Two Little-Known Skills Every Leader Needs

Vision Leadership

Sarah is two months into her new role as CEO of a fast-growing company in the casual dining market.

At least, it was fast-growing until recently.

The founder of the enterprise built his business by using only natural, GMO-free ingredients and providing a fast, comfortable dining experience.

The company achieved high double-digit growth for five straight years, had a successful IPO, and continued its aggressive growth trajectory.

Then the market tanked. And the restaurant chain’s higher-than-average prices became a major factor for many of its customers.

Trouble within the organization began bubbling to the surface.

Sarah was brought in as the first external CEO to adjust to the new market conditions and align the organization with a clear vision.

Two Common Problems in Virtually Every Organization

After accessing the situation, Sarah saw two major issues she needed to address immediately.

First, while her management team were all talented professionals, they were each working in different directions.

With the company’s prior rapid growth, the founder failed to keep the leadership team aligned to a unified vision. Instead, each department head had his or her own agenda.

Sarah had, first and foremost, to rally the troops under one banner.

Second, not all of the department heads worked well with each other. In fact, the more Sarah examined interpersonal dynamics in the office, the more internal conflicts she saw in her leadership team.

Will she be successful in guiding this company to a profitable future?

To turn things around, Sarah needs to be skilled in two key areas. These two areas, research shows, greatly define outperforming leadership.

How to Move People

Anyone can give orders, but only a skilled leader is able to positively influence others. The role of the leader is to move people, to inspire positive action in a desired direction.

A leader has a vision. She sees the potential of what the enterprise can become. Her job is to infect her organization with this vision, to sell the vision and excite consistent action.

And the vision isn’t sold unless the employees themselves are inspired to realize the vision. This is no easy task.

More than anything else, the key to moving people requires the ability to see the world from the perspective of others.

Perspective taking allows you to see the world from another’s viewpoint and speak to them from this viewpoint.

Luckily, perspective-taking is a skill that can be learned. (There’s a quick 2-minute practice at the end of this article.)

How to Handle Conflict

The second major area is conflict management.

Many leaders struggle in this area. A 2013 Stanford University Executive Coaching Survey of over 200 CEOs illuminated that handling conflict is the single biggest area for personal development.

Conflict resolution requires leaders to use empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings of another person.

The topic of empathy has received a great deal of attention in leadership literature from the work of psychologist Daniel Goleman, among others.

Goleman has found that emotional intelligence is THE key factor in outperforming leadership. Empathy is a core facet of emotional intelligence.

While perspective taking relies on our cognitive abilities, empathy engages our feelings.

Interpersonal conflicts cannot be resolved by “thinking through the problem” because the source of the conflict resides in our feelings (not thoughts).

While perspective taking allows us to see the world through another’s eyes, empathy allows us to feel the world through another’s body.

Everyone’s level of empathy varies, but empathy is also a skill. And therefore it can be trained. Goleman offers five steps to rewire your brain for emotional intelligence in this Harvard Business Review article.

And if you want to go deeper, we highly recommend going through Google’s Search Inside Yourself video curriculum and following the exercises.

Using the research of neuroscientists and psychologists (including Goleman), Google developed a highly popular program to train their executives on how to increase emotional intelligence and become better leaders.

How These Two Skills Help You Serve Your Customers Too

Being able to take the perspective of others and to feel what they feel are vital skills for leading and managing an organization or team. But the benefits go further.

An IBM study with over 1,700 CEOs and other leaders showed that engaging customers as individuals is a top priority.

How better to engage your customers as individuals than to take their perspective and feel what they feel?

These skills will not only help you align your organization and resolve interpersonal conflicts, it will open the doors to the hearts and minds of your customers.

Combined with big data, interviews, focus groups, surveys, and other market research methods, applying these skills can enable you to understand your customers as unique human beings. It will help you unearth authentic consumer insights.

Who would have guessed that the battle for customer engagement could be won through the effective use of perspective taking and empathy?

SIDEBAR: How to Build Your Perspective-Taking Ability

Learn to take the role of others:

  1. Decide whose perspective you’re going to take. It could be an employee, a board member, a peer, a customer, or a family member.
  2. Allow yourself to be curious and let go of wanting to judge this exercise.
  3. Imagine that you are this person. As fully as you can, step into their point of view.
  4. Look out at your environment. What does it look like? What do you notice? What do you see? What do you think? What do you believe?

Maintain this perspective for two minutes. To help integrate what you’ve learned, invest a few minutes reflecting on the experience: What did you learn about the other person? What did you learn about yourself? Did you pick up a new perspective?

Follow this procedure at least twice per day until perspective taking becomes effortless.

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