One of the most difficult and humbling things for us human beings is to admit we don’t know something. Our brain has evolved over thousands and thousands of years into a 3-pound, organic computer with the sole task of “making things more certain.” Gaining mastery and a sense of control over our physical and psychological environments is a natural, inherent human drive.
Many people assume that admitting ignorance about and asking for help in understanding specific things is somehow a sign of weakness and a public declaration that one is uninformed, incompetent or outright dim-witted. The exact opposite is actually truer to reality. The most mature leaders admit what they don’t know and go get the answer from so-called “subject matter experts,” who may or may not be part of their inner circle or immediate team. This entails asking for help, information and insight from others, or what we call being vulnerable to the talents of others.
This is not mere opinion or isolated anecdote. Hospitality industry leaders have commented that “asking for help” was one of the most important lessons they learned as they matured; seeking the advice of others is the hallmark of a seasoned leader. In many ways, it was the secret of their leadership success. People who are too braggadocios and are the proverbial “know it alls” rarely have credibility and long-term success. Leaders have also stated that asking for help was a prelude to reciprocating, the basis of any sound relationship. To be sure, when we psychometrically profiled leaders, we found that they were strong generalists in their competency set and knowledge areas. And they subsequently surrounded themselves with a team with specific expertise that filled the gaps in their own aptitude.
Moreover, these leaders also took the initiative to go one step further and formed a “personal board of advisors,” which was composed of people from other walks of life and disciplines who would candidly challenge the leader’s assumptions and round out thinking and decision-making. This need not be a large group—our research has validated that a group of six to eight people is all it takes to make a significant and positive impact on one’s decision-making. So, anecdotal and statistical evidence agree that asking for help and being vulnerable to the talents, expertise and insights of others is a show of strength and intelligence versus weakness and ineptitude.
Relating to others, reading and responding to social cues and adapting presentation and messaging style are the advantages that come with a high EQ. It also takes keen self-awareness to recognize one’s limitations and be receptive to the value that others bring to the table. It also takes high EQ and self-awareness to know both when and how to address conflict.
Who hasn’t heard of the “absent-minded professor”? These individuals illustrate the reality that intelligence in principle doesn’t always equate to intelligence in practice. Smart actions are mostly proactive versus reactive in nature. Smart business and interpersonal decisions stem from measured and strategic thought… and this means thinking beyond both the moment and oneself. Of course, this is much easier said than done, as research on brain functioning shows that humans are fundamentally hardwired to think and act in more reactive ways. Yet many studies also validate the critical importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in thinking beyond oneself to function effectively as a leader.
Sadly, we have observed poor EQ, self-awareness and social skills as one of the most pressing blind-spots in the C-suite. In particular, having worked with global hospitality companies for more than two decades on various workplace psychology issues large and small, there’s one problem that consistently persists at the C-level (even including board of directors)—the failure of execs to confront bad habits or underdeveloped skills in direct reports, and especially when it concerns an organization’s rising stars. The sign of great leadership is one’s effectiveness at identifying and grooming new, impactful leaders.
All too often, however, bosses allow bad habits and counter-effective attitudes and behaviors to slide. Why? Most people strive to avoid any conflict, or they choose the path of least resistance because typically there is a difference between doing the right thing versus the easy thing. It takes courage and grit to have difficult conversations with those we have rapport and rely on to help achieve our goals; it’s more expeditious and painless to put one’s head in the sand and rationalize that the pros in our team members and direct reports outweigh the cons. But that mentality actually shows a paucity of heart and soul to those team members and customers that we serve.
Organizations have two primary systems—business practices and people practices. Smart leaders know that these two issues are interrelated and co-dependent, which is why the issue of how a leader brings about results is just as important as getting the results in the first place. Therefore, smart thinking—rooted in the values of empathy, accountability and self-motivation—is absolutely required to know what is the right thing to do and having the tenacity to do it. Team members follow the examples set by leaders, so it was never more apropos to remember that “people watch what you do more than listen to what you say.”
Having “heart and soul” goes beyond treating others well; it entails a leader caring about brand and culture to such a high level that smart actions are the norm, deviations from standards are always taken seriously, and in the process, every team member is proactively supported, as much as possible, for peak performance and ongoing success.
Keith Kefgen and James Houran are the CEO and managing director of AETHOS Consulting Group, a hospitality-focused human capital advisory, and the authors of "Loneliness of Leadership" - the result of a three-year study of C-suite executives in lodging, restaurants, gaming and other hospitality sectors. They are also the founders of 20|20 Assess—a wholly owned subsidiary of AETHOS Consulting Group—a proprietary suite of hospitality-specific HR and leadership software for performance management.