Even Placido Domingo needs to practice.
Theories, principles and skills can be learned. But, everything learned must be expressed through each leader’s unique personality and voice. And, that expression has to be continuously adjusted to fit widely varying situations.
So, leadership is just as much an art as it is a skill.
Like any other art, leadership requires ongoing development and fine tuning. The great opera singer Placido Domingo is now 70 years old and has performed in 134 operas. Yet, he still practices. He still confers with music directors for feedback.
IMPERFECTION IS UNAVOIDABLE.
Operas have at least one dress rehearsal. The singers try to eliminate mistakes or adjust interpretation that is a little “off” in some way. Leaders have no such opportunity for dress rehearsals with the actual players in upcoming organizational “scenes.” And, there is no script! Improvisation is a constant for everyone.
In this context, how could leaders possibly avoid all mistakes or periodic “off kilter” actions that are not ideal for creating the best outcomes?
SCENE I: JAN AND JIM
(Jan and Jim are two highly successful and respected vice presidents at the same level within an organization. They confer in the hallway after jointly attending a series of meetings with several teams. They are close colleagues committed to giving helpful feedback to each other.)
Jan: Jim, I have to tell you, You can be really good and you can also really blow it big time.
Jim: (surprised and a bit hurt) What do you mean?
Jan: Like, the first meeting–you can be so great about eliciting participation. You get great ideas generated that way. But, in the second meeting, you just cut Corinne off.
Jim: Look, Corinne acts like only she can be right. She shuts everyone else down. It’s a waste of time to try to reason with her. I am highly committed to making sure people are listened to but sometimes you have to cut your losses. You try dealing with her.
Jan: That is the second or third meeting I have seen you cut her off. It’s kind of unsettling. And she is the manager of that team! If I feel uncomfortable, how do you think others feel, Mr. Value Driven Leader? Maybe you are the one shutting everyone down.
Jim: (irritated) Look. We have another meeting. Let’s talk later.
BLIND SPOTS MAKE FEEDBACK ESSENTIAL.
It is simply difficult for anyone to see, hear and evaluate all aspects of their own performance. Everyone has blind spots. Important things can be missed. Everyone has habits of response that don’t fit for accomplishing the best outcomes in some situations. Remember that even great artists like Placido Domingo do not rely only on self assessment. They get feedback from others.
SCENE II: JAN AND JIM
(several hours later, after Scene I, at a coffee shop after work)
Jan: I have to apologize, Jim. Here I was giving you a hard time about not living your values and I go and give you pretty abrasive feedback. Me–the Queen of crafting feedback that is easy to listen to.
Jim: Apology appreciated and accepted. But you were also right. When I think about it, very opinionated and rigid people like Corinne get me off track from my own values. There have to be ways I can make sure she is heard but not let her set the tone. Can you help?
Jan: I have one idea. I think you are missing a performance issue with Corinne. (they talk on)
GET BEYOND THE SURPRISE OR HURT.
Jan and Jim’s feedback process in Scene I is initially a bit messy. Jan is irritated with Jim’s imperfection. Jim gets hurt and irritated with Jan for pointing it out. Such mis-steps are not unusual. Even with people like Jan and Jim who are experienced giving and receiving feedback, calling out imperfection has an uncanny way of feeling like a very unpleasant surprise. After all, we want more than anything to perform at our best at all times.
In Scene II, Jan and Jim quickly move beyond the hurt. They each acknowledge their parts in the messiness. Also, they are driven by firm assumptions and commitments. They assume imperfection is a given for everyone. They assume there are important learnings in every imperfection that can enhance performance. Most important, they are firmly committed to taking time for personal reflection and objective feedback.
DEVELOP A PRACTICE OF PERSONAL REFLECTION AND OBJECTIVE FEEDBACK.
Effective personal reflection and trusting relationships for feedback do not happen overnight. They require ongoing time and practice. And, there are barriers to overcome. Fast-paced, high pressured work lives do not support reflection time. Organizational cultures all too frequently do not facilitate openness. Or, a leader might be too new to have any effective feedback loops. Or, the particular “imperfection” or “mistake” might feel too sensitive for collegial feedback.
The aim would be to build feedback loops with trusted colleagues and employees in the midst of work. Also, outside consultant and coaching can provide a jump start to creating such a practice.
In any case, we can trust that there is tremendous wisdom in our imperfections. We can use them for guidance. We can use them to develop our personal art of leadership