The Black Hole of Leadership

If you find yourself saying, "We've said this before," you might need to examine how you're saying it

By Spencer Turley  |   Aug 24, 2018

One of the critical points in a leader’s tenure is when he or she first goes into a new position. Because of the nature of change and the uneasiness that accompanies it, all eyes fall on the new leader. As people, we quickly become anxious and start to speculate about what the new leader may change, who else may be promoted, or what the cause of the change will be. The way a new leader handles themselves in these first days sets the tone and expectations for their leadership style.

One of the things I try to do to ease tension when I go into a new area is to ask three questions of the people I’ll be working with—and listen.

  1. What’s going well?
  2. What are we doing that is not effective?
  3. What are we not doing that you think we should be?

As I’ve asked these questions, I’ve noticed I quickly find common themes and identify areas needing improvement. Then as changes are made, I have instant buy-in—because the ideas came from the staff, not me.

I’ve also noticed as leaders when we act and implement the ideas of our staff, they come to see us in a certain light. They come to see us as listening, caring, and taking appropriate action. What more could you want in a leader?

How It’s Done

At one point in my career as I transitioned into a new area, I did this exercise with each person I supervised. We sat down one-on-one and discussed the three questions.

As we discussed what was not effective, one humble leader said, “Can we please not make our staff meetings a black hole?”

I asked him to explain.

“Historically, we’ve been great about meeting together to discuss issues. But once we leave the meeting nothing ever happens. All we do is talk about it and then it seems to go into a black hole in the center of the table, never to reappear.”

Over the next few weeks as I observed and listen to the staff under my leadership, I lost count how many times I heard the phrase, “We’ve talked about that.”

I came to realize that phrase identified what was in the black hole. I also realized that being able to tell someone you’ve talked about something was psychologically satisfying to both the leader and the subordinate. The subordinate leaves the conversation thinking “oh good it’s on the radar, maybe something will happen.” The leader leaves the conversation thinking, “I’m being effective, we’ve discussed things the staff are asking about.” When the reality is nothing more than two people moving their lips: No action, no results.

Today, when I hear the phrase, “We’ve talked about that,” I quietly take a note and try to identify ways to pull that thing out of the black hole.

Now when we have our staff meetings, people leave with assignments—action items. When we meet the following week, the action items are on the agenda as a point of follow-up. Those who had action items to handle then return and report on what they accomplished or learned. As a leadership team, we have accomplished more and pulled more things out of the black hole than I ever thought possible, simply by following up and taking action. 

As you walk around and meet with your staff, if you catch yourself telling people, “We’ve talked about that,” you’ve just identified an action item for yourself. What do you need to do to pull it out of the black hole and make something happen?

Conclusion

Show your staff you listen, care and will take action by not creating black holes.

Remember: The essence of leadership is the follow-through!