Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Leadership Mechanics: Staying Above the Fray

In college, I was in a fraternity, but not just any fraternity - I was part of a group of incredible men who founded a new fraternity on campus. I don't really know what it's like to be a fraternity that has been around for decades and has established protocols, but I know that in my fraternity, we spent most of the first two years of our existence by arguing about The Way Things Should Be Done.

What should the minimum GPA be? What about the minimum GPA for elected officers? What should we do about brothers hosting keg parties off campus? What about on-campus but not in the house? When do we hold elections? Can we spend money on paintball during rush? Should we be allowed to eat in meetings? I'm not kidding, these are the things we argued about.

The house generally divided into two groups, which, in the interests of fairness to all involved, I'll call the drunkards and the uptight assholes. For any given question, there were usually two takes on it, and it was always the same set of people arguing the same predictable positions.

We had a pretty open policy toward discussion in those meetings - if a brother had something to say, he would always get the chance to say it. This is why my Sunday evenings in those days were completely unproductive - house meeting would start at 8 and go until 11 quite frequently.

Among all the debating and arguing about the finer points of fraternity management, we had one very important brother, Jeff. Jeff was a basketball player and electrical engineering major, and usually a very quiet guy. When we were debating some of these "issues", Jeff usually sat silently and listened.

But after about six months, a very interesting pattern emerged. After endless debate on some minuscule topic, Jeff would slowly raise one giant basketball-player hand, never higher than his chest, and wait for his turn to speak. And whenever he did, he would calmly summarize both sides of the issue and propose a solution. But here's the really crazy thing: without fail, everyone would all hear it and say, "Yeah, he's right, let's do that."

It was uncanny. It got to the point where, if we were having a debate and Jeff raised his hand, someone in the room would say "Shut up guys, Jeff wants to say something". He was like our own personal Messiah of mediation.

To this day I can't figure out exactly how Jeff was able to create immediate consensus between two groups that had been yelling at each other moments earlier. But I can point to one key tactic he employed - Jeff never spoke up until he thought he could find a suitable middle ground, he just waited patiently. He stayed above the fray.

If he had spoken up earlier, he would be perceived as having "taken a side", and all further comments would be colored by that perception. Instead, it was as though he was the one person in the room who could speak directly to all stakeholders, showing them that there was a balanced approach suitable to everyone.

Staying above the fray is useful in any group dynamic, but it's critical when you're in the position of leadership - nothing can kill a productive debate more quickly than a leader indicating a preference for a particular outcome. In the common case, the leader's comments have the effect of silencing all counter-arguments, thereby ending the discussion before it can be fully explored.

In my own career, I work very hard to employ a similar tactic every chance I get. If two people in a meeting are arguing about some point, I try not to dive in right away and pick a side, but I wait until I think I've heard what each of them have to say, and then try to point out underlying motivations or shared interests that can build toward consensus.

As a leader, it's critical to me that I not be perceived as playing favorites or not letting everyone have a fair say in a debate. More often than not, a good group of people can come to a great answer without the intervention of a leader, but when it is required, that intervention comes best from someone who has obviously listened to all input and is focused not on a personal preference but the solution that is best for everyone - in other words, the person who has stayed above the fray.

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