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Heretical leadership: Anything but trivial


A recent experience has led leadership expert Barry Jackson to draw an analogy that reinforces his belief in his own leadership style.
As a self-employed coach, I depend heavily on the reliability of my car - I'm in real trouble without her. I should have known better than to treat her the way I did last week. I'd had a very successful day, coaching the kind of people who are a joy to coach. I was tired, in an exhilarating kind of way; and I was hungry. As I set off for home, I was focused on the one goal remaining for the day, getting home and tucking into a hot meal.
I was nearing the top of a long climb out of Bath when the warning light came on telling me that the engine was overheating. At the top, I was able to come off the gas and the temperature immediately normalised and stayed normal for the next half hour. Then came another hill and it happened again. There were no funny noises, no smell of burning. I decided that I could nurse the thing home and take it to the garage the next day. Unfortunately, she saw things in a very different light. She was fed up with my insensitivity, my unwillingness to take her seriously so, at the Nailsworth roundabout, she blew her head gasket, leaving me stranded in a place calculated to cause maximum inconvenience to other drivers. Needless to say, it was cold, it was raining. It was a totally miserable experience. You know how it feels don't you: when hindsight makes you realise that the whole thing could, with a bit of common sense, have been avoided altogether?
So, what's my point? There are three.
  1. As business people, we sometimes become so focused on outcomes, on reaching goals, that we forget just how much we depend on the reliability of other people to achieve them. We ignore other people at our peril
  2. The presenting problem may sound trivial, may indeed be trivial, but it's extremely dangerous to assume that behind the presenting problem there isn't something far more serious. When a member of your team brings a complaint to you and it doesn't sound all that serious, it's probably her way of asking you, "are you in a receptive mood today? If you are, I'll tell you what I really need to talk about." What if your response is, "Later?" "Can't you see I'm busy?" One of the easiest mistakes for a leader to make, and one of the most damaging, is to treat a trivial matter as trivial. Why? Because by doing so, we trivialise the person. It's impossible to trivialise another person without causing hurt feelings. Bruised egos will always return to haunt you
  3. When you assume that trivial presenting problems conceal nothing more than an irritating lack of initiative (surely you can handle that without my involvement!), don't be surprised when someone blows a gasket.
"One of the easiest mistakes for a leader to make, and one of the most damaging, is to treat a trivial matter as trivial. Why? Because by doing so, we trivialise the person."
That's all very well, but you may be asking yourself how you can treat every problem seriously without giving everyone in the organisation permission to bring every teeny weeny issue to your attention and waste enormous amounts of your valuable time. Doesn't my suggestion amount to nothing more than an invitation to treat every minor problem as an opportunity for attention seeking? Not an approach to relish when the attention they're seeking is yours. So how are we going to get round that one?
Here's what you do. Respond as if there's a deeper, more serious issue behind the presenting problem. Say something along the following lines, "I don't believe you would have asked to see me unless there was something far more important behind what you’re telling me. Am I right about that?" If the answer turns out to be "yes," you're going to be very glad you asked that question. Whatever it is may require your attention right now. Of course, the answer may be "no." Be glad you asked anyway. If the answer is "no" the chances are that her own answer will help her see the problem in its true perspective and she will probably apologise for making more of it than was necessary.
Amount of time wasted? A couple of minutes at most. If the problem is not something you need to deal with at once but it does justify a discussion, you are in a position to buy time for yourself by saying, "I'm really very busy right now. It sounds like a problem that can wait until tomorrow. Are you O.K. with that?" Another response might sound like this, "I'm sure you'd rather talk to me when I've got time to give you my full attention. How about we talk about this first thing tomorrow morning?" The problem is being kept in perspective but it's not being trivialised; much more important, neither is the person who brought it to your attention.
Part two will be published later this week
Barry Jackson now runs his own coaching business from his home in Churchdown, Gloucestershire. In his first book 'Heretical Leadership' (Ecademy Press), he shares the principles which he knows work best in practice 

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