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A Leader’s First Lesson In Self-Awareness: Shut Up and Listen

November 2, 2010

There was an article in last Sunday’s New York Times business section about Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter. He is stepping down as CEO to work on product strategy, a place where he feels he is best-suited to add value.

In dissecting his leadership personality profile, the journalist described Evan as “being at ease with himself,” and “comfortable in his own skin.” A key indicator was that, despite his significant status as a founder of one of the most important tech companies on the planet, Evan Williams is not one to dominate a group with his own chatter.

A friend described him like this:  

“Often there will be a room with five people having a conversation and he says the least, but when he does talk, everyone listens intently, and it’s a gem.”

 This comment caused me to think about the leaders I have observed who, rather than being at ease with themselves, may very well be at odds in their own skin.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s those colleagues who, upon finding themselves in any sort of group situation, will immediately take command of the conversation. They are compelled to be the first one in to express an opinion, to tell a story, or fill in the blank with a version of their life that they believe is crucial for the group’s edification.

This type of grandstanding can be quite entertaining – for maybe a couple of minutes. But after a while, the shimmer wears off and I become bored and exhausted. I begin to wonder if this person is simply unable to sit with a few minutes of his own silence. Why isn’t he asking anyone else about their ideas? Why isn’t he interested in someone else’s vacation plans? And for goodness sake, why did he just cut off Marty from talking about his bank meeting?

It’s like this person can not bear to think the group’s attention might be focused on someone else.  

I have come to realize that those who get caught up in broadcasting their own non-stop self-a-thons are usually driven by a shadier subconscious agenda: the gnawing anxiety to prove themselves; the need to ensure that others know they are significant; the dizzying desperation to justify their leadership role. That’s about all there is to being a blowhard.

One of the fundamental hallmarks of strong leadership is self awareness. But when we are insecure, anxious and trying like mad to make an impression on everyone we meet, we are not likely to create capacity for this level of reflection.

It’s the problem of being uncomfortable in your own skin.

The irony is that when a leader is relaxed, focused on others, and stops trying so hard to impress people, they become much more effective and respected by others.

Next time you gather in a meeting, take a minute to stop and notice your own behavior. Do you feel compelled to draw attention to yourself with your own chatter? Or are you making space to listen to what others might have to share?

As for me, I think I’ll work towards having people say I’m a gem, rather than a blowhard.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2010 7:21 pm

    Thanks Bradley – this is so important, but not my favorite subject. My best asset in this regard is my beloved, and brutally honest, wife. I didn’t realize just how much I tended to dominate discussions, nor how obnoxious that was, until she told me. I didn’t like it. I still don’t. I never will. But I get it. So over the past few years I’ve worked on listening more and speaking less (two ears one mouth and all that). The amazing thing is that sooner or later, I get asked and people listen. And others get to contribute and I learn from them. It still takes a lot of work and I slip into old habits way too often. This is a good reminder – thanks.

    • November 4, 2010 11:56 am

      Graham – Well this is why we blog, isn’t it? We get the floor to say whatever we want, with no interruptions until we’ve said everything!

      I’ve realized in my self that the more anxious I am about getting my point across, or being ‘heard”, the more I want to dominate the meeting. It almost takes a combination of trust (that you will be heard, you will be respected, etc.) and savvy (knowing when to speak and when to hold back).

      I think you bring up the irony of the whole thing – By stepping back and letting others have their say, people will eventually ask what you think. And possible will be more receptive to what you have to say.

  2. November 2, 2010 7:23 pm

    WOW – what a great post! I work with a LOT of these types of folks and you’re right, it’s very frustrating. I’m definitely going to pay attention to my own behavior going forward and have the goal of making sure I’m not providing bluster – and maybe provide a gem or two along the way…

    Thank you for this – I’m definitely going to share!

    ((((PEACE))))

    • November 4, 2010 11:59 am

      Thanks for visiting, Anne-Marie.

      Looking at our own behavior is a great place to start, since it is the one person that we can control!

  3. November 2, 2010 7:34 pm

    What I also like about Williams is his understanding of the dynamics of meaningful power, which comes from a confidence in self and particularly others, and not the trappings of office.

  4. November 2, 2010 7:45 pm

    What a great post! I work with quite a few of these types of folks and it’s not only frustrating it’s insulting, sometimes even demeaning, to other group members.

    I am definitely going to make a conscious effort to evaluate my own behavior going forward and work on not being a provider of such bluster – but rather, hopefully – a provider a gem or two!

    Definitely going to share this article – thanks again!

    ((((PEACE))))

  5. November 2, 2010 10:44 pm

    I think we know a lot of the same people, especially the ones who have to fill what they see as a void and it doesn’t much matter what they fill it with. Usually something worse than useless.

  6. November 3, 2010 12:31 am

    iLike

  7. November 3, 2010 1:39 am

    dizzying desperation
    the shimmer wears off
    with his own chatter of
    non-stop self-a-thons
    despite his significant status
    you gather in a meeting
    about all there is to being a blowhard

  8. November 3, 2010 9:06 am

    Bradley,

    Another reel of excellent writing – you set the stage for your literary work beautifully. I like how your mind lays out and explores concepts, disseminating with rigor.

    A leader knows enough to know when silence is important. And, a good listener knows that there will always be pockets of stagnated conversation.

    You know what I’m talking about 🙂 Don’t you?

  9. November 3, 2010 9:42 am

    I can be a blabber-mouth,
    or so I tell myself.
    I can command a room,
    with the presence of my Volume,
    or so I tell myself.
    I can be these,
    but I tell myself not to.
    When I come to this conclusion (self-awareness),
    added with a smile,
    I can be the listener everyone wants to hear the most.

    When someone is in touch with this, they don’t need to
    command a room with what they say,
    they do it by only being the empathetic critic of themselves… people
    notice that!

    Good post, Brad! ;-))

  10. November 3, 2010 9:58 am

    This is awesome. There always seems to be at least one of these people in a group situation. You’re right. When you’re comfortable in your own skin, you don’t feel the need to be constantly recognized. Williams appears to be the type of person who doesn’t need to be told what a good leader he is because already knows this–not in a arrogant way–just in a confident, self-accepting way.

  11. November 4, 2010 12:12 pm

    I can’t find enough ways to say how much I like this post.

    Leadership is difficult. And our own selfishness and insecurities can make it harder. But there is a way past our tendency to self-absorption, and you’re pointing to it here.

    Being a leader is all about developing other people. It’s about them. This shift in focus brings in the wisdom of collaboration and aligns us “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

  12. November 4, 2010 1:34 pm

    You, Bradley, are a gem and I mean it.

    Reminds me of my favorite (as of yet) book on leadership: The Servant by James Hunter. It’s a must read!

  13. November 4, 2010 6:38 pm

    Well. I think you are a gem. And a very good listener. I’d go so far as to say you appear pretty comfortable in your skin, Bradley. Non-stop-self-a-thon. I’ll have to remember that one.

  14. November 5, 2010 11:49 am

    He sounds like a good person to emulate. Most people tend to either try to dominate a meeting or sit silently never speaking a word.

  15. November 9, 2010 8:49 pm

    I think the fact that he stepped into a product strategy role is also a great indicator of someone who is pretty comfortable with themselves – knows his owns strengths and weaknesses. I try to remember that I have something to learn from everyone and the only way that it will happen is through listening.

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