As we enter a new era for IT organizations, our next generation of leaders will have to embrace the idea of emotionally aware leadership.
Talk, Not Gossip
I remember the time when Mary stepped into my office. (The real name of "Mary" and other people mentioned in this article have been changed, along with other identifying details.) I was a young manager, and we were going through a time of transition and she had some concerns about her role. We had a good chat and I actually learned quite a bit about Mary that I hadn't known before, such as her aspirations, her goals, her fears. As she got up to leave my office, she looked at me and said how nice it was that she could have an honest and open conversation with me. As a young manager, it was one of my prouder moments.
A key sign that you are an emotionally aware leader is that your team wants to talk to you. Not that they are willing to talk, if you ask them. But that they seek you out. The reason why they seek you out is also an important indicator. If they seek you out for advice and counsel much more than for direction and permission, you're on the right track. If they feel comfortable asking for your help in achieving their goals, it's a clear sign that they feel comfortable letting their guard down with you.
If instead your team holds their goals, dreams and aspirations too close to the vest, you probably have some work to do. On the other hand, if your team is so comfortable with you that they feel they can openly gossip about anything and everything with you, you’ve probably gone too far. In the end, being a leader is sort of like being a parent. Your job isn't to be their friend, but you must create an open and mutually vulnerable relationship to be effective.
Reality, Not False Optimism
I am pretty much a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. I speak my mind and call it like I see it. But even I was no match for Steve, a CIO at a large health-care organization that I did some work with for a time. It just didn't matter what I told him. If it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, it was going to be ignored (at best) or ridiculed (at worst). So, I eventually stopped telling him the truth and just told him what he wanted to hear. It was just too much work and too much risk to give Steve the dose of reality that he needed.
Steve may be an extreme example, but it is very easy for leaders to create an environment in which their team tells them what they want to hear. In fact, I'd say that it happens to most leaders at one point or another. Steve was not emotionally aware. He didn't want to hear the truth and he wasn't open to what any of us thought. He was the leader and he was going to lead his way. Our job was to tell him how great that way was, regardless of what we actually thought.
On the other hand, if your team is ready and willing to give you a much-needed dose of reality when you need it, that’s a great sign that you're an emotionally aware leader. If they are comfortable coming to you, respectfully and without being a "we’ve always done it this way" naysayer, then you're on the right track. They're telling you that they believe that you see them as part of the team and that they are valued for their thoughts and opinions as much as for their work. Just watch out for the warning sign that you've gone too far. If they begin to believe that they now have a right to override your decisions or believe that you cannot make a decision without their consensus, you will know that you've crossed the line.
Trust and Respect, Not Resignation
"I just want you know something," Stan said as he walked into my office. "I don't agree with this direction. You know that. But I know we've talked about it and you heard me out, so I just want to make sure you know that I respect your decision and I'm with you."
Stan and I had been discussing whether we were going to continue to maintain a stock of PCs for delivery to our customers. I had made a decision and had just finished announcing it to the team, many of whom worked for Stan. I knew the decision would affect many of them, and Stan was trying to protect them. I also knew that he was disappointed that he hadn't been able to persuade me to adopt his position. So this brief conversation was important to me because it told me that Stan respected me and had enough trust in me to stand by me even when he didn't get what he wanted.
When your team doesn't trust and respect you, they may accept your decisions, but they will do so with resignation. They will feel that they simply have no choice and no control and so they will simply go along to get along. And slowly, over time, they will disengage to the point where they are just going through the motions.