A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
We’ve all seen them – he has the leadership swagger, she has the leadership outfit, both spout from from the latest leadership book, and either of them can dash off a strategic-sounding memo at a moment’s notice.
Models of leadership, both; impressive in meetings, inspiring in words, influential with their peers, everyone who meets them can’t help but noticing their close-to-impeccable leadership credentials. And yet…
And yet. With these Poseur-leaders there is a ‘yet’ – and it’s one that appears at strange, seemingly random times.
One day, you notice they slide out of an important discussion at an unpredictable moment. Another day, they skip an important meeting. You increasingly notice them choosing to ‘keep their counsel’, when usually it’s impossible to shut them up. They keep certain people and situations at a distance, as if they might catch avian flu if they get too close.
What’s going on here? Why do seeming epitomes of leadership sometimes get all squirelly – and in such apparently random ways?
The answer is both mundane and telling: these leaders are struggling to interact with data.
See, some leaders can exist as such only in a ‘steady state universe’ – an environment where yesterday is the same as today, and today will be the same tomorrow. Throw important new data into the mix (sharply changed sales projections, say, or the focus group results from a new product test launch), and our Poseur-leaders are unmoored: all their tropes are redundant, their finely honed commentaries are made irrelevant, and their carefully sculpted leadership poses need to be reworked.
For such leaders, the arrival of new data is not simply a part of the leadership process, it’s an intrusion on their carefully honed leadership pose – an intrusion that requires them to back off, watch how others react to the new data, and adjust their pose accordingly.
As a result, at those times when important new data arrives and we need their help in interpreting and responding to it, they’re usually MIA – either physically or in spirit – leaving everyone else to lift the load.
Can leaders like this be helped? In many cases, frankly, no. Often a Poseur-leader is just that – someone who has learned to walk and talk like a leader, but isn’t one at heart – and in such cases, there’s little can be done.
Sometimes, though, a genuinely good leader has simply lost their ability to effectively interact with data, and in such cases, it’s quite possible to rewire the process – though doing so requires time, openness and commitment
Here are the three steps I use to help MIA leaders regain their ability to engage with data:
1. Know what data is important.
Most leaders lose the ability to interact meaningfully with data when they become ‘data-blind’. Like snow-blindness, this is a loss of orientation and control caused by overwhelm – in this case, of information. When this happens, every point of data looks the same, and we lose the ability to differentiate between what is important and what isn’t.
The starting point to fixing this data-blindness is to refocus on what information is important to you – specifically, you can do this by re-establishing your Single Pre-eminent Goal – use your SPG as the lodestar to navigate your way through this seeming avalanche of information.
2. Know where to get it.
The second thing that causes data snow-blindness is a loss of trust in the sources of that data. If a leader doesn’t know – or isn’t comfortable with – the sources of data they’re being asked to work with, it’s hard for them to engage with that data meaningfully.
Once you’ve re-established your SPG, take a hard look at the data you need to support that goal, and more importantly, where you will source that data from. Find sources you can both trust and query – you need to not only be fed the data you need, but also to have the facility to analyze and question the data in a supportive, positive way.
3. Release the need to perfectly interpret it.
Often leaders lose confidence in their own ability to effectively interpret data and output high-quality decisions. They become trigger-shy, in effect. Having made one or two poor decisions, they become hesitant about making more decisions, then over time gradually withdraw from even considering the data that would lead to making decisions.
In such a case the key is to release the presumption that you alone are responsible for making every decision that new data throws up. Sometimes you will be, sometimes you won’t. In the meantime, get your team around you, remind them of your SPG, share your trusted data, and ask them – what’s the best decision we can make in the light of this new data?
Download a free chapter from the author’s book, “The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success” which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world class leader.