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May 18, 2020

The Two Voices Every Leader Chases

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“I promise, Dad, it’s highway 62!”

Before my kids went to college, we would sometimes do day trips from our home in Northwest Arkansas. This particular day we were headed to Dogwood Canyon, which is a couple of hours north in Missouri. The kids were old enough that they had cell phones, and they all felt the freedom to use them to track our movements (ahh, the joy of GPS!).

Now, I generally knew the way, and I’d looked at a map, but every time we approached a stop sign or a highway or an even mildly inviting intersection, I started hearing the voices.

“Go straight!” “Turn left, Dad!” “I think it’s quicker if you go right!”

I never cease to be amazed how three people can put the same address in their phones and give me three different directions at the same time.

So, who was I to listen to? Myself or one of the kids? And if one of the kids, which one?

Being a senior leader is like this, and I’ve always been struck by the challenge of picking the right voices to listen to. When I wrote my book The Five Tasks: What Every Senior Leader Needs to Do, my closing illustration—the one I hoped would stick with people as they closed the book—was about a pilot getting competing voices from air traffic controllers.

And if you’re a pilot, you want to be able to understand your air traffic controllers.

In my experience, senior leaders chase two types of voices in their lives.

Voices of Inspiration

After Abraham Lincoln was shot, someone emptied his pockets. The contents made their way to his children and grandchildren and eventually the Library of Congress, but they were sealed until the 1970s. When unsealed, they fascinated historians. In addition to a handkerchief, a pair of glasses, and a $5 confederate bill, were eight newspaper clippings.

All eight newspaper clippings praised Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, was an incredibly polarizing figure, and as Doris Kearns Godwin’s classic book Team of Rivals points out, he was a man who was willing to have opposing figures around him. So this was not a man who was afraid of criticism.

But even Lincoln needed some inspiration.

We all do. We need folks speaking life and hope and “You’ve got something to offer!”

Long-time Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry said, “Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence.” Voices of inspiration do that—they instill confidence.

These voices are incredibly valuable when they are people close to you, a spouse or a best friend perhaps, but they can also be really valuable when it’s someone you don’t know much at all (see Lincoln and the newspaper clippings). You’d be surprised by the number of small comments that keep leaders going. The general who is inspired by one of the enlisted men. The nurse whose patient’s parting comment is remembered for years. A coach who inspires a student to go to college.

You can have unlimited voices of inspiration. And that’s the big difference between that and the second voice that a senior leader pursues.

Voices of Instruction

It’s pretty simple. When it comes time for big decisions, decisions of strategy and direction, you can’t listen to everyone.

It’s like being on the stage at the “Price Is Right.” Drew Carey (or Bob Barker, if you’re in my generation) is standing next to you, and 300 people are shouting at you from across the room. You’re paralyzed, trying to figure out if the four-slice toaster in front of you costs more or less that $54.

But imagine if, in the midst of those 300 people was your spouse, who you trusted implicitly, and a former COO of Cuisinart. You could filter out 298 voices and just listen to those two.

Major decisions are like that. There are too many well-intentioned people who want to encourage you but don’t really know what they’re talking about. There are too many podcasts and videos and conferences and books that are good but just not best. You need voices of instruction. Voices that carry extra weight with you.

Now I fully acknowledge that the Bible says, “With many counselors, there is deliverance” (many translations say “wisdom”). But it’s not endless counselors, and the overarching danger in the book of Proverbs is not in listening to too few people but in listening only to yourself. Which is exactly why voices of instruction matter.

Brene Brown gave a talk a few years back titled, “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count.” While the whole video applies to what I’m saying here, look at the first five seconds of her talk. What did she do in preparation for her talk? She called a good friend. She doesn’t read positive reviews of her books or remind herself about her popular TED Talks. She goes to a trusted voice.

Who are your voices of instruction? A couple of them may be the same in every situation, and a couple may vary based on the topic at hand. But know who they are, and give them added weight.

Conclusion

Who will influence your leadership? If your circle is too small, you can become myopic, removed, and shallow. If your circle is too big, you can get confused while sorting and sifting, which can cause you to lose confidence or miss certain timing windows.

If you don’t have voices of inspiration, you risk losing hope and giving up. If you don’t have voices of instruction, you’ve got unstable footing and a glass ceiling. So, find your two voices.

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