Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)
The Idea of Fierce
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.
—OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
After thirteen years running think tanks for CEOs, I wrote Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time. The book you’re holding in your hands or listening to right now is a sequel to that book, a deeper dive. Far deeper. Ideally, if you haven’t read Fierce Conversations, read it before you continue. Next best—read it as a companion to Fierce Leadership and refer to it as needed.
In case you haven’t read Fierce Conversations, I offer the following food for thought.
The idea of fierce is simple, yet not simplistic.
While meetings pile up, add up, the real work is being done by someone offering a nourishing drink to others—one conversation at a time.
I am not neutral. I believe that a culture—whether global, national, corporate, or familial—is shaped by our daily practices and that the most powerful practice of all is conversation. Our careers, our companies, our personal relationships, and our very lives succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly—one conversation at a time.
The conversation is the relationship, and—while no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life—any single conversation can.
This is true if your company has five employees or fifty or fifty thousand. If you’re in retail, banking, graphic arts, or moviemaking. If you work in a restaurant, a bookstore, a hair salon, or a plant nursery. If you’re a teacher, a professor, a researcher, or a rabbi. If your expertise is in architecture, manufacturing, clothing design, merchandising, advertising, solar energy, green technology, outsourcing, life coaching, dog training, or software.
No matter what you do, business—small or global, simple or complex—is fundamentally an extended conversation with colleagues, customers, and the unknown future emerging around us. While meetings pile up, add up, the real work is being done by someone offering a nourishing drink to others—one conversation at a time. What gets talked about in a company and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen.
But simply having the conversation isn’t enough. It’s the quality of the conversation that matters. Conversations provide clarity or confusion. They invite cross-boundary collaboration and cooperation or add concertina wire to the walls between well-defended fiefdoms. Conversations inspire us to tackle our toughest challenges or stop us dead in our tracks, wondering why we bothered to get out of bed this morning. A conversation can be deadly boring or a profound experience of humanity, of intimacy.
A leader’s job is to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies. Conversations that reveal we are capable of original thought. Intelligent, spirited conversations that provide clarity and impetus for action, for change. Yet too often, we, the results-smitten, speak only of measurable goals, key business indicators, action plans, cash-flow projections, economic indicators, process, and procedure. All are worthy come-ons, yet true success requires conversations that exert a deeper magnetism, a pull as powerful as the tides. Conversations that are intelligent and impassioned. Personal and universal. Meaningful, authentic conversations during which we wouldn’t willingly trade places with anyone. Conversations that feel like they could be taking place in a concert hall or a sanctuary. Fierce conversations.
The notion of “fierceness” in any situation wakes me up. At times, in order to break through all the fluff or the defensiveness or the boredom or the complacency or the BS (believability scale), we may need to ask the question that no one will ask, say the thing that no one will say, abandon paint-by-numbers leadership, touch emotion in ourselves and others, and stop trying to keep everything in the discreet neutral zone.
Prior to writing Fierce Conversations, I had about twelve thousand hours of conversations with CEOs and key executives, with the goal of helping them increase their effectiveness and enhance their lives.
These conversations often began with the question,
“Given everything on your plate, what is the most important thing we should be talking about?”
If someone responded with, “I don’t know,” I would ask, “What would it be if you did know?” And wait. Silence did the heavy lifting.
Most of the time, we talked about their companies’ knee-buckling goals and challenges—bet-the-farm decisions, costly problems that needed fixing (have you noticed that people burn out not because they’ve been asked to solve problems but because they’ve been trying to solve the same problem for far too long?), strategies that needed forming, opportunities that needed evaluating (mergers, acquisitions, new hires, technology)—and since no topic was off limits, sometimes we talked about a marriage that was upside down, a kid on drugs, a cancer scare, or a bout of depression.
Our conversations were fierce.
The simplest definition of a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into the conversation, and make it real. While most people are uncomfortable with real, it is the unreal conversations that should scare us to death. Why? Because they are incredibly expensive, for organizations and for individuals. Most organizations want to feel they are having a real conversation with their employees, their customers, and their evolving marketplace. And most individuals want to feel they are having conversations that build their world of meaning.
Real is a change agent’s best friend. While no one has to change, when the conversation is real, the change often occurs before the conversation has ended. Working with CEOs, my job was to make sure we weren’t dealing with the tiny corners of subjects, but the complete picture, the real picture, what Faulkner called “the raw meat on the floor.” We didn’t waste time, energy, and brain cells waterskiing, skimming the surface of things. We put on scuba tanks and went deep.
While no one has to change, when the conversation is real, the change often occurs before the conversation has ended.
Some of those conversations were uncomfortable, but I ask you, where in our lives did we learn that we should never do or say anything that might make ourselves or others uncomfortable? There’s gold in them thar uncomfortable hills.
Don’t get me wrong. Fierce conversations can be sweet, sweeter than you can imagine. Not saccharine sweet, but honest sweet. Respectful, kind, generous sweet. Sometimes the fiercest thing we can say to someone is, “I want to tell you exactly what I appreciate about you.” And tell them. With no but or however attached.
And while our conversations were occasionally uncomfortable, the members of my think tanks brought “safety” to our conversations, because when they offered constructive criticism or competing recommendations, it was with deep respect, genuine affection, and the sincere desire to provide helpful perspectives so that the person with the issue on the table would end up making the best possible decision for his or her organization.
Fierce conversations are meaningful interactions. Not just the tough conversations you’ve been avoiding, but highly productive meetings that have everyone on the edge of their seats, fully engaged. Conversations that provide impetus for action. Conversations during which we connect with our customers and maybe add a digit to our sales figures in the process. Inspiring conversations that include all four generations currently in the workplace; conversations that compel us to hold ourselves accountable, that negotiate through and past those worn-out techniques that result in tepid agreements so riddled with mediocrity and compromise that there’s not much to celebrate.
When you think of a fierce conversation, think authenticity, integrity, collaboration.
When you think of a fierce conversation, think authenticity, integrity, collaboration. Think execution muscle, innovation, emotional capital. Think collaboration—with your colleagues and customers.
What Is “Fierce” Leadership?
There’s a bold, compelling line between “leadership” and fierce leadership. It’s okay to cross the line.
Here is the short definition.
fierce lead · er · ship (fi(e)rs lēder.ship)
Function: noun, verb
1. A fast-acting antivenom to the business-as-usual mode of high task/low relationship, self-serving agendas, directing and telling, anonymous feedback, holding people accountable, excessive use of jargon, and mandating initiatives that cause people to weep on too many fine days
2. The act of acquiring your most valuable currency—emotional capital
3. The acquisition of squid eye and the demise of truth-telling squeamishness and ethical squishiness
You will begin to cross the line, dropping into a different kind of serious, a different way of being, a different quality of relationship, once you understand and act on the central premise at the heart of everything fierce:
If you want to become a great leader, gain the capacity to connect with your colleagues and customers at a deep level … or lower your aim.
Whether your goal is improved workplace relations or improved market share, your most valuable currency is relationship, emotional capital. This is far from a naive, feel-good notion. It’s good business sense.
Many of today’s business leaders—to use the term loosely—insist that their job is to grow the company and the stock price, by whatever means. And while conventional measures of business success shouldn’t be ignored, I propose that human connectivity, as opposed to strategy and tactics, is the next frontier for exponential growth and the only sustainable competitive edge, more visibly useful than ever before.
If Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, is right (and I believe he is), we are moving from the “industrial age” into the “conceptual age.” What this means is that today we are making different choices about how we live our lives, who we spend our time with, and how we spend our money.
Pink talks about moving beyond function to engage the senses; adding narrative to products and services (not just listing features and benefits); adding invention and big-picture thinking (not just focusing on details); going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition; bringing humor and lightheartedness to business and products; creating meaning and feeling—in other words, true connection—with our employees and customers.
Everywhere, people are hungry to connect, to be seen and known as the unique individuals that they are, and this has an immediate and powerful impact on how we design business strategies and market our products and services and ultimately on whether our businesses succeed or fail.
Yet much business communication is still stuck in the information age. Too often we treat our conversations and our relationships as we do our e-mails—one way, directive, quick, clipped, efficient.
Worse, most corporate training is broken down into theory, processes, charts, graphs, assessments, and models, operating under the assumption that teams can’t function until we put a label on the thinking style, learning style, and personality type of every individual who reports to us, as well as those of our composite teams. Are we red, green, yellow, blue? Thinkers, feelers, judgers, perceivers? Ds, Is, Ss, Cs? What about our derailers? How and when should we adapt our individual styles to meet the needs of others?
Admit it. We love to learn about ourselves, but most of us are hard wired, so the adapting part is really hard. I have a file drawer full of assessments on myself and confess that I haven’t changed significantly in all these years. So while assessments have their place, few people I know—apart from those who sell assessments—would attribute their success or failure or that of their companies to a raft of assessments.
Too often, we confuse inclusiveness with demographics and believe we’ll communicate better in a global marketplace if we offer yet another awareness training or perform exhaustive studies on cultural norms. We build walls between ourselves and shut out those who don’t match our rank (you’re only level five). We identify in advance our “high-stakes” conversations and ignore the potential and power of the conversations that show up at our doors.
In short, we’re wedded to ideas about leadership that were introduced over forty years ago. Intuitively, this makes no sense—where else do we rely on practices that served us well in another era, when life was at a different pace and change was something you could see coming from a long distance and for which you could take your sweet time preparing?
It’s easy to become blind to clues—“tells”—that these practices are no longer working. We yawn and text message our way through a succession of meetings that, were we awake, would reveal evidence of impending trauma, stalled initiatives, malaise. We make excuses and direct blame toward management, the economy, technology, or budgets, all the while harboring familiar resentments—barely disguised—toward colleagues, leaders, the whole bleeping plan.
We become anesthetized, accepting this as the way it is, the way it goes, our lot, even our way of thinking, as we continue to beat around the bush, dance around the subject, skirt the issue (insert your favorite metaphor here).
Give us all the luxuries—raises, perks, stock options—and we will manage without the necessities—without deep connection to our work and genuine affection for people other than our own family members. Now that the notion of “luxuries” has been redefined by those who lost jobs, lost homes, or watched helplessly as their stock options became virtually worthless, we’ve reprioritized the “perks” that are key to our happiness—food on the table, a roof over our heads, but most of all people whom we love close by—and we realize that we need a renaissance in the skill, art, and definition of leadership. Consider the following implications:
Ye Olde Leadership Model
Fierce Leadership Model
Directing and telling
Really asking, really listening; then directing (in that order)
Feedback-free, development-free zone; little, if any, personal growth
Feedback-rich, development-rich zone; ongoing personal growth
High task/low relationship and the culture of compliance that goes with it
High task/high relationship and the culture of passionate engagement that goes with it
Silos and fiefdoms; competing for resources; not good at partnering
Sharing resources; collaborating; partnering across functions in service to the organization’s goals
Information-starved, need-to-know culture
Open, transparent, respectful culture
Impose one’s view of reality
Expose one’s view of reality and invite those with competing realities to share them
Choking on mokitas—a Papua New Guinea term for that which everyone knows but no one will speak of
A willingness to name and address the issues at the heart of any topic, truthfully and courageously
Profit trumps ethics
Shared values and ethics guide decisions
Resistance to change; sleepwalking through the manual; business as usual
Shared enthusiasm for agility and original thinking; a “new normal,” personally and organizationally.
Bonus outcomes: a sustainable competitive edge, increased market share, and deep pleasure in the work.
A fierce leader commits to a way of life, not a business strategy.
A fierce leader commits to a way of life, not a business strategy. A way of life that over time becomes about we, not me. About one another. About what’s best for the greater good. About knocking down the walls that separate us. Not knowing the answers, but finding the answers. Not having a business conversation, but a human one.
Recently, the head of a business unit in a global pharmaceutical company told me, “I have to believe that I can make a difference in this huge organization. I may be on an ocean liner, but I think of myself as having my own little runabout that I use to stay connected.”
Those are the words of a fierce leader.
Where to Begin?
So here we are, you in your runabout, me in mine, with important roles to play in sustaining, developing, and nurturing human connectivity—and reaping all the benefits that come with it.
How might you begin? First, by recognizing that a careful conversation is a failed conversation because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place.
Don’t linger on the edges. Epiphanies aren’t granted to those who play it safe, or pitch a self-serving agenda. Instead, epiphanies seek out those who engage themselves wherever they are and tell the truth as much as they can, who speak directly to the heart of an issue. There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us, who don’t suggest our compromises for us.
Pushing our own limits brings exhilaration. Our edge can be a growing edge. Or it can be an edge from which we topple. The fall won’t kill us. Avoiding the topic could.
Consider one of my favorite poems by Hafiz, whose sense of humor and fierce passion for life are apparent in every verse.
Tired of Speaking Sweetly
Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.
Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.
God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.
Don’t pack your bags. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed. You get time off during which you can be a total slacker, not in the mood for complexity. Or honesty. Or divulgences. Or deep thought. Or connecting with people. Or yard work. Or anything.
There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us, who don’t suggest our compromises for us.
Spend the occasional weekend unwashed, breath reeking, watching the entire series of The Office or Rome or Weeds or Deadwood or Mad Men or reality TV or sports or cooking shows or shows about how to lose weight or spiff up your home for five hundred dollars or less, plus stuff you TiVo-ed, while eating Cheez Whiz and Vienna sausages, if you like.
My goal for you is for you to be you on your best day most of the time. Which will lead to your career and your company on its best day, your marriage on its best day.
What’s the most important thing I should be talking about today?
What do I believe is impossible for me to do, that if it were possible would change everything?
If nothing changes, what are the implications?
What’s the conversation that has my name on it? The one I’ve been avoiding for days, weeks, months, years? Who is it with and what is the topic? When will I have it?
Note: Please turn to the end of this book and fold down the corner of the page titled “Conversations I Need to Have.” Every time you think of someone with whom you need to talk, turn to that page and write down his or her name. Having the conversations that need to take place, without delay, is one of the most important practices of a fierce leader, so you might as well begin.