In 2008, I asked my direct reports to work confidentially with Human Resources (HR) to evaluate my leadership. Instead of filling out a written survey, HR interviewed each of my managers, and prepared a composite report that reflected their overriding themes without violating confidentiality. Before the interviews, I gave HR my developmental questions as part of their discussion topics.
HR sat down with me to discuss the report after it was completed. Their feedback was balanced and informative. Both positive and negative traits were included in the report. Afterwards, I redesigned my development goals and held a separate team meeting to give my managers my reflections on their feedback. I informed them that I took seriously their comments and showed them my revised development goals. This feedback process made me a better leader.
One comment that I distinctly remember was that I was too quiet during meetings. My direct reports believed that I needed to assert myself more often as they believed I had more to say. I was too passive, and they wanted me to be a more active leader. I allowed others to dominate meetings when my thoughts should have been shared more assertively. My colleagues liked my ideas when I spoke; I just needed to speak more often and use my leadership platform more effectively.
When I decided to seek feedback from my leadership team, speaking up more often was not on my radar. I felt that a good leader should be a good listener. Understand first before being understood was my leadership motto. Unless there was a crisis, a leader should seek trust through effective listening rather than jump to quick conclusions or rudely intrude. I was against using power to dominate others unless a meeting got out of control. Rather, I wanted to hear ideas from others and gain consensus.
My direct reports told me that I was too passive and reflective. I needed to share my thoughts more readily because when I did, it was well received. They wanted more of me, not less. They wanted me to be more assertive with peer managers and not allow others to dominate. This was partly in their best interest, especially during performance rankings and promotions.
I now serve on the Board of Trustees of a small liberal arts college. This platform allows me to serve with a delightful group of fellow trustees, university employees, and students. After a recent board meeting, a fellow trustee pulled me aside and gave me feedback. She had watched me grow as a trustee and assert my opinions more often. She valued hearing from me and asked me to continue to speak up. I immediately reflected upon my 2008 HR report and what my direct reports told me.
I recently was sent a report published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges titled An Anatomy of Good Board Governance in Higher Education, which stated: “The board is neither intrusive nor passive.” The board doesn’t run the university. Our role is to hire the university president and oversee the long-term interests of the university. The university employees operate the university within the guidelines set by the board. The hard part is determining when to be active and when to be passive. “Relationships between and among the members of a good board are founded on mutual respect and trust. … Discussions are not dominated by a few, individuals do not presume the authority to act independently, and no cliques or factions develop.” (pages 8–9) While these few sentences make sense, in practice, it is a difficult tightrope to walk.
Jesus faced this same tightrope. He advocated servant leadership by washing his disciples’ feet and preaching about the Kingdom of God. Yet, he spoke forcefully against Pharisee abuses and turned over moneychanger tables in the Temple. Speaking against the powerful led to his death. When he spoke, it was usually in a thought-provoking manner that caused listeners to ponder rather than to instantly react. Quietly telling the sinless to first cast stones at the adulterous women melted the mob’s anger. The uproar when Jesus healed on the sabbath was met with a simple statement: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27–28) A simple statement went to the heart of the issue.
Words do matter. Saying too little or too much has consequences. Relationships can be built up or destroyed by what, when, and how we speak. Jesus clearly understood this and was a master in the art of leadership. His disciples learned from him and had to perfect their leadership skills through balancing listening and speaking. My journey towards effective leadership continues and I expect that I will make future errors along the way. Knowing that balance is required is a step in the right direction, along with learning from the Master.