The hardest part of leadership is changing yourself. I know, because I have been battling to do it for weeks.
Managers, being human, always want to find reasons outside of themselves for things not going the way they like: "If only that vendor had delivered on time" or "…my employees cared about more than a paycheck." In my active listening skills class, after mentioning complaints like those, I give the class another complaint. "If you didn't burn the toast," I say loudly, "I would not have had to hit you!" This always gets a vocal reaction. "The stereotypical excuse of the serial domestic abuser," I point out.
Do you buy that excuse? Of course not. Next time you get arrested, try a line that puts the slightest blame for your behavior on your victim. See how well that goes over in court. The problem for the rest of us is there is zero difference between that excuse and you defending your poor communication by saying, "Do your job right, and I won't have to yell at you."
If you deliver a project late because a vendor delivered late, you did something wrong. You did not properly vet the vendor; or you did not put date commitments in writing; or you did not allow them enough time; or you did not build enough cushion into your larger project plan. By the same token, employees will only care about paychecks if you do not put them ahead of you in your priorities—and even ahead of your customers. More and more studies are showing that putting employees first motivates them to take the best possible care of your customers.
The events that trigger a reaction in you do so from a combination of genes, family background, and personal experience. Those triggers will always be there. However, how you react internally to those triggers, and how you express that reaction, are completely within your control. I call this my "S→R/S→R" Model. When the doctor hits your knee with that little rubber mallet (the stimulus), your leg jumps (the response): S→R. The knee jerk is due to the "autonomic nervous system." The nerve signal from the hammer only has to travel to your spinal cord, which sends back the message to move out of the way of the perceived danger to the leg. The brain only perceives the problem later, though this happens so fast we don't realize there's a gap.
We want to think our emotional reactions work the same way, but those happen in the brain. The trigger (S) creates an internal emotional reaction which in turn is the stimulus (R/S) for an external reaction (R). This gives us two points to control ourselves, at the two arrows in the model name. We can learn to reduce the degree to which we react to that trigger event, and failing that, to control the way we express (or don't) the resulting emotion.
If you were interviewing me for a job and asked the question about my greatest weakness, my answer would be a tendency to fight too long for a position I believe in if the other person cannot provide facts to refute it. Two weeks ago I was guilty of that with a client. I irritated them unnecessarily before finally learning they were contractually obligated to a position they were taking. I don't think their bosses should have signed that contract, but the client can't change it, so I immediately acquiesced. My contribution to the issue was the failure to use my old journalistic skills to ask the right questions of the right people to identify this root cause quickly.
More disturbing is the return of an old tendency to sarcasm when pressing for the use of best practices. I intend the comments as tension-relieving humor, but often come across as condescending. I have to stop it. And doing that is really hard. Most people consider me funny (see our Testimonials for TeamTrainers page) and my humor relies in part on the quick response. The danger is that things can slip out so quickly I do not properly assess their impact, especially when I am irritated. Better to skip a joke than risk doing damage with it.
Both of these problems had me highly irritated with myself. People who are making progress toward best practices do not deserve resistance to what they cannot change or sarcasm for what they haven't yet.
I know this because I am a work in progress. What new clients cannot know is how much better I am at all of these things than I was five years ago, not to mention 20 years ago. Fortunately they also see the strengths I have developed, which research suggests raises my overall ratings as a leader despite my weaknesses. My commitment to servant leadership for the sake of those around me at work—and to Zen practice for the sake of myself and everyone around me—require awareness I cannot change those external stimuli that bombard me every day, but I am fully capable of changing how I react to those stimuli. If I can, you certainly can.
It starts by stopping the excuses. The Buddha described the challenge well when he equated the mind to a chariot pulled by seven unreined horses. It is difficult to get control from within the chariot. You have to stop, get out, and try to bridle each horse that tugs at you, starting with the biggest one. Tame that one, and the rest will be easier.
Some people do not like change, and thus leave themselves at its whims while wondering, "Why do these things keep happening to me?" Whether you like change or not is irrelevant. Change is inevitable. The only question is, do you manage change, or does it manage you?
Action Item: Pick your biggest unreined horse, and decide why you are allowing it to run out of control.