People often ask me why I talk to so many people. I typically respond with, “Why not?” When that’s not enough, I go on to explain that people make the world go round and that every conversation can help me appreciate the world we live in. It is what helped me discover the benefits of ‘unleadership’.
When I was a kid, I was very shy. To help me get over being shy, I would say hello to almost anyone I came in contact with. My 14-year-old buddies would ridicule me relentlessly for it (thanks Andy, Mike, and Marshall), but it never stopped me—it only gave me thicker skin. Heck, when I do it now, my wonderful 12-year-old son will say, “Dad, stop talking to them—you don’t even know them!”
What does this have to do with leadership? How are these people influencing your business intelligence?
As a leader—and all of us are leaders in some way—you have the opportunity to listen and learn every day. Michael Hyatt and many others share quotes along the lines of, “You can’t listen with your mouth open.” Talking to so many people exposes me to different perspectives, stories, lives, and most of all people.
The Importance of Listening
Some conversations you want to have, and some you don’t. But why not make the most of all of them by listening a little more? Think about the random people that cross your path: the checkout clerks, dry cleaners, random dude at the bus stop, a homeless man in Nashville, or a guy at a bar in San Francisco. Is there value in having conversations with any of these people?
My challenge to you as a leader, whether it’s the homeless guy in Nashville (more on him soon), a client, a peer, or a subordinate, is to treat every conversation as a learning opportunity. When you open your mind to learning through listening, the world opens up right in front of you. That is the true key to unleadership.
Seriously, what can a homeless guy in Nashville teach us about leadership? First, I’ll give some background and then I’ll share what he taught me and what this means for your everyday interactions.
I met Steve at 1:30am in Nashville at Broadway and 2nd. My buddy Glenn and I had just finished having a few drinks and generally goofing off. We were crossing the street looking for a bite to eat and Steve approached us, asking for money. I told him that I don’t give money to the homeless, but I’d be happy to buy him a sandwich if he could direct us toward some late night grub.
This is where Steve shocked us both by saying, “I hate being homeless and I hate begging, but I can’t find a job since I got Crohn’s disease.” Thinking this was just a ruse to get into my wallet, I pried “What kind of work did you do?”
Steve replied that he was a pipe fitter and that he worked on projects all over Nashville. Then a couple of years ago, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s and it was bad enough that he lost 40 pounds and couldn’t work. As a result, he lost everything.
This next part isn’t related to leadership, but it’s about what you can learn when you listen. When he said he’d lost 40 pounds, we somehow got to talking about bodybuilding. This guy lost 40 pounds of muscle! How do I know this? Well, he dazzled me with his knowledge of Mr. Olympia, not just Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lee Haney, but he knew that Lou Ferrigno came in 3rd in 1975 and that Serge Nubret came in 2nd place. He dropped the name Ronnie Coleman and a few others. Long story short, I decided to quiz him just before handing him the burger: “What’s the name of the guy from the 80’s with the giant legs?” Without hesitation, he spits out Tom Platz.
Steve the homeless guy had just become Steve the bodybuilder! While this is an extreme example, I took the time to listen to Steve and I learned so much.
Listening and UnLeadership
Steve truly enriched my life. He and I connected because I was open to Steve the Person and didn’t view him as Steve the Homeless. Think about this as a leader. Open your mind to the ideas of those around you. You’re asked every day to make decisions and you’re probably pretty good at it. But think about the power of creating decision-makers and leaders versus indecisive followers. This is where the power of unleadership begins.
Think for a moment about ownership of a task or project. When someone wants you to do something are you more likely to be excited and engaged when a) you’re told what to do or b) when you have a hand in defining the task?
The answer is b, and it’s supported by reams and reams of research.
As you lead, listen. As you listen, learn. As you learn, support. As you support, direct. When you’re done with all of that, you’ll have engaged your team in the goal that they’ve helped define and it will help everyone grow.
While the story of Steve is a long-winded way to ask leaders to “shut up and listen,” I think he’s a wonderful example of what’s possible when we open our minds to the world around us and practice unleadership.
I left Steve with some ideas for ending his homelessness in the same way he had built his body. He left with a smile and told me that he was done defeating himself. I have no way of knowing where Steve will go, but he’s a good man and I wish him the best. I still didn’t give him any money, but he sure dug the burger.
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As CEO/Co-Founder of BFO, Steve excels in ‘unleadership.’ (his word) Steve believes in collaboration and leading by example; remaining vulnerable and open to new ideas, accepting feedback…and doing good things.
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