The Challenge of Trusting Leadership

What’s really in the way of your success in leading others?

When others see you lead, do they see the real you?

Are you living your passion and living it with authenticity?

Do you lead transparently?

Are you as good as your word?

Scott Weiss is President and CEO of Speakeasy, Inc., a global communication consulting firm.  His book Dare: Accepting the Challenge of Trusting Leadership will be released April 2, 2013.  Dare is a challenge to leaders everywhere to be authentic, to understand your style, and to embrace your true inner self.

Scott, you start the book with a rather negative view of today’s leaders.  Chapter 1 is titled “A Crisis of Trust.”  You say that everywhere you look, you see signs of a systemic leadership problem.  You cite studies showing our trust in institutions has been declining for forty years.  You even label the Gen X and Gen Y youth as “Jaded Generations.”  How did we get here and how is this impacting today’s up-and-coming leaders?

I don’t know how trust got such a bad reputation, but we’re here, and we have to do something about it. There’s no one reason why, but I think it’s fair to say that nobody has stood up and said, “ENOUGH!” It’s become too easy to look the other way, to say “good enough.”LettersDustJacket.indd

The crisis of trust in this country is especially important to today’s youth. There was a time in my life when I could trust teachers, coaches, clergymen and executives. I experienced it firsthand. The younger generations have no foundation of trust from which to build, learn or be inspired, so their default position is a lack of trust. That’s a huge problem.

What led you to write Dare?

I’ve been repeatedly inspired by executives who take the dare in their own way. I have witnessed miraculous results from leaders who dare to adopt honesty as a business strategy. Seeing it work motivated me to want to broaden the reach of the message and to do the same for others.

In the book I chronicle a situation where a senior executive was talking about an issue with compensation at his company’s annual meeting. Rather than search for some deceptive way to deliver the news, he admitted to making a mistake and he vowed to make it right. That seven-minute conversation literally changed the course of the company forever. Why? Because he allowed himself to be vulnerable, transparent and empathetic. These are core principles we teach to every person who attends a Speakeasy course, which he did, and they’re at the heart of authenticity.

SURVEY: Take the Dare! Leadership Survey and let your voice be heard.

Would you briefly explain your initial experience with the company you now lead?

I had a successful career as an executive with Turner Broadcasting before I joined Speakeasy. I happened to meet Sandy Linver, the founder of Speakeasy, at a corporate event in 1993. After a brief chat with her, she invited me to attend a course. I didn’t act on that invitation until weeks later when I was presenting at a Turner board meeting and the CEO tapped me on the shoulder, recommending that I go to Speakeasy. The convergence of those two events was what led to my finally attending.

I went to a workshop and discovered my real self through my communication, and had a profound awakening. Not only did I leave Turner and join Speakeasy but I also went on a 10-year journey with the founder of the company focused on my own personal growth. I ultimately bought Speakeasy, and I’ve been here since.

It doesn’t seem to be an overstatement to say that your experience with the company changed the entire direction of your life.  And that started with breaking your own learned, defensive mechanisms?

Scott Weiss pre-Speakeasy was a highly successful cable industry executive who was a cocky, arrogant, self-centered person with no sense of self-awareness. I was not easy to be around.

Because of the way Speakeasy works, I was forced to experience myself the way others do. That was my epiphany. I didn’t like the guy I saw, and in the world of executives, I was just like all the others. That was not okay—not okay enough that I left my job for no reason but to become more authentic. It’s important to stress, however, that it was a lot more than just leaving a job; it was leaving a way of life, wealth, prestige, influence – all the things to which most people aspire. I ran from it because of the three-day Speakeasy program I went through. Those three days had a profound effect on the course of my life. I remember it like it happened yesterday.

When you talk about the concept of “collusion,” I was nodding my head so vigorously, I had to stop and read the page again.  I’ve written about this in other contexts—the danger that leaders face when others around them say what the leader wants to hear, instead of needs to hear.  Would you explain this concept and its danger?

Leaders are living an illusion. Their leadership is grounded in fear. Their constituents refuse to be honest because they fear for their jobs, their security, their pecking order. This creates an illusion that disconnects these leaders from current reality.

How many times have you seen a keynote address where a leader delivers a speech that’s followed by a standing ovation led by the people who work for them, and they were average at best? I see it all the time. Not only does the staff help them live that illusion, but in many cases there’s an entire theater of participants who have no direct connection to the leader.ScottWeiss_Headshot

Why is communication so important?  Why is communication a constant issue within most organizations?

Of the many kinds of communication that exist, spoken, written and visual have the most profound effect on how your message is received. Unfortunately, corporate America has really twisted the value each carries. If you were to look at the frequencies of how people communicate at work – and in their personal lives – you’d find that written communication wins by a landslide. The sad result is that spoken communication has become a low priority for most people, and that’s the one that really matters most when you’re trying to inspire and motivate people.

While more tactical work is being done through the written word, the fuel that drives leaders to success is delivered through the spoken word. But it’s not limited to that. The spoken word is essential to conveying vulnerability, empathy, authenticity and transparency, and to building trust.

There’s evidence everywhere you look in business. Customer experience is quickly becoming an important factor in marketing budgets. Think of the five companies you see delivering the best customer experience: Apple and Zappos almost surely make everyone’s list. What do they and all the others have in common? Phenomenal leaders that communicate in a phenomenal way.

Speak to the new graduate who is just starting out.  What can he or she do to avoid the shocking experience you had when you first were exposed to these concepts?

A few things immediately come to mind:

  • Spoken communication matters. The 101-level public speaking courses in school are great for dealing with butterflies, but they don’t address the root of communication. The ability to master spoken communication could very well be the single most important competency you own as a human being. It is powerful enough to determine your life track and your success, however you define that. Take it seriously. Use it as a tool to convey your authentic self. Make your word good and be as good as your word.
  • Deception, manipulation and evasiveness are easy traps into which you’ll be tempted to fall. Don’t let that happen. It may sound grandiose, but graduates today have a responsibility to move the trust needle forward to save the planet for their own good. The way to move that needle is through authenticity, transparency and honesty. If you don’t live it, the downward spiral will continue. Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” has never applied more appropriately. It’s not about getting out there and changing everyone. A million do-it-yourselfers can accomplish the same thing by simply being who they are.

I’m a student of good communication, and I’m always trying to improve.  Specifically, listening well is a goal of mine this year.  We can’t have you go through all of the advice in your book, but would you share a few tips on listening?

Listen with your eyes. Be fully present and make the person you’re with feel like they really matter. And listen with your heart. That’s where empathy is conveyed.

Put down the phone; close the laptop. Be “all-in” when you’re communicating with someone. It’s a two-way street.

Acknowledge. Reframe statements to make sure you understand them correctly. Take pauses. Give people space to fill in with their own words.

How can vulnerability be a strength and not a weakness?

It just isn’t a weakness. Not allowing people to see your vulnerabilities is arrogant. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable at times. We don’t connect with one another as leaders, managers and assistants; we connect as human beings. I’m so programmed to the notion of connection, which can only happen through two parties being vulnerable and willing to share with one another.

If you’re not vulnerable, you’re not connecting; if you’re not connecting, you’re not communicating. It’s hard to do, which is what makes it a strength. Those who can do it are doing something hard and I respect that. A leader who admits being scared makes me want to work harder for him.

What tips do you have for a leader who truly wants to encourage genuine feedback?

As I mention in Dare, they need to create a network of advisors whom they can trust. These advisors should be able to provide truthful feedback without an agenda. There are no limits. An advisor must be trusted, but it can be anyone that is able to provide objective feedback without an agenda and without fear.

The goal is to be able to hear something like, “When I observed you at the meeting last week, this is how you appeared.” That’s what we do at Speakeasy.

Scott, I’m always interested in how companies create culture.  Last year, I was interested in how Zappos did it, so I interviewed CEO Tony Hsieh.  You have a view into many different cultures.  From your vantage point, what makes a vibrant, positive, healthy culture?

Thriving. Cultures where people thrive are a byproduct of trust, transparency and authenticity at work. When you see it, you almost certainly will find leadership that’s very connected to how to motivate and inspire others.

Speakeasy has decades of experience with executives from all industries.  Are the challenges facing today’s leaders any different than twenty years ago?

The challenges today’s leaders face are vastly different from those twenty years ago largely due to the erosion of trust. Today we have an entirely new set of ways to communicate, which means the minefield is bigger. And leaders are stepping on those mines left and right. As you know yourself, social media is pervasive, and it’s here to stay. There are no do-overs because of the speed of and access to information, so you have to get it right the first time. One seemingly innocuous tweet can destroy reputations that took decades to build.

At the same time, the notion of command-and-control organizations is being taken over by collaboration. Leaders have to lead with significantly less control than they used to.

Though your book starts out with a negative view of a leadership crisis, it really is a powerful and positive book with a great deal of hope for the future.  How do you maintain such a positive view in the midst of all of the studies you cite?

I’m in an incredibly unique position since I get to work with leaders and individuals of all kinds who take the dare every day. I’m a product of it and so are they. That’s what inspired me to write the book, and that’s why I’m hopeful that dialogue around it can make a difference – one voice at a time. Dare is a very personal part of my own journey. The two goals I’ve had since the day I first put pen to paper are awareness and change, no matter how small. If one person reads the book and changes as a result, I will feel rewarded.

This is exactly why the notion of adopting honesty as a business strategy going viral can be so powerful. If you yourself were to step up and say, “Make your word good and be as good as your word,” we could profoundly change the way business happens. What if the idea of trust became a high priority for everybody?

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