J.P. Morgan selected Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups as one of the 10 unforgettable titles on its 2018 Reading List Collection. Here, Coyle offers a primer on some of the key leadership skills he observed in researching his best-selling book.
We all want to be better leaders. We’d all like to create the special brand of chemistry, cohesion and cooperation that drives successful groups. The real question is, how?
The answer begins with how we think about leadership. Traditionally, we think of it as a mysterious art. Great leaders, we presume, possess a knack, a charisma, a bit of magic.
For my latest book, The Culture Code, I studied some of the top leaders on the planet. I spent time with people like Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, R.C. Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, and Dave Cooper, the SEALs Team Six commander who trained the teams that got Osama bin Laden. You might be surprised to learn that most of them didn’t start out as effective leaders; in fact, in many cases it was precisely the opposite. Many of them struggled early in their careers. Their skills weren’t innate; they were built.
They show us a simple truth: Great leadership isn’t magic. It’s an ability you can learn.
With that in mind, here are four quick leadership hacks to improve your skills.
1. Send the two-line email: Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google and CEO of Humu, advises leaders to send the following email to their groups periodically: Please tell me one thing that you want me to keep doing, and one thing that you want me to stop doing. It’s a short message, but it works because it helps create what scientists call psychological safety: that sense of belonging and connectedness that drives healthy interaction.
2. Use Cooper’s four-word phrase: A few minutes after I met Dave Cooper, the former Navy SEALs Team Six commander, he told me this: “The most important words a leader can say are, ‘I screwed that up.’”
At first glance, this seems surprising. Shouldn’t leaders project unshakable confidence? But when you look more closely, Cooper’s phrase makes deep sense. Strong culture only exists when its members tell each other the truth. Scientists call these exchanges vulnerability loops: moments where people set status aside to explore what really happened, instead of avoiding difficult subjects. Cooper’s phrase helps unlock a deeper truth: Groups that hide their weaknesses are weak, while groups that habitually share their weaknesses become strong.
(Pro tip: This method also works at home, with your kids. At your next family dinner, start things off by sharing a screw-up, big or small. It sends a signal of belonging and openness, and it makes for dinners that are a lot more energetic and fun.)
3. Use the open face: Your face, like a door, has two settings, open and closed. Many of the leaders I visited tended to use the same facial expression—leaning forward, brows up, eyes unblinking—to send a simple signal of engagement and intense interest. Listening is a physical act. Using your expression to communicate your interest is not just nice; it’s critical.
4. Pick up trash: We usually think about leadership as the art of doing big stuff: creating a vision, making decisions, inspiring people. But in fact, many highly effective leaders spend a lot of time doing the smallest tasks: cleaning up.
It adds up to a leadership mindset that I would call a muscular humility, in which you continually seek simple ways to help and support the group. These signals are powerful because they send a larger message: We are all in this together.
After all, the point of leadership is not to do great things alone, but rather to continually build an environment where the group can do great things together.
Learn more about The Culture Code and other titles on the 2018 J.P. Morgan Reading List.
Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book of Talent, The Secret Race (co-authored with Tyler Hamilton), Hardball: A Season in the Projects and other books. Co-winner of the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Prize, he is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, and works as a special advisor to the Cleveland Indians.
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