Communication, Humility and Self-Awareness
On Episode 8 of the CEOnly Podcast, Association Forum’s president and CEO, Michelle Mason, CAE, FASAE, interviewed Henry S. Givray, the chair and former CEO of Smithbucklin, about the topic of leadership and the three critical actions that are involved in the invitation to lead. Below, FORUM presents just a part of that conversation. For the full interview, download and subscribe to the CEOnly Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.
Mason: Thank you for joining us today on the CEOnly Podcast. To start, how do you define leadership?
Givray: That’s a wonderful question, because often we collectively—and I include the media, pundits, politicians, workers in all various fields, scholars, educators—we all fall into the trap of using the word “leader” as a designation for anyone in a position of authority, power, reputation, control or responsibility. When we do that, we trivialize and diminish leadership’s true meaning. I deeply believe that the core essence of leadership is profoundly uncomplicated and involves three critical actions. True leaders, first, visualize something better about the future. It could be something as modest as an improvement in a process, or it could be far-reaching and transformational. But they know they can’t achieve that better future without, second, getting others to join in the journey. Finally, they get there.
When you think about leadership in terms of those three critical actions, what do they really have to do with position, power or authority? In my estimation, one of the greatest true leaders was Mother Teresa, which has nothing to do with her position, power or authority. Mother Teresa visualized something better about the future—helping the poor—but she knew she couldn’t have a significant impact without getting others involved in that journey. As we know, she got there.
Mason: As you talk about Mother Teresa, I think about humility and I think about self-awareness. Can you share with us your thoughts about those core traits that are required for a leader to be successful?
Givray: There are what I would call certain distinguishing qualities that define true leaders. I often say that even though you have certain skills or experiences which are important to help you achieve a coveted title or position, the fact is that leadership is not something that you just get or have bestowed upon you. It’s based on others willing to follow you and giving you permission to lead them. What is it that others need to see in you before they give you the permission to lead them?
One of the distinguishing qualities of leadership is self-awareness—really understanding yourself at the core, not your public persona. Why do you think what you think and do what you do? What are your innate biases? What are your core values? What are your dreams and aspirations? That is challenging to do as human beings, because it’s just not easy to self-explore continuously and in a disciplined manner.
Once you develop that deep level of self-awareness, you can begin to master the skills around self-management. Why is self-management so important? Because leadership is ultimately about outcomes, and outcomes don’t happen by themselves. They require lots of other people. That’s the second critical action of leadership—needing others to get onboard in the journey to get to a desired end-state.
If you’re aspiring to earn leadership’s invitation, it’s going to have an impact on those other people, because they’re going to observe your behaviors, actions and decisions, and you’re going to impact them. Successful self-management means you regulate, you adjust, you control what you do and how you do it in order to elicit—not discourage or undermine—positive actions, emotions and behaviors in others.
Mason: Your answer leads me to reflect on my time in during the SmithBucklin Leadership Insitute when we talked about self-awareness and the need for leaders to receive the invitation and permission to lead. In order for someone to be led by you, they must trust you. I also remember you commonly saying, “Words matter.” Unpack that phrase for us.
Givray: Words do matter. Leadership is all about the human element. Until machines run everything, and machines are maintained by other machines, it will always be about the human element. The complexity of the human element is what makes it so difficult to do what true leadership is all about. Communication is how human beings are able to share information and understand and overcome conflict. It’s how we are able to get to a right place so that there can be efficiency and effectiveness around whatever actions are needed to achieve that better future state.
When we step back and reflect on communication and we observe both our professional lives and personal lives, we can conclude easily that an overwhelming number of problems—I would argue 95% or more—are due to communication, whether it’s a lack thereof or ineffective communication or misinterpretation of intent. All those factors lead to, at best, inefficiencies and wrong direction, and at worst, significant conflict and ultimately failure.
Effective communication helps you establish credibility, elicit confidence, gain respect, build loyalty and, ultimately, earn trust. Words are critically important for clarity and context in order to earn leadership’s invitation, but also to be able to deliver on the promise. You want to invoke the desired reaction from people, because you’re trying to get them to join you in the journey. You want to reduce confusion and make sure there’s understanding around why you are doing what you’re doing. Ultimately, leadership is about outcomes. Effective communication helps you get to that desired outcome.