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November 29, 2016

Are You A Tone-Deaf Leader?

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Will you be my Simon Cowell?

That’s not exactly what my friend said, of course, but he did ask me to be honest and tell him if he was tone-deaf.

Not as a singer, though, but as a leader.

My friend was going to a meeting with a new client, and he asked if I would review his presentation. Since it was a new client, he was afraid that he didn’t understand the context he was stepping into, and possibly overemphasizing his own bias.

It was a wise move. In my experience, tone-deaf leaders are either short lived, never reach their potential, or burn out those around them.

In singing, tone deafness is when you simply cannot distinguish between notes. It’s not that you haven’t had musical training or education. You’re just convinced that you’re hitting the notes when everyone else can tell you’re not. (Does anyone come to mind?)

In the same manner, tone-deaf leadership is leadership that is unable to get outside one’s own narrative and one’s own way of looking at a problem. In doing so, these leaders lose objectivity because everything they say sounds good to them.

Let me put it clearly: A tone-deaf leader is one who has grown deaf to hearing the opinions, criticism, and ideas of others.

How does one become tone deaf?
In leadership, tone deafness is like a virus—you can get it through no fault of your own, but it’s your response to it that determines how bad it gets.

Here’s what I mean: Some people just have a confident streak. Maybe they’re born that way. Maybe their parents raised them to believe in themselves. Maybe they’re good at a lot of things and have much more victory than defeat. Regardless, they ooze self-confidence. If Google Maps says to turn left, but they’re pretty sure they should turn right, they turn right. Every time.

In and of itself, of course, confidence isn’t bad. However, it can lead to detrimental tone deafness when leaders embrace their voice at the expense of all others. You’ll often find these leaders…

  • Surrounding themselves with yes people
  • With entrenched fear of new ideas and change (at least, new ideas that come from others)
  • Not learning

And when the naturally confident person starts doing one or more of those things, you’re about to see an advanced case of tone deafness.

Why you must avoid tone deafness
The key to avoiding tone deafness is listening (which makes this blog post feel a bit like the old poster, “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten,” with its groundbreaking: “Listen to others”).

But think about why listening is so significant in leadership. The list of benefits of listening could include:

  • Learning new ideas and therefore improving innovation
  • Quicker pivoting based on customer desires
  • Increasing team buy-in (and therefore longevity)
  • Recognizing personal blind spots in one’s management skillset
  • Building a collaborative environment

The ability to listen is particularly important with millennials. A 2011 MTV study found that 90% of millennials wanted senior leadership to listen to their input and 76% thought they had a lot to offer. You can argue that they’re wrong, but to retain millennials and benefit from their strengths, senior leaders must listen.

Entrepreneurs are often the worst in this category, but those who consider it know that we must avoid tone deafness. Entrepreneurmagazine ran an article recently on five chief benefits of listening for your business.

In other words, tone deafness has a high cost—with your employees, your offering, and therefore your business/organization. Or, to quote Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach: “Beware of yes men. Generally they are losers.”

Are you tone deaf?
Here’s where it gets personal. How do you know whether you’re tone deaf?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you open to help?
  • Are you open to criticism?
  • Do you enter into conversations solely to speak or prepared to listen?

If you’re unsure, it’s probably a good idea to ask for some feedback on your leadership. And if the thought of hearing feedback on your leadership makes you uncomfortable, then … well, you get the point.

On the other hand, if you find yourself thinking, “I’m very open to criticism. I just don’t remember getting any!” or “I’m very open to help. I just don’t remember needing any!”, then you’re probably exuding an image that you’re not open to it.

We must listen to other voices. As Michael Arndt, director of Pixar, says, “I can think it’s the funniest joke in the world, but if nobody in that room laughs, I have to take it out. It hurts that they can see something you can’t.”

How do you grow out of it?
If you suffer from tone-deaf leadership, no matter how advanced the case is, here are three tips for improving your abilities:

  1. Recognize your weaknesses. Lean into your limitations. We have a bent toward valuing strength and ability so most of us don’t like doing things we know we’re not great at. But that’s how we improve. Acknowledging your weaknesses is also very attractive to others, particularly millennials, who have a high view of authenticity.
  2. Be relentless about finding the best ideas. Just find them. Learn to be agnostic on the source. Sure, leadership will often be the source of the good ideas. But not always.
  3. Don’t just listen; engage. Make feedback conversations a dialogue. These dialogues display greater empathy for the speaker and ensure greater depth of thought and understanding.

Meryl Streep helped launch the inviting movie Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s a biopic on a famously tone-deaf early 20th century New York opera singer. There is debate over the extent to which she knew that she was a bad singer, but the movie (or at least the trailer) emphasizes her courage.

In fact, it does take courage to offer your voice up to the public and, for many leaders, an even greater courage to seek out or listen to their own voices in response.

But it is hearing others and responding to them that is the necessary cure for tone-deaf leadership.

So sing out. And ask for help.

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