Does Leadership Always Mean Having a Thick Skin? (If it Does, I’m in Big Trouble.)

LexBlog President, Kevin McKeown, shared this Forbes piece Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work with everyone in our company on Friday. It’s a great article about the value of critical self-awareness and the author is spot-on in saying:

Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful.

I would agree completely that being honest about our capabilities is going to be far more effective for our professional development than either pretending we’re perfect or believing we’re completely useless. No one is without flaws, or without hope.

However, I feel this article is missing a critical component of the critical feedback equation. Author, Denis Wilson, gives an example of a boss over-reacting to a couple of typos in a letter an employee writes.  Wilson says,

The lesson to learn: Your boss may be frustrated and angry, but that’s not what you should address. Rather, it’s the errors you made and how you will avoid doing the same in the future.

He’s right, but where is the accountability for the boss to deliver feedback in a way that the receiver can actually receive it? When I read this article, the first thought that went through my mind was, wow, if you have an ounce of emotion about your professional performance, you’re screwed in the leadership department. But I have worked with employees of all kinds of emotional sensibilities and seen professional success in all shapes and sizes. Some employees I coached needed their feedback direct and to the point, brutally honest, mincing no words. In fact, if you tried to deliver it any other way, it sailed right past without their even noticing. On the other hand, I had other employees that would fall apart with that type of honesty, wielded as a weapon, and they would be so upset they couldn’t hear you either. In those cases, a lighter, gentler touch was in order. I suppose I could presume that those employees who could “take it” had the right stuff, leadership-wise, and therefore anyone who needed the softer touch wasn’t worth my time. Of course, I sure would have missed out on helping any number of employees grow and improve if I had taken that one-size-fits-all approach.

As Kevin and I discussed the post, he countered that a leader is, at best, only 50% of any conversation and it is therefore incumbent upon the employee to choose to take the feedback as constructive. He also noted that any leader worth their salt does not try to mold themselves after others, but rather stays true to themselves. And, finally, he offered that the best leaders gave feedback, both positive and constructive, constantly – every single day. I would agree that I can’t do the listening/receiving for the other person, and that I can only truly be effective when I am my authentic self, and that feedback should be ongoing, not once a year come performance review time. Where we differ is that I see it as my role as a manager to be willing to adapt more of myself in order to effectively deliver my message to my employee. I can still be myself and either be blunt or be gentle. It is possible be authentic and still make a choice about how to approach any given conversation.  {And, kudos to my professional relationship with him that we can have a lively debate about our differences without anyone taking it personally.}

Perhaps this particular article struck a chord for me because I, myself, am in more of the sensitive camp. I absolutely want honest feedback about my performance and I am eager to learn how to improve. Nonetheless, it’s not always easy for me to hear that I am coming up short and that I have disappointed those who are counting on me. I have come home from work more than once bearing a performance evaluation that I considered damning that my husband looked over and then scratched his head and said, “uh, you do know this is actually good, right?” However, these things have not sent me into a spiral of self-loathing, and I really do take the time to glean the lessons I need to learn and let the rest go, but at the moment of “impact” I must confess I do sometimes take them a little more to heart than I should. I suppose I might be farther along the leadership track if I learned to let these things roll off my back more easily, but then again, part of what I think makes me an effective manager, a good trainer and coach, and good at delivering service to my clients, is my strong sense of empathy and sensitivity. I think I will stick to Kevin’s earlier point that the most effective leaders are first and foremost true to themselves.

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Managers are people too

Today, I encountered a list of the differences between managers and leaders in Leaders vs Managers on Leadership Freak, guest written by Lolly Daskal (both of which I regularly follow in Twitter). I won’t recount the entire list, but here are a few of the differences Lolly shares:

  • Leaders lead people. Managers manage people.
  • Leaders inspire. Managers comfort.
  • Leaders have followers. Managers have subordinates.
  • Leaders break rules. Managers make rules.

Lolly asserts that both are valuable,

As you can see managers and leaders are two different people. Do organizations need both? YES.

But I have to ask myself, given these options, why would anyone ever want to be a manager?  Would you rather have followers or subordinates? Anyone out there rather make rules than break them? (And I have to question that one anyway- leaders are very often called to the difficult and less fun task of making the rules.)

It seems that anytime we talk about management and leadership in the same breath, management gets the short end of the stick. Take this point, for example:

Leaders have vision. Managers are about reaching goals.

Let’s re-frame it and see if it doesn’t change the playing field a little.

  • Leaders have vision. Managers help people make their dreams come true.

I like to think I have helped people make their dreams come true or at least pointed them in the right direction. Some days I have more or less vision than others and it is immensely rewarding to know that on any given day I can help people grow and evolve.

I started my first manager’s job on September 10, 2001, managing a team of trainers who traveled across the country. One of those trainers was in New York City on 9/11. She was fine, but never the same. It was quickly apparent that a career of getting on airplanes was no longer a viable option for her. Over the next 6 months, we worked on ways to ‘manage’ this new challenge she faced, and ultimately I helped her realize she needed to find another calling. I recall her clearly telling me the day I let her go that sometimes what she needed was a good ‘kick in the butt’ and if I hadn’t forced the issue, she probably never would have made a decision.

I suppose you could draw leadership parallels from this story, but for me this was fundamentally about managing a delicate situation and helping the person under my guidance maintain their dignity.  It is both an awesome responsibility and an amazing opportunity to be a manager, and in that role, employees have shared their most personal and poignant moments in their lives with me and asked for my help. I can’t think of anything I have done professionally that is more rewarding.

Besides, in my experience as a manager over the past 10 years, what most companies want is someone who has both leadership and management skills. They want a manager who helps their team follow the rules, but also has the good sense to challenge (or break) rules when they no longer make sense. They want a leader who can both set direction and lay out the steps to achieve that direction. Isn’t it about time we stopped contrasting the two roles and instead talk about how they complement each other?