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Metrics, Fallacies of Leadership and Missing the Soft Skills

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Patrick S. Malone
February 25, 2019

The Soft Stuff

This is about the soft stuff. Re-read those six words. This is about the soft stuff. There’s no doubt that for many seeing this in real time, there’s eye-rolling going on at the moment. Some may even be guilty of air-quoting the phrase, “Soft-stuff” in the past. Shame!

We love data, models and the like. They make us feel validated. Vindicated. Fancy charts, complex equations and numbers provide the foundation we need to objectively defend our position. But while metrics, statistics, acronyms and catchy constructs may intrigue us, they are limited in their value. They can support our decisions, but they are often used as a crutch for poor leadership or as substitutions in the absence of a leader’s emotional maturity. Sound common? It is.

Picture this: Senior leadership gathers for their morning meeting and the focus is immediately directed to the daily dashboard, a colorful graphic of red, yellow and green dots. This ritualistic congregation and the subsequent praise offered to the data gods provides the team a sense of security. They know what needs work, where the shortfalls are and what initiatives are needed to move along a little faster, all for the collective goal of, well, an acceptable dashboard!

Data can support decisionmaking, as well it should. Only the most foolhardy manager would make strategic decisions, or any decisions for that matter, without a well-researched arsenal of data to support their chosen path. But one cannot lead through data alone. For every metric, for every dashboard dot, for every spreadsheet, there is a person or team of people that do the research. They implement the programs. They commute to work. They struggle. And they have needs that require soft skills.

The Barriers

Managers often have a comfort level with the more technical aspects of their work. We often rise through the proverbial ranks because of our expertise. We draw on our experience and knowledge base to fix problems and we hone our technical talents through additional certifications, courses and skill-building. Then, we apply this knowledge to our jobs. This is especially common early in our careers when what we know matters most.

While this is perfectly normal, staying in this technical mindset over time has the potential to rob us of more adaptive thinking patterns. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy presented this powerful concept in their bestseller, Leadership on the Line. They suggest that by moving to a more adaptive outlook, leaders are able to shift their perspectives to see systems and relationships more comprehensively. Adaptive thinking allows managers to be comfortable with the more complex challenges of human values, feelings and emotions. Indeed, attention to these “softer” variables are what feed healthy organizational cultures in our workplaces.

Taking the Leap

It’s a deliberate effort. But the good news is that those who struggle with soft skills can still build the basic competencies needed to make that critical human connection. The next time you feel yourself trapped in the data mine, try a few of these:

  • Embrace yourself – Leaning toward the data side of life is not a bad thing. Practice self-awareness to bring more clarity to who you are and what you bring to the table. Meditation and reflection exercises help create new thinking patterns that can help you become more adaptive.
  • Think EQ, not IQ –In an interview with Business Voice, author and researcher Daniel Goleman shared that IQ is great for grades, but once you’re in the workforce you are only about as smart as everyone else. It’s no longer what you know, it’s how you connect.
  • Remember that people are people – It’s far too easy to identify someone as being their title. In other words, the “Accountant,” “Lawyer,” or “Assistant” do not describe Hakeem, Bonnie, or Jose. They are not titles. They are people with fears, joys, and souls. They are the ones behind your data.
  • Try, “I don’t know” – It is perfectly acceptable not to have all of the answers all of the time. The late Warren Bennis once noted that feeling like we have to know everything is, “Stupid beyond belief” in today’s world. The complexity of today’s life simply doesn’t allow it.
  • Then ask questions – Many of them. All the time. They open the door to a much deeper understanding of the complexities of modern life. They also provide others with the space needed to communicate their ideas.  
  • Do something kind everyday – We have a serious kindness deficit in our nation. A simple act of kindness to a team member can have a monumental impact on their ability to be innovative and productive members of the organization.

The Last Word

Surveys on workplace satisfaction almost never reveal that employees are looking for more technical prowess. The following words have never been seen in such a survey: “Gee, I wish my supervisor could just recite Chapter 4, Paragraph 2 of our Acquisition Regulations. That would make this work environment so much nicer!” The bottom line is that people may admire your expertise, but they’ll never be inspired by it.

Patrick S. Malone
Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs
American University
[email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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