July 4, 2011

What makes a leader extraordinary

How can you tell the difference between a good and an extraordinary leader?

Consider that it's only when mistakes happen or challenges arise that test their mettle will you get a chance to see how a leader measures up.

One of the best gauges is how they handle their own mistakes.

At the recent AIM Great Debate in Canberra, Naomi Simson had her mettle tested and once again showed why she's an extraordinary leader.

She made a mistake. 

In trying to tell a joke, she made the critical error of leaving out too much information and communicating too little to the audience. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of women on boards, or who didn't know Naomi to be a generous, caring and respectful person would be left thinking her comment was mean.

It wasn't. Just over edited.

How did this happen? Actually, it was pretty easy and happens all the time.

According to Tor Norretranders in his book The User Illusion, what we say is the end result of an unconscious mental process of sifting through information and discarding whatever we think is unnecessary at the moment. For example, the word "car", encompasses a vast array of knowledge that isn't written or stated.  It is perceived by the receiver of that message.

When you read or hear the word "car" you will have an image in your mind, as well as a large amount of historical data that you sift through unconsciously to come up with a final idea of a car. It might be a red convertible, black SUV or any variety of cars. You'll leave out most of the details as your conscious mind is actually incapable of managing that much information at once. 

Try to imagine every detail of the car right now using all your senses. Every detail. It is impossible.

Most importantly, for you to even be able to understand my communication, you would have to have some historical knowledge of the concept of a car. Otherwise it would make as much sense to you as if I mentioned some nonsense word.

In Naomi's case, she simply over edited. There weren't enough people listening who had the historical knowledge to share her joke. She apologised which is what any good leader would do.

However, what makes her extraordinary, is she took this incident one step further and used the power of her blog to communicate enough information for people to know where she was coming from and heal the incident. Then, she made a very public commitment to never make that same mistake again. You can take that promise to the bank.

That takes great courage (How would you react in front of 1000 people?) and great emotional intelligence. It also takes a commitment to being responsible for the effect your words and actions have on others. Something far too many leaders fail to do.

To make mistakes is to be human. We stop the day we die. All that's left to do is learn from our mistakes, clean up what we can and never make the same one again.

Then, we move on to the next mistake.

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