Don’t Hit the Stop Button

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This was originally published on March 7, 2011

Friends,

About 10 years ago I was working on a book based on tens of interviews. I never quite finished it, but it taught me a lot. One of the lessons was this: Never turn the tape recorder off until you’re out of the interviewee’s presence.  You see, I was asking politicians about politics, character, and spirituality, and often their answers seemed rehearsed. I had the sense that I was just the latest audience, like they were replaying old tapes for me.  Then one time, I noticed as I was packing up my notes something that had happened before.  We were engaged in casual conversation, and my interviewee started to say much more interesting and spontaneous things. I hadn’t hit the stop button yet, so I let the tape continue to roll. I got the greatest stuff – and repeatedly did – only after the formal interview was over.

What does this have to do with leadership? Well it all has to do with where and how you’re listening. Think about some of the places that generate the least candor, spontaneity, or unguarded conversations:

  • the staff meeting
  • the dinner table
  • the committee meeting (a humorous aside: I saw a resume online where someone said they served on the “committee on committees” at their organization. Seriously!  Now that had to be one hot bed of innovation – doncha think?)
  • a meeting at the boss’s conference table

If you want to lead, you’ve got to know what’s really going on. And that means avoiding those places that tend to be stiff and formal. And perhaps more importantly it means being willing to waste some time, to sit for a while after the formal meeting is over, after the tape recorder has been turned off, so to speak. It’s not that you don’t have a staff person come to your office, or that you don’t have your teenager sit with you at the kitchen table.  But sometimes you have to go to their space, to appreciate their world, especially, when it’s always assumed that it’s their job to appreciate and conform to your world.

The subject of my interviews dropped the façade of their roles, in great part because I dropped my own. The tape recorder was primarily just a symbol of that role. When I let myself be a little more human – for instance, sharing how something they said struck me emotionally, giving them some feedback on what I heard, or telling a story about another person I had interviewed – it was as though it gave them permission to also be more casual and more candid. As Kouzes and Posner write, “leaders [must] go first,” when it comes to the risk-taking behavior of opening up and sharing the rougher edges.

If you want to know what’s really going on, then as you work with your followers this week, pay attention to these three things: (1) Real places create real candor; formal structures create formality.  (2) If you really want their views, you should stand and sit in their places and see their world. (3)  If you want them to risk sharing the unvarnished truth, then go first by sharing your not-so-perfect and pretty world.

And since I can’t easily come to your office or have a beer with you, hit the comment button, or hit reply to let me know what you’re thinking about Reading for Leading, as you

Lead with your best self!

Dan