I am a new husband. Just know that…
I walked into the front gate of our apartment complex to a gut-felt “Thank you!!!” and a huge sigh of relief from my wife. She had locked herself out of the apartment while I still had an hour and a half left in a mandatory intensive lecture at school, so she sat outside reading a Fearless Flyer from Trader Joe’s that she had found in our mailbox (she is now very informed about their wine selection). She was so glad to be able to go inside (mostly because she had chugged a full bottle of water promptly before locking herself out), and though it changed my plans for the evening, I was happy to be there to help.
I wanted to continue to be helpful, so I started a conversation about what we could do in the future if this happened again, because this wasn’t the first time it had happened. Though my heart behind the conversation was good, my timing and delivery were horrific. I had been in class all day and was thinking very logically and strategically, so what came out of my mouth was, “What if you had been cooking when you locked yourself out and a fire started? How do we prevent this from happening again?” Needless to say, she didn’t like that.
Once again, in all honesty, my desire was to help and be on her side and take steps forward, and in no way did I want to shame her or make her feel bad. But that’s exactly what I did. I had a good heart and good content, but my strategy and delivery were terrible, and in my failure I saw how the preparation and adaptability I needed in the situation related to leadership. As leaders there are a few things we need to know how to do if we are going to effectively help the people we are called to lead:
1. Know your context well
I knew my wife was locked out of the house and I knew she was probably bored out of her mind. But I didn’t take the time to dive deeper. I didn’t think, let’s say, about how much time she had had to beat herself up (like I would have done to myself) or come up with a solution to the problem (also like I would have done). I didn’t take the time to think about how she probably just wanted relief and then to move on, being able to enjoy that I was home and so was she (at least inside of it). It takes this extra step of processing, trying to get what those you lead are experiencing, in order to achieve your desired outcome. You have to take the time and energy to understand them and the current situation in order effectively lead them. Otherwise what you meant for good could quickly achieve just the opposite.
2. Think before you speak
This may seem like a no brainer, but this requires a level of strategic thinking that goes beyond “winging it.” After thinking through the context and situation my wife was in, I then could have planned how I was going to communicate my support and desire to be helpful. I could have processed what my heart was behind asking if there had been a fire, and instead maybe asked a question like, “I know you’ve probably thought through this, but what do you think is the best way to remedy this situation in the future? Because I don’t want you to have to be locked out of the house again, that stinks.” Both of these first two steps require empathy, something the leader doesn’t always do well if there is something to be fixed, but is essential if one is to lead others well.
3. Reevaluate your strategy when necessary
My strategy in helping my wife was absolutely awful, and no matter how many times I say that I meant well, it was still awful and hurt her feelings. Leaders can’t get away with being right and being a jerk; truth does not make feelings irrelevant. The point here isn’t just to be a nice leader, it is to be a leader. Period. Because you will lose every person following you if you never admit fault or change your tactics when necessary. It’s ok to change a plan, to adjust a trajectory, or to scrap a project entirely, but if the leader always charges ahead with plans that aren’t working, then the people following them won’t trust them and will move on to someone they can.
This all might seem obvious or simple, but I needed to relearn this when I got home that day. When I had let my mouth run wild without much thought, I promptly inserted my foot in my mouth, took a few minutes to think, and then apologized to my wife and tried a different tactic, one that let her share her experience and supported her in the midst of her frustration. And, unsurprisingly, she reacted with much more favor and trust than before. With personal pride on the line, it is so difficult to shut up and admit fault, but both husbands and leaders must learn how to do this. The way for leaders to prepare for this is to do their homework, knowing their context and planning their communication wisely, and then being evaluative and appropriately reactionary, willing to change the plan when the plan isn’t working. If you do this, your leadership will be trusted and credible and your followers will stick with you because of it.
And the real moral of the story: Be nice to your wife.