December 15, 2010
Jennifer V. Miller
Managing Partner, SkillSource
So much of leadership training is about team-building and collaboration. I say, “That’s all very important, but there will come a time when you will have to stand alone and say, ‘This is wrong’ or 'This is my responsibility—I don’t agree with you, and I’m going to do what I think is right.' "
- Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense
Excerpted from A Legacy of Leadership.
It’s one of the great paradoxes of leadership. In order to lead, there must be followers. Yet, in many of the most crucial leadership situations, it’s up to the leader, who stands alone, to say aloud that which must be said. It might be painful for the leader or the audience, but so be it. These are the moments when true leadership shows its face.
Does it take courage? Yes.
Does it require a moral high ground? Absolutely.
This speaking up is tricky business though. Courage and moral fortitude may be the impetus for opening one’s mouth, but how one says it determines if the leader remains an island or becomes a catalyst for change. Savvy leaders know how to speak up in a way that doesn’t shame their followers or embarrass their bosses. They can get peers on board by appealing to the greater good without being seen as brown-nosers. They manage to come across as sincere without being preachy. They are confident, but not cocky. They are assured in their position, but open to dialog.
They know themselves.
It’s in this knowing that true influence shows itself. Anyone can open his or her mouth and speak up. It’s what happens after that first word emerges that is the true test of influential leadership.
Have you ever had to stand alone? How did you find the words to do so in a way that helped move your cause forward?
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Excellent post, Jennifer, thank you!
I’ve had to mention the proverbial “Elephant in the Room” more times than I care to count. The effort has been most effective when I first take a moment to reflect. If I can identify shared, big-picture goals among the stake-holders, and frame the controversy in a collaborative context, I find others more inclined to move forward. The key has been to:
1) Remind stakeholders of shared, overarching objectives
2) Frame conflict in this context
3) Remove personalization, whenever possible
4) Speak in hopeful tones
It’s possible to speak a message of hope into most stalemates, but it works better for me when I take these steps. It’s seldom fun, but often necessary and usually productive.
Thanks for adding such concrete suggestions to how you “step out” into difficult discussions. I especially appreciate your suggestion to add a message of hope.
[…] Ever had to stand alone in a leadership decision? Jennifer V. Miller at Lead Change Group takes a look at the paradox of leading. Her article is called Standing Alone […]
Jennifer, your words resonate. This is one blog post I’ll bookmark and reread.
I recently learned a critical lesson about making a stand for change. When you’re the only one pointing out a problem in need of a solution it can be off-putting for others. I’m training myself to find great questions to ask rather than coming out with problem statements. I adore problem statements because you can do so much with them but they’re only effective when everyone agrees there IS a problem — not in the early stages when you’re trying to get air time for an issue that hasn’t yet surfaced.
Sometimes leadership is a lonely experience. It takes strength, conviction, and character to stand alone, and to do the right thing. I think those are qualities that flow from abiding faith, living under its authority, and never leaving that center. If our motive is love, and our outcome is to call people to higher ground, then we won’t have to anguish over the words, or the delivery. Sometimes people throw stones at what they fear but eventually, they will follow love.
@Thomas, I agree that if our motive is honorable, we don’t have to fret about the exact words. Having said that, a leader should also be aware that even the most pure of intentions can be misinterpreted or twisted by skeptics out to do harm. I read an interesting study the other day that said that the more a person doubts his/her conviction, the more strenously they are to speak out against the opposite viewpoint. Perhaps this is why the naysayers speak loudest– maybe they actually *do* want to believe in the higher ground, but are afraid.
@Susan– how astute of you to identify the “problem” with problem statements. Yes, people are put off by someone who points out a deficiency (see my comment to Thomas) and I agree that asking questions can be less threatening.
Thanks to both of you for your contributions!