Through 20 years in the business world, I’ve received leadership coaching and subsequently given that same coaching to others about how important it is to understand and incorporate the view-points of the people you are leading into whatever you are doing.
There is even research that shows that establishing common ground helps you be a more influential and persuasive leader. Similarly, it is no secret that knowing your audience and the language they speak are critical in determining whether you will be successful in bringing them along with you on whatever ride you are trying to take them on.
That being said, it is one thing to know your audience and what they express as important to them. It is a very different thing to really understand things from their perspective and to see and feel what they see and feel.
This is where my 2 year old son entered the equation and reminded me of that critical difference (unbeknownst to him, of course).
Sunday Mornings at The Local Middle School
Admittedly, it may seem like just a little too much writer’s liberty to try to make a connection between business leadership and playing with a toddler. But I’ve also found compelling leadership reminders from the most surprising places in life from playing in grunge rock bands to bombing a music audition with a rock legend.
My son and I have had a ritual for months now. Every Sunday morning like The Three Musketeers, I take him and our dog to the local middle school to generally romp around and play. Given my son’s obsession with balls of all kinds, I always pack up about 15 different balls for him.
His favorite activity is to roll each ball one by one down a walking ramp that ends with a staircase of about 10 steps near the multipurpose room. Then he runs down the stairs to retrieve them all, and one by one throws them as high as he can to try to get them back over the top step.
Then the fun part happens.
When each ball slowly rolls back down the ramp and starts bouncing down the stairs towards him, he erupts in glee as if this was the most exciting thing he’s ever seen. For weeks, I simply attributed this to just how darn cool it was to be two years old. Then I did something that triggered my reminder about an important element of business leadership.
Perspective Changes Everything
I’m about six feet tall. My son is about three feet tall. I decided to crouch down and see this amazingly exciting event from his eyes. It then became obvious why this was so awesome for him and what I was missing. After he threw the ball over the top step, as a person twice his height, I could see the ball going up the ramp and then coming down the ramp before hitting the stairs and bouncing down to him.
When I shortened myself to be only three feet tall, I realized that he couldn’t see the ramp at all. He could only see the ball he threw go over the top step, disappear for about 10 seconds, only to suddenly magically re-emerge and bounce down the stairs right towards him.
That was the trigger point every time that made him erupt in excitement. When I saw it from his perspective, I understood it. When I saw it from my perspective, I attributed his behavior to the wrong things. It was a cool moment to feel what he felt.
The Difference Between Hearing It and “Living It”
It instantly reminded me of something a COO I used to work with years ago used to say:
“Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
He was getting at just how differently people react and behave regarding the exact same business situation, issue or decision and how leaders need to understand that in terms of how they respond.
There’s a bigger point here, though, and my young son reminded me of it. The reality is that it isn’t actually the exact same business issue, situation or decision. The seemingly exact same issue looks and feels very different when you factor in what any given person sees from his or her vantage point.
The reminder for me as a leader and one who works with and gives coaching to other leaders was quite simple but easy to forget on a day to day basis:
It is really important to ask people about their perspectives, but to truly understand why they behave or react the way they do requires you to actually walk in their shoes. It is an old expression that can sometimes feel trite, cliched, and easy to disregard as such.
After my recent experience with my son, though, it certainly reminded me that I could do it a lot more. And sometimes the insight you get from it is surprising.