On the Learn to Lead Podcast, I interviewed Alain Hunkins author of Cracking the Leadership Code which was released earlier this year and featured on Amazon as their number one new release in the business communication category.
I’m going to kick us off with a statistic from the book, which highlights the fact that only 23% of people think their leaders lead well. Your perspective in the book is that the problem of leadership stems from hanging on for too long to the old command and control management approach. Can you discuss a little bit for our listeners why you think this has led to such dismal marks for current leaders?
It’s just such a great way to start. The fact is, the command and control mindset is not something that, today in 2020, people are waking up with and thinking. Yet it’s something that is this inherited leadership legacy. Back in the days when we first had leaders in organizations, it was the industrial age, where, if you and I were employees, we were on the assembly line, we were widget makers in the widget factory.
At the time there’s this guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor. He’s considered the father of the field of management. He literally said things that the ideal worker should be. I’m quoting this, because I could not make this up, Matthew. He said, “The ideal worker should be so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembled in his mental make-up the ox than any other type.”
This is the mindset, is that, literally, workers were the brawn and leaders were the brains. That, basically, your job was to shut up and just do as you’re told, which when you’re on an assembly line, they’re looking for conformity and consistency, and that’s it. That is not the world that we live in. When 21st-century leaders cling to this 20th-century industrial-age mindset, they are destined to struggle.
The problem is, so many leaders today really haven’t had great role modeling of what does it mean to be an effective leader. You can’t do what you’ve never seen. You might have read in the book, but that old school “do as I say because I say so” is deep in us. I think a lot of us get it from our parents. Let’s face it. A lot of us grew up with, “Because I’m your dad, or I’m your mom, that’s why you do this.” Then we unconsciously repeat those patterns unless we very intentionally stop and question and rewire ourselves to think and to act differently.
That’s a perfect way to start the conversation. The book highlights three secrets to get out of that or push back against it and build strong leadership foundation. I’m going to take them one by one and let’s start with connection. Why is that such a vital component of breaking free of that and actually leading effectively?
Great question. Look, at its core, what is leadership? It is not your job title. It’s not your position. It’s not a role. Leadership is a dynamic relationship between the person who is in this role, playing the role of leader, and the person who chooses to follow.
At the core of a relationship, with any human relationship, is connection. Without a strong connection, there’s no relationship. You can’t move beyond just the baseline level of compliance. That’s all people will give you if you’re operating from the, “Because I told you. That’s why.” It starts with connection.
For me, the heart of connection is empathy. That’s what separates humans from every other species. It’s our ability to see other people, care about what they think, and care how they feel. This is the core of what it means to be a human and it’s actually the core of what it means to be an effective leader. That’s where I’d start with the connection.
Perfect. Let’s move on to number two, which bridges that really nicely. It’s communication. How can leaders tangibly get better at this key skill and then how does communication build on connection?
Sure. If we have a relationship, that’s a great start. Then the question is, what are we trying to do in that relationship? The big trap that so many leaders have is like, “I want to be a good communicator.” Actually, you don’t. No one cares about communication, communication is just a vehicle to create understanding.
The whole point of communication is to create this shared platform by which we are seeing things in the same way. That’s what understanding means, is that we can see reality the same way. The reason that’s so important is because this shared understanding becomes the platform for all future decisions, actions, and results. If we have a solid platform of shared understanding, we can make good decisions and we’ll get good results.
However, if our platform is shaky and tippy, we’re not sure. For example, we walk out of a meeting like, “I don’t know. What did Matthew just say we do?” “I don’t really know, we didn’t talk about it. Well, I guess I’ll go and do this thing.” Then people don’t really do that thing.
What ends up happening is we make poor decisions and we have a lot of duplication of effort, we have re-work, we have mistakes, we have unhappy customers, et cetera. The goal in all of this is how do we use communication as the vehicle to create this mutual and shared understanding?
All right. I’m a sucker for alliteration, so you definitely got me here. You’ve got connection, you’ve got communication, and then you finish with collaboration. Especially in a world that is more virtual in nature, how can leaders cultivate a culture of collaboration?
Really simply. Is think about if you want to have a thriving culture of collaboration as an employee, let’s say, what would you need to have going on in the environment? Then start to do those things. What I found in my research and I write about is the fact there are four key employee needs that need to be met in order for people to collaborate well.
Number one, people have a need for safety. Now, obviously, there’s the physical safety like what we’re dealing with with a pandemic. Which is why people are working remotely, but beyond physical safety, there’s psychological safety, so do people feel safe speaking up and feeling like their voices has a seat at the table? There’s safety, that’s number one.
Number two, people need energy. I know so many meetings are God awful boring, so what are we doing to engage people and energize the work environment? There are so many things that we can do, as leaders, to create an environment that supports people’s need for energy.
Number three, people have a need for purpose. They want to know that what they do matters and contributes to something greater than themselves. What, as leaders, are we doing to foster this sense of purpose and that what you do really does make a difference?
Then fourth, people have this need for ownership. They don’t want to be micromanaged, so what are you doing to give them the freedom within the larger constraints but the freedom to be able to innovate, to create, and to feel like they can take ownership of the decisions and the work they do so they can feel they’re making progress? That inspires them to want to do more.
To recap, that’s safety, energy, purpose, and ownership. Those are the keys of the needs that need to be met in order to create a more collaborative environment.
I’ve always been interested in the journey that an author goes on. You wrote this book, if you had to think back to where you thought it would go when you started the process and where it ended up going, what surprised you the most along the way about what you found out?
That’s an interesting question, so I want to level-set here because I’m not a leadership author who sits down and writes about the stuff sitting at my desk. I’m a leadership practitioner, so the book came out of me working with literally over 2,000 groups in 25 countries over 20 years.
Basically, what I started doing was taking notes and so the whole idea of connection, communication, collaboration, wasn’t just, “Oh, here are three things that rhyme and start with C.” It was, “These were the three common things that showed up time and time again.” For me, that emerged just organically from the work itself that I captured in the book.
The surprising part for me was just how challenging the writing process is to get to what I’ll call the far side of complexity. Getting to the simplicity on the far side of complexity because we’ve all read these really boring horrible business books that are really good to put you to sleep, but that’s about it. The real challenge is how do I express my ideas using stories and illustrations and examples and giving people real tangible behaviors of things they can walk away and do?
For me, the challenge was taking those general concepts and working them and distilling them down to the point where they were so simple but they weren’t oversimplified. That to me, that’s the work of really writing well.
When you think about yourself personally, you’ve worked with these thousands of leaders, when you look back at how you were as a leader earlier on in your career, what do you I think is the largest change that you’ve made, and maybe as a secondary question to that, how did you make that change?
Oh, yes. I will tell you, and it comes out of a story. I had this giant wake-up call about what the heck leadership is, like what I thought it was versus what it was. I was working as a volunteer for a not-for-profit leadership organization in New York City. I’d been there for three years. I was a super volunteer. I was super excited and the executive director stepped down. I thought, “I’m going to step up to be the next executive director.”
Now I’m almost 30 years old. I’m full of myself. I’m really excited. To become the executive director, there was a vote. It was an annual meeting of the whole board of volunteers, and someone else decided they wanted to be the executive director as well. There was going to be an election. In my mind, I was a shoo-in for the job because this other guy, Gary, he had only been around for six months, I’ve been doing this for three years. In my mind, it’s very clear that I’ll get elected.
We go to the election, to the voting that night, and I remember this like it was yesterday and this was over 20 years ago. They announced. The ballots were, it was 33 votes to 6, and my first thought is, “Yes, I crushed it.” What it turns out is that Gary won, I was the one that got crushed. I was like, “How could this possibly have happened? This is wrong, stop the vote.”
Anyway, it took me like a month and a half to get over myself. I was like throwing myself a pity party, and I met up with Gary for lunch at a diner in Midtown Manhattan. I said, “Gary, did you really think you’d get all those votes?” Kind of half-jokingly. His answer, Matt, shocked me because he said, “Of course, I knew. I reached out to people and I got to know them. I asked them to go to coffee or to lunch, and I got to know them as people, and then I asked them about why they were involved with the organization and what was their driver around why they were involved. I told them that I was going to run to be executive director, and I asked if they’d joined my team because I had this vision that aligned with the one they just talked about.”
In other words, Gary had very overtly connected, communicated, and collaborated with people. Whereas I thought my good work should just speak for itself. What I didn’t realize at the time was I was suffering from that old command and control, “I deserve this. I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve paid my dues, so now it’s my term to be on top.” That moment with Gary and losing that election was this giant, giant wake-up call of, “Oh, there’s a smarter way on how to lead, and it isn’t the one that I knew before.”
It’s really fascinating. Something that comes up frequently in your work is the concept of rituals and how important they are. Why should leaders go out of their way to have workplace rituals?
Well, think about how powerful rituals are. We all have them in our lives, right? A wise person once told me, “A ritual’s anything that worked once that got repeated.” Creating workplace rituals, so rituals in general, they give us structure and stability in our lives. Right now we’re recording this, it’s December of 2020. It’s the holiday season. Whether it’s a Hanukkah menorah or a Christmas tree or– There are so many things– Or New Year’s Eve. We’re going to have certain rituals around New Year’s Eve that we exist.
Candles on a birthday cake, the birthday song. These are all rituals that anchor us into certain moments in time. Our personal lives are filled with all sorts of meaningful rituals. Yet you look at the workplace, our workplaces are suddenly these vast barren wastelands, where there’s no rituals, where there’s not the sense unless you put them in intentionally.
I think, especially now considering so many of the basic just life rituals, like your commute to the office may be gone. Your ability to stop down at the cafe or have a little banter at the water cooler with your colleagues may be gone. I think for leaders to think what are some things that we can do, whether it’s even remotely right now. For example, maybe our Monday morning first staff meeting, we do a check-in, where we spend literally five minutes going around and people saying, “Hey, how are you feeling today? What’s on your mind? How can we support you?”
That’s a simple ritual check-in that if you did that every so often, people would come to expect it and they would settle into it. What rituals do is they let people relax into the known. You know that when the birthday cake comes out with the candles lit, that we’re going to sing the happy birthday song.
As leaders, what can we do, especially for these moments in the work-employee life cycle, like the first day on the job, like the first meeting? There are so many opportunities we have to introduce workplace ritual, so that people feel more connected and have more purpose and meaning in the work they do.
As all the studies would say, when people feel purpose and meaning and connection, they’re more engaged and they perform better. That’s where I’d start with rituals.
I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Before shifting us to the final questions that I get to ask all guests, I want to ask what are you the most curious about right now in this space or in other spaces? Where do you hope your research takes you, or where do you think it’s going to take you in the next few years?
What I’m really curious around right now is I’ve been doing some work around microlearning. I had come from the world of learning and development, where people might be in a classroom for four or eight hours, or a couple of days, or three days, and this idea of how people can learn in 5 or 10 minutes. I’m doing some leadership development work around microlearning.
I’m fascinated about that. Specifically, as it relates to habit formation. There’s been some wonderful research that’s come out in the last few years and I’m going to tip my hat to Dr. BJ Fogg, in his book, Tiny Habits. He’s a researcher up in Stanford, and his work on how habits are formed, I think is going to be a big game-changer in terms of how we understand human behavior over these next decades.
That’s what I’m really curious about, is I want to figure out ways to integrate more of the science of habit formation into my work with leaders on behavior change.
Well, habit formation is a wonderful spot to shift to our final two rapid-fire questions, because I habitually ask them to all of our guests. If you’re ready, here we go with question number one. If you could describe your personal leadership style in one word, what would that word be?
Our final rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
Ask other people for feedback, and then act on the feedback that is given.
This interview has been edited for clarity.