Since the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February 2022, the world has been plunged into an energy and fuel crisis, with growing uncertainty in the medium to long-term economic growth prospects. Livelihoods are being destroyed across the world, as well as lives being lost in Ukraine. The effect of fuel price increases and supply chain interruptions are being felt throughout the world. In Africa, where there is little economic wiggle-room for the majority of citizens, the resultant increases in food and commodities prices are pushing African people into starvation. On 9 March 2022, Al-Jazeera reported that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was “surprised” by the resistance being put up by the Ukrainian armed forces and its people against the Russians. He had apparently believed that the Russian army would be viewed as liberators and Ukrainian people would be in support of a return to “Mother Russia”. It turns out he was mistaken, as the Ukrainian people have embraced their identity and are resisting the better-armed soldiers from Russia. How did he end up making such a miscalculation on a project that has now wrought so much havoc on so many? On 30 March 2022, Reuters reported that President Putin is surrounded by “advisers who are afraid to tell him the truth.” The military leaders did not inform him that their troops were not logistically or emotionally ready for such an offensive and that the people of the country they would be invading would resist the offensive.
In 2016, in The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh blissfully anticipated yet another landslide victory in an election that he was confident he would win. After claiming that he would rule The Gambia for “a billion years”, Jammeh lost the election to a relatively unknown challenger (Adama Barrow) after 22 years in power. Jammeh was so surprised by the results that he initially accepted, then rejected the election results. His advisors had not shared with him their concerns that his popularity among the Gambian people was waning, or that the average age of the Gambian populace (19) was so low that the youth who had not known any other leader were yearning for change.
When leaders talk more than they listen, they make poor decisions based on insufficient and inaccurate information.
These two examples have one thing in common: both Putin and Jammeh seem to be suffering from some kind of delusion or mis-information. Chances are they may either be not listening well, or those around them are terrified of telling them the truth. Either way, there is a leadership gap somewhere…
The higher a leader goes or the larger the organization that the leader has to lead, the more complicated and complex the problems become. As the problems become more complex, the leader’s ability to extract perspective and knowledge from her/his team becomes more critical to solving problems and accelerating growth.
Have you ever attended a meeting in which you felt, after the meeting, that the meeting was a waste of time? Have you ever felt that a few emails could have been sent to the participants and it would have had the same effect or even better outcome than a meeting? Even if you have a single decade of work under your belt, you probably can attest to this feeling.
One of the reasons why some leaders struggle to successfully lead large organizations is because we are too quick to talk, and we talk too much. Let me illustrate with an example.
A friend of mine (fictional name “Abdul”) who once served as a chief of staff to the President of an African country, experienced this when he attended his first few cabinet meetings with the President. His Excellency the President would introduce a problem that the country was facing and then he would proffer an opinion on what was happening and what should be done about it. Then he asked the Cabinet for their thoughts. The Cabinet Ministers, one by one, would almost trip over each other to register their effusive support for the President’s opinion. After watching this for a few cabinet meetings, Abdul asked H.E. to change his strategy. He said “Sir, you will probably get better ideas if you don’t share yours first.” The next cabinet meeting, the President presented a problem (the country was never short of problems) and then asked for suggestions. There was silence in the room as everyone looked at the President to wait for him to share his opinion. After what felt like five minutes of silence, the President finally broke it by proffering his opinion. This was predictably followed by a cacophony of “I concur with His Excellency” comments as the relieved Ministers enthusiastically registered their admiration for the brilliance of their leader. Abdul struggled to maintain his composure as he inwardly chafed with frustration. After the meeting, Abdul re-approached H.E. and convinced him to be patient and wait for answers from his team. The President reluctantly agreed and the next cabinet meeting, when there was a problem to discuss, he asked for suggestions and stayed quiet. The silence felt like five minutes before one brave Minister offered a suggestion. Everyone watched H.E. to see if he would give an indication of what he thought about the idea. When he did not, one by one, other Ministers offered opinions, some differing from each other. The President spoke last, summarizing what he had heard and offering his own opinion, which he later shared with Abdul had changed from what it was at the start of the meeting, based on what he had heard from the Ministers. In a meeting of decision-makers whose decisions affect millions of people, the President gained the perspective of a few more minds to make a better decision that positively impacted his people.
Why is it so important that leaders talk less and speak last? There are several reasons why it is important that as a leader, you speak last or offer your opinion last. Here are three of them:
- What you don’t know about the issue is greater than what you do know. According to a 1989 study by Sydney Yoshida, the leader of an organization is typically only aware of 4% of the problems facing the organization. By contrast, the frontline workers are typically aware of 100% of the issues facing the organization. This means that as the leader you should be continually aware that you are the least informed person in the room about the issues facing your organization and therefore should be the keenest to listen and learn from those who are more informed than you. If you make decisions when you are less informed, you are likely to make sub-optimal decisions.
- Regardless of what you think, it is difficult for your subordinates to disagree with you. After you have spoken, it is difficult for any of your teammates to say anything contrary to your opinion. This is especially true in high power-distance cultures like we have in Africa, where it is considered culturally inappropriate to call one’s elders or boss by their first name, or to look them straight in the eye (viewed as challenging authority) or to disagree with them. Even if you ask them for contrary opinions, as long as you have already given yours, they will be hesitant to offer theirs if theirs is contrary to yours. Therefore, it is critical that you do not offer your opinion on the matter until you have heard the opinions of all of the people in the room.
- Your team will be more vested in the implementation of the solution if they believe they contributed to it. One of the common ways that our minds play tricks on us is to think that just because we have identified a solution, voila! The problem is solved. Even though we know this is not true, our brains continually try to convince us that it is. The identification of a solution is but the start of solving the problem. The solution has to be implemented and invariably, implementation will encounter obstacles which have to be navigated by the implementers. As the leader, you are hardly ever the implementer. If the implementer did not have input on the solution, then the likelihood for the implementer to be willing to push through the obstacles is low, and the solution, even though appropriate, may be poorly implemented, yielding undesirable results.
Why is it so difficult for leaders to talk less and speak last? The reasons for this can vary based on the individual leader and their personalities and proclivities. I will share three of the most common reasons why leaders, especially African leaders, find it so difficult to speak last. As you read these, do a personal inventory of yourself to assess which of these you are most susceptible to:
- Hubris. We like to show we are the smartest in the room. This may be one of the most dangerous and insidious traps of leadership. Hubris is pride gone amok, and before you say “oh, it can never happen to me”, let me assure you that if you are a leader you are in a constant battle against hubris. The temptation to believe that because we are the leader/boss then we must be the smartest in the room is real, and it is dangerous. If you are the most intelligent person in the room, please do your organization a favor and recruit some more intelligent people! You are not the leader because you are the most intelligent or the most well-informed person in the organization; you are the leader because of your ability to influence yourself and others within and outside the organization to invest their time, talents and treasure towards the achievement of the vision of the organization. This skill of influencing requires much more than just IQ.
- Stress. Talking makes people feel relaxed and comfortable. Leaders are no different. We enjoy talking, because it makes us feel good and we feel less stressed. In meetings, especially with our subordinates, we enjoy it even more because our subordinates listen attentively! (or at least they pretend to). We also receive affirming feedback from our subordinates in the form of assertive nodding or grunts of agreement or outright praise when we talk, and this makes us feel good, relaxed and smart. Who would not want to do more of this when it produces such stress-reducing results?
- Busyness: We think it is more efficient to speak first…the meeting will shorter. Time is a precious commodity for every leader, and we are often constrained to sort out issues and move on to the next meeting or issue. It is tempting to believe that the process of listening to the voices of everyone in the room is a waste of precious time. It is true that the meeting might be shorter if we talk more and speak first, but it also means the meeting will be less effective. If all we want to do is disseminate information, why not just send an email or a recorded audio or video with our thoughts? It would certainly save everyone else’s time! The value of the meeting is to pool together the opinions of the attendees and engage them in discussions to find a consensus. This is best done when honest, open dialogue is engendered, and to achieve it the leader must resist the urge to offer her/his opinion until everyone else in the room has offered their opinion.
I recognize that for some of us leaders, this habit of talking less and speaking last may be an uncomfortable habit to adopt. If you find yourself guilty of one of the three vices that I have described in this article, let me suggest to you: GET HELP. What kind of help? GET A COACH! I recently coached one of my colleagues who was in charge of a large project that required significant coordination of a number of departments and external stakeholders. She was struggling with one key aspect of the project that was not going according to plan, and was scheduled to have an update meeting on the project that day. She shared with me her opinion of what needs to be done about the problem, and I coached her to run the meeting in the same way that Abdul coached H.E. on the cabinet meetings. She hesitantly agreed to try it and three hours later, called me excitedly to say that she was delighted at the volume of great ideas and commitment that was generated at the meeting. She said “it was so much easier than coming up with the ideas by myself!” Indeed, leadership is all about influence…to influence most effectively, learn to talk less, and speak last. Africa needs you at your best.