The route to outstanding leadership doesn’t always go through elevated titles or C-suite boardrooms. Instead, it travels a path anyone can navigate. And it doesn’t matter what position a person occupies within an organization; everyone can practice it.
I’m talking about the simple act of showing an interest in another person. While this is important in every area of our lives, it takes on even greater significance when we occupy a leadership role within our company.
This is tough advice for some people, because they may not be particularly interested in the personal lives of others. They’re more interested in sales, profits, finishing the latest project, or being sure they’re getting a full day’s work from the person whose work they’re about to interrupt with a question. I understand this, although I don’t agree with it, and that’s certainly their prerogative. But way too much research shows that by not taking an interest in other people, especially the people we manage or whose paychecks we sign, we dramatically restrict our effectiveness as leaders. Our people don’t feel as connected or as committed to us. They’re not as willing to go the extra mile, to return favors, or to put in the extra effort we sometimes need from them.
Here’s a simple way to express interest: ask a question. Rather than waiting for someone else to open a conversation by asking YOU a question, take the initiative and ask THEM a question first. Any question. There’s no need to complicate this. Just make it sincere, even if that’s uncomfortable at first.
“How was your weekend (or evening)?” “How’s your family?” “Is that a new shirt?” The right question can telegraph that not only are you showing an interest in them, but you’re also paying attention. And every employee feels good when they know the boss is paying attention.
Sounds simple, right? Well here comes the magic. Ask a follow up question once they respond to your first question. Once again, don’t complicate this. Keep it simple and avoid the temptation to jump in and say something about yourself. Remember, this is about them, not you.
One of my favorite stories that illustrates the power of showing an interest in another person involves two mid-1800s British diplomats: William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. It also involves Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s American-born mother. Lady Churchill was at a dinner with the two diplomats and was asked afterward about her impression of the two men. “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling like I was the cleverest woman.” Gladstone had spent the evening talking about himself. Disraeli has spent the evening asking Lady Churchill questions about her and listening intently to her responses.
You don’t need to be a British diplomat, a business leader, or anybody other than yourself to show an interest in someone else and, by extension, demonstrate good leadership. Just ask a couple questions.