Character & communication

by | May 22, 2024 | Articles

5 min read

First, a clarification

My focus is working and talking and solving problems with leaders. And this article will follow that pattern. So, no, it’s not about cartoon characters and their communication – Elmer Fudd yelling about the “Qwazy wabbit!!” or the Road Runner’s “beep beep!” as he speeds down the desolate highway.

Rather, it’s about us, and about what our communication habits reveal about our own character.

Wisdom from Robert Gates

Robert Gates (former US Secretary of Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, and President of Texas A&M University) wrote a book on leadership I’ve found helpful and insightful (A Passion for Leadership) and this article will largely be a compilation of some of his observations about our communication as leaders.

I’ll group the observations under two headings: cultivate candor; and listen! And I’ll weave in some thoughts from others and some of my own along the way.

Cultivate candor

Wisdom on this topic from Secretary Gates:

“Candor is critical to a leader’s success. Every boss needs to understand that creating a climate where people feel comfortable in being honest in their opinions is the cheapest possible job insurance for the person in charge.” 1

But…

“No one likes to be criticized or told of his or her shortcoming or errors, yet everyone needs to hear it—and welcome it.”2 And: “Virtually all leaders tell their subordinates that they want and expect candor. The problem is that most don’t really mean it…. No one makes the right decision every time or hits a home run with every interview, testimony, or speech. Yet nearly all leaders, especially at more senior levels…have sycophants who will always tell them how smart, how wonderful, how amazingly thoughtful and insightful they are.”3

Consequently:

“…the scarcity of candor afflicts public and business bureaucracies and is an impediment to effectiveness in both.”4

My recap: a leader isn’t perfect and needs to know where missteps or imperfections are hindering the organization’s effectiveness. But leaders are also human and don’t necessarily appreciate being told when they fall short. But they need to know anyway, for the sake of the organization.

What a mess: the boss needs candid feedback but reacts to receiving it. Two parties in the relationship have opportunities to help solve the dilemma.

What to do about it: the boss

Back to Secretary Gates:

“Every leader must encourage respectful, loyal dissent. Every leader must look for every possible opportunity to demonstrate that candor is welcome…. Leaders need candor because none of us are as smart as we think we are.”5 “Leaders…who approach their jobs with some humility are far more likely to get from subordinates the kinds of ideas and advice [and feedback] critical to success and to build a solid team than those who presume to know all the answers.”6

So the boss needs to possess and demonstrate humility. At a minimum.

What to do about it: the trembling, concerned subordinates

What about those who report to the boss? When the boss really needs to hear some difficult feedback, the subordinates need (a) the courage to speak up (in what could easily be a career-crushing situation); and (b) the courtesy to provide it with respect (and also to show the respect not to let it poison the workplace behind the boss’s back).

Speaking of respect: Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny et al is subtitled “Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High.” And a conversation where a subordinate provides feedback to the boss certainly qualifies as high stakes. The entire book has relevant wisdom, but the idea of not falling for “The Fool’s Choice” is extra helpful, and addresses where respect fits in: “The mistake most of us make…is we believe we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend…”; that we “must choose between candor and kindness.” But we can avoid The Fool’s Choice by asking ourselves, “How can I be 100 percent honest…and at the same time be 100 percent respectful.”7

The Apostle Paul calls it speaking truth in love.8 And there’s always a way, though often not easy, to do so.

So the subordinate’s character combination in play includes, at minimum, honesty, respect and courage.

Listen!

Gates is emphatic on this topic in his book.

“A favorite saying of mine is ‘Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.’”9

“Two common threads through this book have been the needs to listen and to empower subordinates. The corollary to both is to know when to keep quiet and when to keep your hands off the steering wheel.”10

“Everywhere I have served, I have seen too many people in authority dominate a meeting by talking nearly the entire time…. They just wanted to bloviate with their own thoughts for the enlightenment of the attendees. Listening was not part of their agenda, nor was self-restraint.”11

And he recounts how he preferred to approach meetings, with a focus on listening (and learning):

“It is a simple truth that when you are talking, you are not learning. I was criticized [in a book on President Obama and the Afghan War] for not speaking up until late in NSC meetings…. And it is true that I would bide my time before offering my opinion. This had two benefits. First, it was advantageous in terms of my strategy to have the meeting conclude along the lines I preferred. By waiting to speak, I knew where the other principals were on the chessboard before I weighed in and could thus better calculate what I wanted to say and how to express it. Second, on some issues, I had not made up my mind and actually wanted to hear what others had to say. I proceeded on the radical assumption that, by listening, I might learn something I hadn’t thought of.”12

And there we have it again: humility showing up as “the radical assumption that, by listening, I might learn something.”

Let’s grow

High-quality, high-value communication involves humility (on the receiving end) and honesty, respect and courage (on the other end). And we often fall short in all of those character qualities.

But character is both descriptive (where we are now) and aspirational (what we want to grow into). Which means, though we fall short and can all do better, we all can indeed do better. It’s not easy, it may go against decades of bad habits and ingrained self-absorption, and even our best next efforts may still fall pitifully short. Yet we can, with focus and effort and the willingness to try, try again (and with more than a modest dose of divine aid) grow more and more in the humility, honesty, respect, courage and other wholesome character traits we should display in our communication. Let’s keep on growing. Our coworkers will appreciate it. Our boss might as well.

“That’s all folks.”

Eric R. Alexander

May 2024

 

No A.I was employed (or harmed) in the creation of this content.

© 2024, Six Arrows Consulting. All rights reserved.

1Robert M. Gates, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, 118 (Alfred A Knopf, 2016).

2 Ibid, 118.

3 Ibid, 119.

4 Ibid, 122.

5 Ibid, 122. Also: “The last thing the egotist wants is candor, particularly if that includes implied criticism or even a hint that the boss is somehow shy of perfection in all things.” (160)

6 Ibid, 172.

7 Joseph Grenny et al, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (3rd edition), 24 (all three quotes). (McGraw Hill, 2023). Emphasis added.

8 Ephesians 4:15

9 Gates, 166.

10 Ibid, 167.

11 Ibid, 167.

12 Ibid, 167. NSC: National Security Council.