Why good leaders learn it’s not about the next step, but taking a step back

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This content is provided by American University.

The government workforce is very good at knowledge accumulation. Federal employees have an impressive array of technical skills, and an infinite number of certification programs to choose from. But where federal leaders tend to struggle is in the adaptive arenas, where emotion and feelings rule the day.

Patrick Malone, director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University, said he frequently gets federal employees with very strong technical backgrounds coming to the Key program, and they all face similar challenges. Whether it be from law enforcement, healthcare, finance or science, they arrive with an unmatched expertise. But this focus trains the mind to always look for the next step, the next level of certification, or the next process improvement. In truth, the next step in leadership involves taking a step back and focusing on the emotional needs of their employees.

“People may be impressed by what you know. But they’re never going to be inspired by it,” Malone said. “A disturbing number of leaders want to profess what they know. But it’s not what you know that matters. It’s who you are, and how authentically you can relate to other people.”

In other words, you can be the accounting department’s top genius with a spreadsheet. But if you get put in charge of that department, you quickly discover that people don’t fit on a spreadsheet.

Malone said the most important quality a leader can show is emotional intelligence. Part of that is self-awareness, the knowledge of your own emotions and how they impact your thinking and judgement. The other part is self-regulation, the ability to put the brakes on before experiencing what Malone referred to as an “amygdala hijack,” where you’re not able to control your emotional response and wind up making bad decisions.

That same emotional intelligence turned outwards then becomes social awareness, another important quality of leadership.

“Social awareness is the ability to read a room, it’s the ability to read others. I had a former student who said ‘it’s just the simple act of noticing,’” Malone said. “When we understand where we fall, and when we have a good idea of where we are based on the signals we’re seeing, we can bridge that gap. And we can make that communication.”

Malone pointed to the yearly results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as evidence for the importance of this skill.

“When you look at the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, every single year, every single time the results come out, you never see anyone saying, ‘gee, I wish my boss knew more about the Federal Acquisition Regulations chapter eight.’ You never hear that. What you hear, what you see is, ‘I wish my boss cared. I wish my boss knew who I was. I wish I could get some compassion.’ That’s what people are looking for: the soft skills,” he said. “And some supervisors dismiss that because it’s an uncomfortable place to go, you have to be willing to let go, to be vulnerable, and to trust. It’s hard to do.”

This is where the Key Executive Leadership Programs experience comes in. The faculty and coaches, all with significant federal backgrounds, create an environment where federal leaders can challenge their thinking and grow their capacity to ‘see’ themselves and their environments differently.  And it’s not easy, Malone said, when this involves getting confident, experienced leaders to let down their guard. The key is to get them to focus on themselves first, Malone said, and learn mindfulness. But that’s hard, because we’re conditioned to respond reactively, look for the low-hanging fruit, or score the quick win.

Instead of an emphasis on procedure and process, leaders in the Key program challenge their thinking, their bias, and “crucibles,” the things and events that really shape people into who they are.

“Nobody in the government, no one has the ability to at the end of the day take their papers, straighten them up on their desk, put everything in order, and say, ‘I’m all caught up.’ No one in government can do that,” Malone said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in office. You’re never going to have enough resources, there’s never going to be enough time, you’re always going to have politicals pushing administration initiatives. Congress is going to be pressuring agencies, it’s always going to be that way. So you’re never just going to catch up, and you’re never going to have everything you need.”

Instead, Malone said we should be tapping into the few bottomless resources we have, the human mind, the soul, and the heart. By connecting at the human level using love and laughter along the way, we open the door to inclusiveness, diversity and boundless innovation.

Malone said that this means sometimes the answer is to take a step back, not lean in so much as take a step back.

“We often congratulate ourselves about taking a third-person perspective, where we look at a situation from another perspective,” Malone said. “But what we really ought to do is strive for a fourth person perspective, where we examine ourselves assessing a situation. This is where we learn more about who we are, who we’ve become, and how we can be our authentic selves. This is how we begin to take our place in the new pantheon of impactful leaders.”

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