When you ask people to describe effective leaders, they pretty much never list job titles. What first comes to mind are characteristics we admire most in any person, like caring, effective listening, empathy, passion, the ability to take action, and a willingness to be wrong.
“Leadership is not a position, but a way of behaving,” shared Andrew Tarvin, speaker, author and humor engineer, at the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference. Real leadership reflects attitudes put into action, can be practiced in any role and often involves how you think on your feet in real-life situations, he says.
Intention vs. behavior
Human beings judge others by their actions, whereas we often judge ourselves by our intentions. It makes sense; we can only observe the actions of others but are privy to the inner workings of our own minds where we intend to do all kinds of wonderful things. But focusing on our own good intentions can sometimes blind us to how those intentions actually play out. Sometimes, the very behaviors you rely on to share your vision, motivate team members or colleagues and increase your contribution can actually work against achieving your goals.
That gap between your intentions and meaningful action is what Tarvin calls unleadership. “Unleadership involves those things we do that demotivate others without our even realizing it,” Tarvin said. He equates the concept to how few people actually think they are poor drivers. In studies, nearly three-quarters of people rate themselves as an above-average driver which, of course, is statistically impossible.
An even larger gap exists between belief and reality with regard to leadership. In a survey by McKinsey & Company and Gallup, 86 percent of managers rated themselves as “inspiring” but only 18 percent of their team members rated their leaders the same way. Within that big disconnect is where unleadership behaviors live.
Unleadership in action
Tarvin recalled a personal experience in his first job as a computer science intern at a manufacturing company. By the end of his first day, he had completed all the work his supervisor expected him to complete over the course of the entire week. But instead of praising the hard work and enabling him to increase his contribution, he was told not to work so hard. “I was immediately deflated and demotivated,” he said.
Sometimes, we send similarly demotivating messages to team members without knowing it. Conference attendees during Tarvin’s breakout session shared examples of unleadership they have personally experienced. They mentioned leaders who repeatedly start meetings late, keep moving the goal post so team members never feel like they’ve succeeded, shut down ideas right away and make insulting comments. Less obvious examples included leaders who say “I” instead of “we,” ask you to do something they would never do, or respond to compliments about your work with, “That’s what she’s supposed to do.” The end result is lower engagement, higher turnover and decreased performance.
Thinking in the moment
One way to avoid unleadership is to learn how to think better on your feet so you can best leverage your skills, experience and expertise in the moment. For that, Tarvin turns to his knowledge as a comedian and draws from the art of improvisation.
You may already be familiar with the key phrase connected to successful improv: “Yes, and.” Basically, that means acknowledging what an improv partner offers in a scene, metaphorically saying, “yes” and then building on it. The opposite is the “Yes, but” response.
Tarvin shares this example. “Let’s say we are all going to meet at the WFF Conference in 2022 and go skydiving together,” he suggests. He then asked participants to respond to that idea with “Yes, but,” critiquing the idea and finding reasons not to pursue it. Those might include expense, danger and liability issues. Those are all legitimate concerns, but coming from the perspective of “Yes, but” tends to shut out other possibilities that might have enabled the team to build on the original idea.
Coming at the same idea with a “Yes, and” perspective provides a starting point rather than an endpoint. That could include options for people who want to stay on the ground and capture the event on video, the positives of experiencing something new outside your comfort zone and even an opportunity to unwind afterward with snacks and bowling. “The ‘Yes, and’ mindset to leadership drives greater results,” Tarvin said.
Especially in today’s challenging workplace climate, effective leaders must consistently think on their feet and look for ways to expand input and creative thinking. When you learn how to identify and replace your own limiting behaviors, and can coach direct reports to do the same, you can increase engagement and decrease frustration and turnover.
You can “Yes, and” your way out of unleadership and right into influencing people to work together toward common goals.