As we come back to my temporary role as the Leadership blog writer, we will be returning once again to a military analogy as the basis for my thoughts, as the military forms the vast majority of my leadership experience. Yet I assure you this will only be the illustration, and military experience will (hopefully) not be a prerequisite for benefitting from my thoughts.
With that preamble, the concept I want to discuss is related to the skill of tracking, which was something I always found fun during training, and was generally fairly good at it. As you may have guessed, tracking was the process of looking for sign that people had been through an area, gathering information about those people, and ultimately following the sign to their location. The sign we looked for included anything including discarded rubbish, footprints, overturned stones, broken twigs, flattened grass and just about anything else you could imagine.
Yet in general, each type of landscape or vegetation would one have dominant sort of sign to look out for. So if you were tracking through soft mud, you might predominantly be looking for obvious footprints. But if you were in long vegetation, crushed grass might be the main sign of disturbance. This meant that whenever you moved into a new kind of environment, it was necessary to stop and ‘tune in’.
Tuning in seemed like a waste of time to me when I first heard about it, and many of my colleagues didn’t bother with it. Yet I eventually came to appreciate its necessity. Essentially, it involved stopping in any new environment and taking in your surroundings. You would notice the shape of the vegetation, the colour of the stones, the direction of the grass, the state of the bark—as much as you could. This way, you knew what was normal. Anything abnormal then, such as grass pointing a different way or freshly broken bark, was potentially sign. The basic premise was that no two environments were exactly alike, so it would be futile to look for the same sign everywhere you went.
A long-winded analogy, I know. But what I want to say about this is that as a leader I believe it behoves us to ‘tune-in’ to our people. We need to be emotionally intelligent enough to know what they are like—what can they handle, and what can’t they handle? What challenges them to grow, and what pushes them away? What do they thrive on, and what breaks them?
I know there are some people in my circle of influence that I can joke around with and ‘rib’ in a playful sense. They will laugh and give it right back to me. Yet there are others that would take similar comments personally, and would find such behaviour really hurtful. As a leader, I need to pick up on these things and act accordingly. I must treat them as individuals, and not expect everybody to react the same way.
Finally, tuning in to your team also means being able to pick up when somebody is behaving differently and react as necessary. If somebody who usually enjoys a light-hearted joke seems downcast or snappy, you need to be able to notice this difference and not push them. If somebody who is usually outspoken in your group is clearly exhausted and disengaged, maybe don’t push them as you normally might. If you approach somebody to speak about something mundane and they are visibly upset or crying, then don’t go on speaking as you would at any other time.
Leadership involves knowing your people as the individuals that they are, and treating them as such. Just as a tracker cannot treat each area as if it were exactly the same, a leader cannot treat each person as if they were exactly the same.