The Curious Leader
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The Curious Leader

Seeing: The Secret to Leadership

As the saying goes, first impressions are everything. But what if something is getting in the way of what we see? How do we compensate for that? Are we even aware of our impairment?

“We choose what we want to see.” Dominique Jackson, actor, author and model recently said in reference to how we encounter the people around us. She was being interviewed at the National Gay Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Summit in Ft. Lauderdale.

Like how someone might select to only see ‘good news’ or dwell on the negative, Jackson inferred that the way we look at others and how we give in to or overcome our biases, stereotypes and past experiences informs how we see other people.

A tall Black woman stands facing a shorter white man on a stage. They are facing each other and holding both hands.
See the person standing before you as a person, not through their labels.

What labels does your judgment put on other people? Based on gender, age, race or ethnicity? Income level? Title? Education? How do those get in your way of truly seeing this person as another human being?

How do past experiences, either with that person or someone similar to that person based on those labels, distort how you consider and engage?

What if you were able to simple see the person in front of you as a human being?

The pressures of leadership often require snap judgments and decision making. As a result, we draw on our past and our biases to quickly inform our reactions and course of action. The outcome is that we aren’t seeing the very people we are supposed to be leading, which limits their sense of connection and belonging to our team. This is the absence of cognitive empathy in leadership. As the United States is experiencing now with The Great Resignation, that lack of belonging — that my voice is being heard — is a factor in people’s calculus of ‘should I stay or should I go?’

Here are 3 tips for dismantling your judgment so you can see people for who they are.

1 — Recognize Your Biases — bring your awareness to how you respond in conversation or even when you see someone on the street. What are the snap judgments you are making? What’s behind that? Is there a bias or something from your past that’s influencing your reaction?

2 — Check Your Biases at the Door — now that you recognize your biases, you can step around them in your next engagement. As soon as you feel a bias getting in the way, step to the side to clear the obstacle and move forward.

3 — Engage — Give a smile and a nod. Signal that you are listening. Repeat back key points that they are saying so that the other person knows you hear them. Ask questions. Allow people to work with you rather than for you. Collaboration and ideation are stronger when multiple people are involved.

Don’t let this be a one-time experience either. Become consistent in how you engage. And if you have a problem with how someone engages with you, collaborate with them to get it to a better place. The one-way street of authoritarian leadership is a road filled with potholes that no one wants to drive down anymore. Try collaborative leadership, driven by cognitive empathy to become a true 21st century leader.

Or, as Jackson concluded her comments, “see human beings.”

The choice is yours.

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