The following is adapted from The Power of a Graceful Leader.
For most leaders, the ability to act quickly and make snap decisions has benefitted us tremendously over the course of our careers. After all, when you’re responsible for people and money, your job is to put out fires.
However, this skill can also be a weakness: it forces us to get really good at jumping to conclusions. Another phrase for this is “making judgments.”
Making judgments is a self-protective instinct, especially when we’re stressed or in conflict.
We tend to move forward in situations as though our perceptions are solid-gold truth. The person on the other side of the conflict does the same thing. When our two “truths” clash, we butt heads and start pointing fingers.
To break out of this never-ending finger-pointing game, we can choose to learn to use grace to distinguish perception from truth, story from fact.
Judgments Lead Us to Tell Stories
Judgments of any kind can cause missed opportunities and mischief. It’s easy to see how judgments of something as bad can be a problem. However, even judging something as “good” can cause issues because from judgments come conclusions… and that’s how false or skewed stories are built.
For instance, I once worked with a woman named Jan who had incredibly strong relational skills. One of Jan’s direct reports came to her and told her that a fellow employee, Pete, was going through a divorce and struggling. Jan thought this was great, because she was now in a place to be more helpful and empathetic to Pete.
Jan lightened Pete’s workload so he could start getting out right at five and could pick his son up from daycare. This might seem like the kind, graceful thing to do. However, from Pete’s perspective, Jan was taking away his responsibilities, and he didn’t know why. He started to worry that he wasn’t doing a good job. Jan, with the best of intentions, had actually made his situation harder and more stressful.
Start by Asking Questions
How could Jan have avoided the temptation to make a quick judgment in this situation with Pete? The first step to distinguishing story from fact is asking open-ended, powerful questions. These questions tend to focus on why and how. Here are a few of my favorite questions that Jan could have applied to this situation, to many situations:
Why would someone I like behave this way?
What could be impacting this person to cause them to behave this way?
If it were me, how would I handle this situation?
Jan could have also asked Pete a few questions directly:
Can you help me understand how you got here?
What has changed to create these new behaviors?
How would you solve this issue?
By engaging in open-ended questions like these, Jan would have had the opportunity to understand Pete’s real needs and communicate her intentions to avoid confusion.
Ultimately, when you feel annoyed, criticized, or superior, check in on your judgments. Whether your initial reaction is “Oh my God, this is terrible” or “Oh, lovely, that’s wonderful,” take a moment to question the judgments of the situation.
The Advantage of Grace
I define “grace” as the experience of a loving, connected compassion within yourself. Graceful leadership, therefore, is grace in action in the workplace or other authority structure.
When you experience loving, connected compassion for yourself through grace, you lose the need to make judgments and become open to curiosity, the eliminator of judgment. When you can move past the need to tell and create stories, you can see things for what they are and make better decisions for yourself, your company, and your employees.
Ultimately, grace surrenders to what is. This is a huge advantage, because there is no person on earth who is more powerful than someone who has nothing to lose. The graceful leader doesn’t hold on to the story, so they don’t have a story to lose. They are not attached to the outcome. That’s true power.
For more advice on graceful leadership, you can find The Power of a Graceful Leader on Amazon.
Alexsys Thompson offers this body of work as a testament to her own leadership journey, as well as the journey of hundreds of other leaders. For Alexsys, the tipping point came when she established her gratitude practice and spent a decade refining it. Today, developing a gratitude practice is a key element of her work as a board-certified executive coach. Alexsys also serves as adjunct staff for The Center for Creative Leadership and is a member of the Forbes Coaching Council. She authored The Trybal Gratitude Journals, curated a collection of short stories called Gratitude 540, and is building a retreat center in Vermont that will be a “safe space for souls to show up.”