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The Big Lie: Leadership Isn’t Personal—It’s Just Business

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

“It’s not personal, it’s just business.” This phrase kept echoing through my head as I summarized my coaching notes from a just-completed session with an executive.

The coaching session was gut-wrenching. The executive had come to the realization that a subordinate with whom he’d worked for over 12 years had to go. More than just “worked with,” he’d grown and developed the subordinate up through the ranks and they’d addressed many tough challenges together. But now, the poor functioning of the subordinate’s department was causing difficulties. Despite coaching, feedback, and other attempts to remedy the problems, the department’s poor results, defections of key staff members, and abysmal employee survey results could no longer be ignored. The issue was now even the subject of C-suite conversations—another sad case to prove the Peter Principle.

Leadership Isn’t Personal—It’s Just BusinessThere was no more denying it. The failing subordinate had to be sacked.

The anguished face of the executive and his dread at the prospect of the tough conversation to come revealed a truth. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” surely must rank as one of the top 10 big lies in business. The truth is that business, and particularly leadership in business, is intensely personal.

Leadership is about people, so it’s only natural that leaders experience intensely personal feelings that impact how they go about their business. I think that’s one reason why Emotional Intelligence (or EQ) is acknowledged by many to be a critical leadership attribute. At its core, a strong EQ allows leaders to master their own personal side so they can act in ways that align with their intentions and achieve desired objectives.

Research conducted by DDI involving more than 15,000 executives revealed that EQ and leadership effectiveness are closely linked. High EQ leaders were much more likely to excel at networking, leading teams, impactful communication, and getting things done. It’s interesting to note that all of these areas are high priorities for mid-level and senior leaders. Low-EQ leaders often don’t connect well with others and frequently let their own emotions derail them from achieving results.

In the case of the anguished executive, difficulty acknowledging and dealing with personal feelings related to the subordinate resulted in postponing tough, but inevitable action. The delay made a bad situation worse because of missed deadlines, shoddy work, and the loss of key talent. Ultimately, these performance issues put the executive himself at risk.

So what’s a leader to do?

Once we recognize that leadership is an intensely personal undertaking, it follows that any aspiring leader must take responsibility for mastering the art of the personal. (That’s a tall order for some people who would prefer to leave the messy, personal stuff out of it.)

Here are three critical steps leaders must take to master their interpersonal skills:

  1. Build self-awareness.
    Several years ago I was discussing leadership transitions with a group of middle managers. When I posed the question, “What are you doing differently as a middle manager?” one person glibly responded with, “I spend more time looking in the mirror.” She went on to explain that the increased responsibility of her middle management job compelled her to be more introspective. She couldn’t afford to lose her temper, openly express her doubts, or speak “off the cuff,” because every word would be parsed, amplified, and repeated through the ranks below.

    If she wanted to have the impact necessary to succeed, she needed to be very purposeful and thoughtful. Spending “alone time” analyzing and dealing with her emotions before facing colleagues allowed her to be on message as a leader. And she wasn’t unique. A heightened need for introspection, self-awareness, and purposeful action is a recurring theme echoed in almost every one of my coaching engagements involving mid- and senior-level leaders.
  2. Build relationship skills.
    Leaders spend the vast majority of their time interacting with others, whether through meetings, phone calls, or one-on-one discussions. And yet, DDI’s High Resolution Leadership research reveals that many have poor skills in areas that support effective human relationships. Over 50 percent of the frontline leaders covered in the study had development opportunities in the following skills:
    • Maintaining others’ self-esteem
    • Demonstrating empathy
    • Listening and developing others' ideas (vs. pushing your own)
    • Encouraging others to share their ideas, feelings, and concerns

    The good news is that these skills can be learned and developed. Research shows that well-designed training has a positive impact, as long as that training includes positive modeling, skill practice, and feedback. In short, the “secret” recipe is: see it, do it, and get feedback.

    Repeating this skill-building cycle until the behaviors become muscle memory is the key. My experience as a coach bears this out. Leaders can improve in these areas if they conscientiously engage in this “see it, do it, get feedback” cycle. (That’s often a big part of my work as a coach!)
  3. Prepare for critical interactions.
    Most leaders can anticipate the discussions that are likely to be highly personal or emotionally charged. Those that involve significant, negative personnel actions (like delivering feedback that requires improvement, reassignment, or termination) are the obvious ones, but there are many other instances where emotions can threaten to overwhelm the participants. The key to these discussions is preparation.

    Much of my coaching time is spent preparing leaders for highly charged, potentially volatile discussions. A few key preparation steps include:
    • Clearly defining the purpose of the discussion.
    • Preparing questions in advance to draw out opinions, perspectives, and concerns from others.
    • Anticipating objections and obstacles to reaching agreement and practicing responding to them.
    • Practicing saying key words or phrases so they will come comfortably off your tongue in the actual discussion.

    I often role play a tough discussion as part of a coaching session so the leader can practice each of the steps above. The goal is not to script the conversation, but to help the leader deal with emotions before the discussion so he or she can stay focused and navigate the conversation to achieve the intended objectives. Leaders who engage in purposeful practice are much more likely to manage these interactions effectively.

Dealing with the big lie

Acknowledging the “Big Lie” for what it is won’t eliminate the anguish that a conscientious leader feels when taking actions that negatively impact people. Recognizing the human side of business enables leaders to examine their own emotions and navigate interpersonal challenges that might, if handled poorly, derail them and their colleagues. It also highlights the imperative for leaders to build the skills needed to operate in a world that requires both business savvy and relationship expertise.

There’s an adage that contains a lot of wisdom: “You manage things and you lead people.” Leaders who feel they can separate the business from the personal are setting themselves up for failure.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D., is a DDI vice president who’s held a variety of roles spanning consulting, business development, and general management in his 23+ years with the organization. His work has literally taken him around the world, including extended expat assignments to the Middle East and China. Aside from his passion for helping organizations acquire and engage talent, Jim’s personal interests mirror his active, globe-trotting DDI career. He’s a private pilot, an accomplished sailor, and an avid motorcyclist. That blur that just whizzed by? Yeah, that was Jim.

Learn how DDI can help your leaders master their interpersonal skills.

Posted: 06 Apr, 2017,

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