Leaders Need More Than A Bat Signal
By Jeff Owen, Arête Purpose Consulting
Batman has a leadership problem.
For someone who worshipped him and wore a Bat Cape while running around the neighborhood as a nerdy eight-year-old kid, that’s painful to write.
Oh, Batman rights many wrongs — from diverting drinking water intentionally contaminated to cause wide-spread insanity to catching common purse snatchers. He gives the Good Citizens of Gotham (and comic readers) every reason to feel protected from evil jokesters and penguins who threatened our security.
But he has serious leadership issue. Specifically, he has a leadership communication issue.
Sure, he answers the Bat Phone (a secure line from Commissioner Gordon). Sure, he responds to the Bat Signal when beamed from high atop the police station headquarters.
How many times, though, have Batman’s intentions, motives and decisions been seriously misunderstood because he rarely explains his plan? How often is he accused of committing a crime because he does not sit down for an interview on GNN? (The city’s news network must have paid a hefty ransom to CNN for duplicating its iconic logo.)
Because he operates in secrecy, Batman bears the nickname “The Dark Knight” — and that makes it increasingly difficult to effect change and earn trust of those who want to follow him.
If Batman ask billionaire Bruce Wayne for the cell number of Wayne Industries’ best public relations firm, he would get a simple piece of advice: Get out of your bunker mentality. Check that. Get out of your Bat Cave mentality.
In the past 30 professional years, I have worked with and worked for all kinds of leaders — company presidents, chief executive officers, executive directors, non-profit board members, etc. Most were outstanding individuals who possessed remarkable intelligence, incredible motivation and extraordinary values.
Those whose organizations reached high levels of success shared a common thread — they were respected internally and externally. And the critical catalyst to that respect, every time, was their ability to effectively communicate.
Those whose organizations were not as successful (or they drove their organization and/or careers into an abyss) were not respected internally and externally. And one of the primary reasons for failure, was their inability to effectively communicate.
Like Batman, less successful leaders aren’t necessarily evil people.
Some ineffective leaders simply do not know how to communicate. (Engineers are brilliant, yet often struggle with communication when placed in leadership positions. Getting them to condense their theories into three understandable bullet points in a presentation can be an epic challenge.)
Some are surprisingly insecure and prefer not to swim beyond their comfort zone and communicate. (Communication requires exposure of your opinions and subjects you to criticism. That can be difficult for a school superintendent who has terrific vision — yet by nature is thin-skinned.)
Some have large egos, and — for them — communication with the masses wastes valuable time and has little to gain. (A CEO with a prestigious MBA pedigree might believe the underlings simply do not understand the complexities of the corporate world.)
Therefore, the business day becomes less complicated if the leader presses a button to open the bookcase and slides down the Bat Pole to a place far away from others. It’s much more comforting to immerse oneself on the Bat Blackberry.
Leaders who are successful because they are excellent communicators have these common practices:
They talk to people.
This sounds so simple. Unfortunately, too many leaders use e-mail as their primary communication tool. This is the unintended consequences of Outlook. Imagine if Commissioner Gordon e-mailed: “Batman! Get here as soon as possible!” Is he upset? Is he in trouble? Does he mean now or when Batman has a moment? E-mail is a great tool for follow-up notes, sharing background information and scheduling. It should not, however, replace face-to-face conversations.
They listen to people.
The traditional academic communication model requires a critical element: feedback. Successful leaders listen to feedback — constantly. They understand the importance of adaptation and process. The best ideas for reaching goals often come from within the organization.
They share end goals.
I have seen managers barking out orders for tasks, and employees not responding well — simply because they did not know “why”. A mentor once shared his 20-60-20 rule of management: When you set a goal as a leader, 20 percent of people will always be against it; while 20 percent of the people will always be for it. The remaining 60 percent want as much information as possible to understand the goal. Effective leaders communicate clearly to those 60 percent and get buy-in — not to mention a successful outcome.
They understand the importance of non-verbal communication.
A constantly closed office door doesn’t send a signal of transparency. Arms folded across the chest shows a sign of disinterest. Wandering eyes during a conversation causes immediate disconnect.
Every organizational leader has to deal with Riddlers. They come with the territory. To effectively handle them, though, a leader needs to lower the Bat Shields and load up the Bat Utility Belt with every communication tool possible.
The stakeholders should not have to light up the night sky just to get a leader’s attention.