Leadership: Be reasonable and listen more than you talk
By Brad McDonald
Mad Dog Jack was my first commanding officer, aboard my first submarine. He was nicknamed Mad Dog for a good reason. His command policy stated, "My temper ranges between Irish and unreasonable."
Since I was a baby ensign, a mere 30 days out of the Naval Academy, when I reported aboard Mad Dog's ship, I didn't quite know what he meant. I quickly found out.
Returning to port from my first underway, I was told to supervise the line handlers forward of the sail.
I was afraid to tell anybody that I was clueless about tying up a submarine, but figured the sailors handling the lines knew what they were doing. As the tug approached, Mad Dog yelled from atop the sail: "Ensign McDonald, from the tug, take the split head wire to cleats one and two starboard; put the quarter wire on cleat three; and put the tow leg on cleat four centerline aft."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but definitely knew how to respond, "Aye aye, sir!" and then watched the lines come over from the tug. They didn't go where Mad Dog wanted them, and the tug hit and damaged our sail plane.
After we tied up at the pier, Mad Dog magically appeared in my face and dressed me down at the top of his lungs. He threatened my career, my life and my body, and left me wondering if I should seek a career shift to naval aviation.
To be effective, communication must be two-way. As a leader, it's important to remember that your people want to please and impress you. In their minds, one way to not impress you is to not know what you want, what you are talking about or what's on your mind.
So it's difficult to admit, "Boss, I don't know what you want here. I'm confused about this project; I need some clarification on how you want me to do this."
The best way to get two-way communication going in your company is to foster it from the top.
Here are some tips for doing that.
- Have a written "command policy" or leader's compass that specifically states your desire for feedback from the rank and file.
- Accept suggestions from your team with grace and give them due consideration. Implement as many of these suggestions as possible. Who knows, they might be good ideas.
- Be open to hearing bad news. Receive it calmly. If you unload on the messenger, the bad news will stop coming. But it will keep happening, you just won't hear about it, until it's too late.
- "Walk the ship." The best way to get feedback from your people is to go where they are. Meet them on their territory. Act like a visitor talking with the expert. Ask a few questions; listen more than you talk; be genuinely interested; and thank them for their hard work.
Chances are your employees know a lot about your company that you don't know. But there are also things that they don't know about you.
If you engage in one-way communications like Mad Dog, you and your team may never transcend those information barriers.
You can be Irish, but don't be unreasonable. It's up to you to create a culture of open communication in your organization; nobody has the platform to do that like the person at the top.
Inside Business: The Hampton Roads Business Journal