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“How I Learned About Leadership From My Daughter”

I’m willing to bet that you and I have had the same experience; I believe that, at one point or  another, we’ve had the same boss. You know the type—the one who doesn’t really know us, doesn’t  seem to understand the realities of what goes on in our part of the company; the one who  continues to deny or talk around all the issues we’re having. The boss who sits in their office,  reviewing spreadsheets and talking at you through Slack or email. 

People are people, and in my two decades of Naval service, I saw the same types. Not as often, maybe, but enough that early in my career, I began a journey to learn about leadership—what  makes great leaders so effective, and why are there some bosses I would run through brick walls  for while others I’d happily let run by themselves? How do you build great teams that are willing to  go the extra mile to complete the mission, and how can I become a better leader? 

Several years ago, my daughter started asking if we could go get donuts before I dropped her off at  school. I thought she only wanted donuts because, well, who doesn’t love donuts? But donuts every  morning is untenable. So, I applied what I learned on my leadership journey and realized it wasn’t  the donuts that she wanted. What she really wanted was to spend time with Dad. Thus, I created  Daddy-Daughter Donut Day. 

What great leaders have in common, what they excel at, is communication. This is not  communication by talking AT people; rather, they speak WITH people. They connect at a human  level with people. They go TO people—they don’t pull people to themselves. And in the process, they  build an understanding of what people need so that they can empower them and give them agency. 

There are four components to the fundamental component of leadership: Meet people where they  are, start a genuine conversation, actively listen, and listen to empower. 

Step 1: Meet People Where They Are  

You absolutely must get OUT of your office or building and meet people where they are. The only  way you will ever really understand what the daily lives of your team are like is to spend time with  them in their space. If done only once a quarter or once a year, it will feel like a token pass-through. Done daily, this could potentially feel intrusive. There’s a Goldilocks frequency that you’ll figure  out— and when you do, you’ll begin to see the true work environment your team is in. 

You could have a lot of fun with this. Dress up in a costume to celebrate a holiday or wear your  favorite sports jersey to celebrate a victory. However, what you should be looking for—what you  want to see—are the wildfires that are burning out of control. You need to climb the ridgeline and  see what the winds are doing to those fires—to better understand how the fires are spreading and  what the true risks are that you might be unknowingly accepting.

To be fair, this can be a challenge in today’s hybrid and remote work environment. But it’s still  possible. Schedule an impromptu 15-minute video call with individual members of your team… and  have your camera turned ON. Ask them to be prepared to do the same. It isn’t the same as in person, but you’ll get a feel for facial expressions and reactions during the conversation. 

Step 2: Have a Genuine Conversation 

This is sometimes the most difficult thing for me to do. How do you start a genuine conversation  with someone you don’t know very well? 

For starters, ask how their day is going—but really mean it! When you get an answer, try to expand  on it. Better, ask what challenges they’re experiencing at work. Or ask what they would change or  do differently if they had the opportunity to do so. 

Asking questions helps demonstrate to people that you are genuinely interested in them and what  they have to say. It shows that you want to hear their opinions, their concerns, and their ideas. 

I recently learned that one of my employees had started his own company prior to working for us  simply by asking about his avatar picture in Slack. It happened to be a photo of him presenting his  investor pitch to raise capital. I’m in the same position right now, and I had no idea that there was  someone on the team already that I could lean on for experience in trying to raise capital. You have  no idea the insights you’ll learn from just asking questions. Which leads to… 

Step 3: Actively Listen 

This is the part where you separate the silt from the gold flakes. Actively listening helps you better  understand the person you’re communicating with and better connect with them. As you listen, try  to hear the undertones of their conversation with you. What’s bothering them; what do they really  need? 

Actively listening is difficult in an era of instantaneous communication and a need to reply instantly. We’re either listening to respond because we have an answer or we want to discount/correct  someone’s perspective. Instead of responding with your own thoughts, try to repackage what the  other person has just stated. Lead with “It seems like…” or “It sounds like…” Repackaging the  deeper meaning of what someone says and telling it back to them builds a better connection  between you both. You’ll either hear, “No, what I meant was…,” which is GREAT because now you  get the answer to the test, or you’ll be told, “Yes, that’s right,” which builds even more  understanding. 

Step 4: Listen to Empower 

This is where you can build genuine buy-in from people—the point where leaders demonstrate their  understanding of what people need. Listening to empower can happen in three ways. 

  • Hand people the keys to solve the issues at their level. Provide them the agency to rapidly  take the initiative to change things at their level; entrust them with the ability to take charge of their situation. Not only have you empowered a teammate, but you’ve also given them the  confidence to know they can solve problems on their own.
  • Strap on a rocket pack and get after it! The problems they face might only be resolved at  your level and above, so tackle that problem and give them credit for the information. By  knowing that they were able to make a change simply through conversation, you’ve  empowered them to voice issues to you more frequently. 
  • Explain the “why.” We’ve all felt ourselves at one time or another staring off at the horizon, wondering why things are the way they are or why we’re headed in the direction we’re going. Answer the “why” for someone, and generate empowerment by making them a true  stakeholder in your organization or life. 

Far too often, we reach for our devices to communicate. We look to Slack, Facebook, and text  messages to transmit or receive communication, even if we’re just a desk away. We’re merely  talking AT people, not WITH people. 

I encourage you to take the next opportunity you can on your path to being a great leader to  genuinely communicate with people in your sphere of influence. You never know—you just might  find yourself trying to answer the world’s most challenging question: How many donut holes are  equivalent to one donut?