Leadership – When Communication Means Not Talking

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

An aircraft crashes in the jungle. It’s filled with staff from their works’ outing. The survivors get out of the aeroplane – there are 20 administration staff, 3 managers and a leader. The leader disappears. The managers mutter phrases such as “Typical”, “Well what do you expect” and organise the staff into teams. They distribute tools (machetes, knives, etc.) which are luckily available and start making their way through the jungle, cutting down trees, bushes creating a path. Suddenly they hear a shout “Stop”- it’s the leader. The managers look around – there’s no sign of her. They continue motivating and encouraging their teams. Again they hear a shout “Stop”. One of them looks up and sees the leader in the tallest tree. The managers go to the foot of the tree and listen. The leader is pointing in the opposite direction;

“You’re going in totally the opposite direction” she calls down,

“Shh” one of the managers answers “They’re working really well”.


Three months ago I spent 25 minutes at a conference the other day with a Senior manager who I’d never met in my life before – and would never like to meet again I hasten to add. He talked for 23 of those 25 minutes about…. himself. I listened.

I saw a colleague of his last week. The chap I was with at the conference told this colleague that I was one of the most interesting chaps he’d ever met!

There’s a lesson there I guess. I once worked for a boss who was not the most dynamic person ever, not the best speaker in the world nor was he ruthless in an Adolph Hitler / Bill Clinton / Margaret Thatcher way. However we would all do anything for him. Why? I guess it was because he always had time for you. He always asked about your family, what was important in your life. Every day he was in our office he spent the first 30 minutes “working the room” – not in a manipulative way, but in a genuine way. He invariably missed his first meeting of the day as he would insist on doing this without fail. As I say we would have died for him.

Compare that with another way of “working the room”. A senior manager came along to speak on a training program. Before he was due to speak we chatted;

“Any of my people here?”

“Two I think” I replied

“Oh, who?”

I told him who they were. Blank look. He had no idea who they were.

“Where are they sitting?”

I told him.

He walked in – walked straight over to them “Hi Annie, Hi Rita Great to see you again.”

They beamed. They were absolutely thrilled that a senior manager earning ten times as much as them had remembered their names.

Well they were until he left and I explained to them how he had manipulated the situation.

To talk or not to talk – that’s the question?

As a leader you can be quiet or loud, it seems to me but whichever route you choose you’ve got to treat your people with care and respect. There was a survey carried out a few years back asking staff what quality they admired most in their leaders. The result was surprising, well to me at least it was. The top quality was ‘honesty’. Interesting, eh?

The top business leaders I’ve come across have one surprising quality that I barely noticed at the time but becomes more obvious more idiotic leaders you work with. This is a quality about treating people (all people) especially their staff (all their staff) with total respect and never making them wrong.

I’ll explain. Maybe it’s easier to illustrate this with a negative situation. I’ve seen a very, very senior manager in the Civil Service throw his laptop computer at the head of the multi-million pound Computing section exclaiming “What can I do with this piece of shit. You told me you’d fixed it last week and nothing’s changed. Take it away!” (I’ve removed the expletives).

I understand his frustration. To many in the Office he’s a hero – someone who won’t take crap from anyone – but I do wonder. Someone once said “Don’t make someone wrong. If you make someone wrong they’ll get you back.” Humans, unlike other animals, hate being wrong. It’s the second most potent drive – so I’ve been told. This was illustrated to me by an (allegorical?) experiment involving rats and humans. This is where you place a rat in a T box at the bottom of the T and put some cheese in the left hand corner of the top of the T (got it?). The rat goes to the cheese and eats it. This experiment is repeated a number of times until the rat gets the idea. Next the cheese is moved to the right hand corner. The rat goes to the left hand corner – sees no cheese then goes to the right hand corner. Sensible. Imminently logical.

Bring in the human. Repeat the experiment until the human gets the idea about where the cheese will be (left hand corner). Then move the cheese to the right hand corner. The human goes to the right hand corner -sees no cheese and sits down. He waits and waits and waits thinking “Someone screwed up – and it’s not me.” Humans hate being wrong. I’m sure the Head of Computing Section will get him back – sometime, somewhere. Life has a habit of working out like that don’t you think?

The best leaders don’t do that. They don’t make people wrong. They go out of their way to let people ‘lose’ with dignity. They invent ways out for them – even their opponents. You never know when you might meet them again.

A colleague relates the story of his stressful day going for an interview. He was driving along – quite stressed when someone cut him up. He overtook to see a little old lady – totally oblivious to him. Without swearing – he said nothing to her. Of course you’ve guessed who was chair of his interview panel.

There are, of course, many other aspects to leadership. There has to be some charisma – some inner confidence, even a touch of arrogance in a person to inspire others. Now if you could just bottle that it would be something. However I truly believe trust, respect and honesty are as important to leaders as that charisma.

I once made some ridiculous, offensive remark about the intelligence of a certain group of individuals – computer programmers. Someone, rightly, got really upset and irate. My boss defended me totally saying things like “In this business (management development) you think need to think on your feet… learning the ropes ….you can’t be sure what you’ll say all the time… it’s to do with the intent not the words… etc. etc..” and calmed the situation.

As we chatted later I explained that I hadn’t realised how difficult it was and that my intent was, obviously, true and I agreed with everything he said. He looked at me and smiled “You do anything like that again and I’ll have your balls for paperweights”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s