As a long-time student on leadership, I find it fascinating that there is no definitive place where a person can learn how to be a good leader. One could make the case that the military focuses on teaching leadership, but another could argue that kind of leadership is modeled only for military purposes and doesn’t always translate into business or politics. Universities do not specifically teach leadership, although they try to create scenarios within their curricula to simulate it. In business, we often learn to be leaders by trial and error. Many of us read books, go to seminars, and seek out coaching in order to try and make ourselves better leaders. It is a journey every good leader starts when they question their results and seek to make themselves more effective. However, one thing I frequently see overlooked is the need to truly understand ourselves before we try to understand how we can affect other people.
My first profound exposure to this idea was when the company where I worked hired an executive coach to work with several individuals who were considered up-and-coming leaders. I was running a region with several area managers and about 20 locations. This coach, named Bill, traveled with me and observed my meetings and interactions with my people. Later, when we were talking about our day, I expressed some frustrations with not being able to figure out my people and how to lead them effectively. Bill suggested I first figure out myself, then I could figure out how I affected other people and adapt my actions. We did this through a simple Myers-Briggs test, which can be taken, in its simplest form, online for free.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator features 16 different personality profiles, and each letter of the profile has a meaning. I turned out to be an ENTJ. My profile described in detail how I am at work, which my team and my wife affirmed. One trait is that I am an extroverted processor (the “E” in ENTJ). I like to think out loud and blue-sky. It turns out, this is the exact opposite of introverted processors; they need time by themselves to process new ideas. If you blue-sky too aggressively with someone whose profile that starts with “I,” they either shut down and assume you have made up your mind (because they would never talk about an idea out loud unless they had thought it through), or they will dig in their heels.
I had my people take the test, and it turned out that one of my area managers was an introverted processor. He either would argue stubbornly with ideas he did not like, or he would shut down. So, taking my new knowledge in hand, I decided to talk to him about something I knew he would be very passionate about: closing an operation he had personally built. Instead of just meeting on Monday to discuss and decide, I sent him a note on Friday and said we would meet on Monday to discuss my idea. I briefly laid out my argument and told him not to call me before the meeting. I arrived on Monday, expecting my area manager to be loaded for bear and ready to passionately defend his side. We sat down, and he said, “Russ, I spent the weekend thinking about your note, and it makes total sense to shut this down.” I just about fell to the floor. It turned out that by allowing him time to process things the way he needed to, he came to the same conclusion without any input from me. To this day, I always try to find out who the introverted processors are on my team, so I can adjust the way I present information and address difficult decisions with them.
Russ Kathrein is the president and CEO of Aurora, Ill.-based Alexander Lumber, which operates 12 locations throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. He is also chair-elect of the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association. Reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org