The Simplest—And Most Overlooked—Leadership Habit

by | Aug 20, 2020

Long ago, I had a boss who would frequently stop me after a presentation, in the middle of a meeting, and at the end of a day to ask some variation of:

“Hey Dan, I noticed a sparkle in your eye when you were talking about [the new product enhancement you just pitched]. What was it about this project that gave you your jollies? What lit you up about that?”

Secretly, I would call him Owl. He was hyper-vigilant, and had an amazing ability to perceive light where few could. He was a master of the often-overlooked, but game-changing executive skill of… noticing.

(Ironically, he also happened to have a rather large set of peepers himself; which is why I never called him Owl directly, for fear he’d take offense to the highly complementary metaphor).

In the same way that real owls can spot a mouse in a vast field, even with the light of only a single candle, Owl had a real knack for noticing the faintest glimmer of talent and passion; the sparks of a “Blue Flame,” as my book by the same name calls it. And when he saw them, he would seek to understand them, shine a bright light on them, and help their owner put them to see them and good use.

For a long time, I wondered why Owl would invest his precious time in these little sidebar conversations. Then, one day, it clicked. He recognized that unleashing his peoples’ talent and passion is ultimately what fuels a business. He recognized that when leaders slow down in this way —and take the time to notice— it can ultimately help us to go faster.

Turns out, he was right. Owl’s teams always seemed to be on fire and among the best performing in the business. He was a first-rate, black belt “Blue Flame Spotter,” as I call it in the book.

Owl taught me that one of the most useful skills that an effective leader can develop —and one of the greatest responsibilities a leader has— is noticing. Noticing what energizes the people in your charge (and what doesn’t). Noticing when they are at their best. And noticing the underlying talents that allow them to function at that level. When we do this as leaders, it allows us to make use of these insights to put the talents and passions of their team to better work.

Here’s why this is so important: Ironically, most people think that they are self-aware, while the research shows us that it is actually quite difficult to develop an accurate perception of our own talents.

Simply put, we are less self-aware than we think thanks to a thing called the Dunning Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias that causes us over- or under-estimate our talents. If developing a strong self-awareness is like being able to see clearly into a mirror, then the Dunning Kruger Effect is what causes this mirror to get foggy.

As leaders, one of our most important responsibilities is to help clear that fog. To notice moments where our teammates’ Blue Flames are sparkling… to point it out… and to fan those flames.

But what can get in the way of doing this?

For one, moving too quickly.

Our business culture has come to value speed; and rightfully so. The world is moving quickly, so leaders who want to stay ahead need to move quickly. But speed comes with some unintended consequences. For one, it can narrow our field of visibility as we move from one thing to the next at a breakneck pace. We run the risk of missing those faint glimmers of Blue Flame that could be fueled into raging blue infernos if first we noticed them. When we make it a point to slow down a touch and look up, it is amazing what we can notice.

Likewise, leaders can develop a case of Blue Flame blindness when they focus too much on the “what” and not enough on the “who”.

Retrain your brain to pay attention to the brilliance of the people around you, which sometimes manifests in even the subtlest of ways. Sure, it is easy to notice when your rockstar sales rep totally crushes the best-and-final presentation. But what about the Sales Executive who you noticed seemed unusually energized when you saw her coaching an SDR through a new script as you were strolling around the bullpen? What potentially massive Blue Flame might you be seeing a small sparkle of in that moment?

So how can we refine our ability to notice?

A big part of building the capacity to notice more involves turning down the voice in our heads that is constantly chattering.

Redirecting our attention from internal to external will allow our brains to take in more of what’s going on around us. Coaches sometimes refer to this as the distinction between “level 1 listening” (our attention is tuned to the babbling of the little voice in our heads) and “level 3 listening” (we’re “listening” to everything that is going on around us).

Developing a meditation and mindfulness habit can also go a long way. Too often, amid the day-to-day pressures of being an executive, the constant barrage of distractions, and endless stream of issues that are vying for your time and attention, we lose sight of what is happening around us. Cultivating mindfulness gets us accustomed to taking a pause and tuning into what’s really going on around us.

The next time you are in a meeting, make it a point to pay special attention to the “who.” Observe who is attentive and asks insightful questions. Make note of who is exceedingly articulate. Note who is quietly listening, doesn’t say much, but offers deep insight when he/she speaks up. Spikes in energy are a great clue that there’s a talent or passion underneath.

What the sparkle of a Blue Flame is revealed in those moments, and how can you leverage it in new and bigger ways to push the team to new heights?

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