The Humanity of Leadership



I was recently in a situation with peers when “communication confusion” came to roost, and one person noted – “we teach this stuff, we should know better.” I had to step back and reflect on the statement to see the truth. While having knowledge and experience does create an advantage, when everyone is moving into new territory together, no matter how good you are at facilitating, leading, speaking, and selling, “communication confusion” will occur. In my experience, if you can stick through this difficult part of the conversation, the group will find a way forward. As a result, you come through as a stronger team. Trusting this process does take leadership and it requires the ability to self-manage to reach a good outcome.

To become more adept in these situations, spend the time to learn and practice the skills from the “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner. In this book, Kaner speaks to this “conversation confusion” phenomenon, also known as the “groan zone.”

What I have learned from other leaders and my own experiences is that the greatest moment of growth for a team and leader truly comes from being less than perfect. Those who get things done, move things forward and make things happen with others are willing to move into the hard conversations. They get into the muck of it, go into the unknown, and don’t worry about having to be right or get it right, but are focused on how to learn, get better and find a path forward together.

Below are some great practices for guiding a team through ambiguity:

  • Create short-term goals.
  • Seek feedback and perspective from others.
  • Listen more than talk.
  • Be outcome-focused.
  • Make it safe for everyone to make mistakes, raise your hand, and be willing to gain help from others.
  • Don’t let being stuck be an option.
  • Communicate what is working – this does not make you a “Positive Polly or Paulo,” it helps people to not throw the baby out with the bath water and focus on what is the next area to try.
  • Be willing to adapt and change the business model.
  • Keep executing – execution towards a goal is a game changer.

In addition, here are nine practices for self-management as you go through the “conversation confusion.”

  • Listen to the words, not the tone or energy.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Manage your inner dialogue.
  • Release judgement about the other or yourself.
  • If your emotions are running high, ask yourself what you feel and what you need.
  • Periodically throughout the discussion, restate the goal or problem that is trying to be solved.
  • Have a process check to see what is needed to ensure a good outcome.
  • If someone attacks you, rephrase it as an attack on the problem.
  • Be kind to yourself. If you don’t have to have the answer, you just need to stick with the conversation to see what appears.

Leaders are human and imperfect. The more you acknowledge this, speak to it, do your best and have the courage to step into the tension with curiosity, you are doing a great job.

Continue to lead!