Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Good Follow-ship

During a recent call, a colleague lamented that employee engagement was at an all time low, with 70% not engaged at work (Gallup), and yet there are over 60,000 books on leadership (she Googled Amazon).  She went on to say, if so few employees are engaged then we are failing at leadership (and not learning from all these books).   Are managers getting bad advice? Probably not, but as we discussed, the lack of soft skills, modeling behaviors, that encourage connections between people is the culprit.

I learned early as an adult the hard way, and often the best way, of failing at communication.  I found that communication has two parts, a message and a reception, and without both, there is no communication.  I’ve spent half my professional life working on problems of digital communications across far flung organizations, especially helping bridge the digital divide in emerging countries.   When two people make a connection, it’s a beautiful thing to witness the budding conversation.  But getting connected is no guarantee that communication can occur. 

Why is that?  While a message and a connection are required, there can be no person-to-person communication without listening, understanding and empathizing.  And that’s not a one-way street; it’s about both listening more deeply, both seeking to understand the other, and putting yourselves in each other’s shoes.  That’s where the most engaging conversations, what David Whyte calls the courageous conversations, can begin.

This person-to-person communication is not just something that leaders in an organization can do, it is also for the followers, who make up most of the organization, must do.  It means being a better follower, and practicing what I call good follow-ship. 

A brief story may help...

A few summers ago my wife and I traveled to Cairo to be a judge in the Imagine Cup student competition. While we were there, we made plans to meet with a colleague who offered to show us his home country, the "real" Egypt he said. Farouk was one of our long-term Field Office Regional Tech's. He reported up through my US headquarters IT group.

As is the custom of his country, Farouk extended a hospitality that is rare in my part of the world. He took us on a tour of the old city in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, and we traveled to Alexandria. He made all the arrangements and would take no more than our thanks in return. It was humbling.

The traffic in Cairo is, by western standards, insane. There are few traffic lights in the city, and no one pays any attention to them. The painted lines on the street and highways are at best guidelines; if four cars can fit in three lanes, they do. One evening in Cairo we parked near the edge of the old city and walked to dinner. At the first main street, we experienced the drivers of Egypt, up close and personal. How were we ever going to cross this street? My New York instincts were to look for a gap in the traffic, and run for it. But there were no gaps.

Though I was the boss, Farouk took charge. "Hold my hands," he said, "follow my lead, and don't look!" It was a strange experience, a throw-back to early childhood, grabbing Dad's hand before crossing the street; depending on him to get us safely across. "Go now," he said, taking five steps forward and stopping, then five more. Cars were swerving around us like a river around three rocks. "Hold on," he admonished, "do what I say; now go." In a dance I did not understand, he guided across the sea of chaos, to the other side.

When we caught our breath, and heart rates slowed down, I asked him how he got us across. In New York, we would have been killed. But these were Cairo rules. "When you step out," he said, "the drivers must take responsibility not to hit you." "...but you need to know when to step out," he added.

This story was a lesson I'll never forget, precisely because I needed to forget. I had to put aside my experience and preconceived notions of how to cross a busy street, and trust someone else to guide me through their country's rules. Letting others lead you and teach you is part of becoming a good leader. It is especially true of learning about other cultures--we will never get it as well as those who have it in their blood. This also applies to our areas of expertise. Sometimes we need to practice good follow-ship.

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