As a management consultant, I get asked for advice all the time on a wide range of topics: How can I best lead a high stakes meeting? How do I handle a difficult conversation? How do I more effectively manage a strategic transition at our company? (Note: These are smart people asking smart questions.) Occasionally the subject will veer into personal territory, with many people asking questions about how to deal with their children, partner or friends differently. What I've noticed recently is that more and more I've been giving everyone the same advice. Because in truth, there is only ONE answer: Be Kind. Be Present. Be Clear. Your job - always, forever, and in every situation is simply to be kind, present, and clear.
This insight has only revealed itself after twenty years in this business of paying close attention to the habits of extraordinary leaders, multiple hours spent in rigorous self-examination, and countless workshops on personal and leadership effectiveness. My discovery is that when I was kind, present and clear, I took pride in how I did my job - regardless of the outcome. And the leaders I've worked with who are kind, present and clear always have the best outcomes in the long run.
This is easier to say, and harder to do, so let me offer some thoughts on how...
How to be Kind. This should be the easiest to accomplish - but it's important to remember that kindness is a two-way street. It's not enough to only express compassion for others; you must also practice it with yourself. Just slow down to notice in a given situation where you are feeling anxiety, how unkind or even violent your internal dialogue is with you. Until this internal dialogue is full of forgiveness, it will be impossible to treat others kindly. When we make this shift to become kind with ourselves, we become that much more likely to treat everyone else (colleagues, competitors, and even the guy who cuts us off on the drive home) more gently, respectfully and with a sense of decency. A good rule to help you be kind with others is to presume innocence. While people do all manner of things that they could be criticized for, they rarely act with malice or negative intent, but rather out of unconsciousness.
How to be Present. This one may be a little harder to implement, if only because we are loaded up - and weighed down - with so many distractions today. From cell phones to computers to overly chatty colleagues, there is no shortage of obstacles standing between us and our ability to remain truly mindful and connected in each and every moment. For me, being present means being 100 percent invested in, and available for, what is actually happening right now, not what you're afraid might happen tomorrow, or reacting to what did happen yesterday. The key to staying present is to use all of your five senses with absolute intent in the moment. When your brain is occupied taking in all of the data available through the senses, it is less likely to drift into negative or fear-based future and past wanderings that distract from the moment. Perhaps most importantly, through that kind of fierce presence, you actually have access to all of the data that's available at any given moment and are therefore more likely to have high-quality insights and make high-quality decisions.
How to be Clear. Clarity is the most important element of business leadership, and perhaps also the most challenging to achieve. Being clear means being truthful, concise and communicating exactly what you believe - with specificity and openness. One reason being clear can be hard for senior executives is that we are often hedging on multiple dimensions at the same time and are unclear about exactly what we want to say and exactly what we want people to do or understand. Sometimes we think clarity will hurt or scare people. But of course we only cause greater pain when we hesitate or try and cushion the projected blow by giving soft, muddy instructions. Or hazy outlines of what we really mean. On the flip side, when presented with an unclear task, the people we lead may attempt to figure it out as they go along rather than admit they don't fully grasp the assignment. The result? Lack of clarity causes a chain of pain in an organization from top to bottom. When we respect people enough to be clear with them - whether assigning a difficult task, or offering critical feedback - we're not only giving them a better chance to succeed, we're also demonstrating our faith and confidence that they can handle the task (or feedback) at hand. And what do you think happens to an employee's job performance when they feel their bosses trust them enough to tell them the truth?
In my experience, the three ingredients above are equally necessary for doing your job well. Just as sugar, flour and eggs do not make a cake on their own, so kindness, presence, and clarity must be blended and baked together to experience maximum flavor... and benefit. Being kind alone may lead to a nice dialogue, but not one that inspires action. Likewise, being clear without kindness can feel harsh and disruptive.
I have also found that there is a natural flow and symbiosis between the three ingredients. When we treat people kindly, we know intuitively that it is more compassionate to remain present for them (and with them); and sure enough, without needing to force it or think about it, the natural outcome of being kind and present with others is clarity.
'Kind, Present, and Clear' isn't just a tool or a method; it's a mantra to live by - with your boss, kids, a difficult employee, or with yourself. That's why being kind, present, and clear will always be your only job.