we want to give away our power or our autonomy – in fact, we know instinctively that truly great leaders call out our best, and rely upon us to be independent thinkers. We understand that great leaders are a powerful catalyst, turning individuals into teams and teams into engines of accomplishment.
So, thanks to HRPS for inviting me to speak, and for re-confirming my faith in the depth of our longing for and openness to the ideal of great leadership.