Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

The Fortune Telling Leader

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It occurred to me recently that a good leader should be able to do well as a fortune teller and I said so at a dinner party the other night.

“That’s terrible,” said the nice woman seated across from me. “That’s just taking advantage of people. Fortune telling is nonsense. It’s bogus!”

“I didn’t say I’d take anybody’s money. And I certainly wouldn’t tell them things about their future that aren’t true. But you’re missing the point: why does someone go to a fortune teller in the first place?”

“Because they’re stupid,” she said. “They’re too stupid to know that these people have no psychic power.”

I laughed. “I don’t have any psychic powers either. You don’t need to be a psychic to know why people go to a fortune teller. Let me show you.”

I reached across the table and asked her to pretend she was a woman seeking the counsel of a psychic. Then I asked her to give me her hand.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh great, now you’re going to read my palm.”

I took her hand.

“Oh my God,” I said with a start. “What’s happened to you?”

“What?!!” she seemed startled, too.

“I just feel so much concern and confusion. Tell me what’s going on.”

My table mate snatched her hand back. “I’m fine,” she said. “Really.”

“This isn’t about you,” I assured her. “This is about a made-up person, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll play both roles.”

“I’m coming to see you,” I said, “because I’m discouraged and worried and frightened and sad. I’ve watched my dreams fade away. I’ve been to scared to risk and when I have risked things didn’t go well. Nothing goes my way and nobody likes me and I don’t deserve any of this.”

“See, there’s the thing,” I said to the woman across from me, “you know what we want most of all? We want to be heard. We want people to get us. We want to feel like we matter. When I coach people, I do two things: I watch them intensely and I listen carefully.

“I watch their faces. I watch their hands. And I watch how they stand, particularly their hips and knees.”

My companion was starting to get interested. “Why their knees, of all things?”

“Because most of the time, while your lips are flapping, your body is talking, too. And when the body is saying something that doesn’t match the words coming out of your mouth, I can see the disconnect and I explore it.”

As I said that, I saw a flash of tension shoot across the woman’s eyes, as if she’d just remembered she left the gas on in her apartment.

“What was that?” I asked. “Did you leave the gas on in your apartment?”

“No, no. It’s not that,” she hesitated. “It’s just that I gave a presentation the other day and I know that’s exactly what I was doing. As I was telling the franchisees that their fourth quarter sales were down in all but the Southwestern District, I remember feeling like I was just a big phony. I remember feeling like somebody slung a heavy bag on my shoulders and my knees actually slumped for a moment.”

“You felt unsupported. So what was it? What was the disconnect?”

She thought for a minute and then spoke. “I felt sick. Because I actually didn’t know why those numbers were down and as the regional VP, I’m supposed to know. So here I am telling them they need to get their numbers up, but I don’t know how to coach them on how to do it. And the other thing is, these guys really know their business better than I do.”

As she spoke, I noticed that she was scratching her forearm with her nails.

“What you’re telling me is that you don’t feel comfortable in your role.”

She looked at her arm and quickly put her hands in her lap.

“Look,” I said, “there are three questions we each need to ask ourselves and they’re the same three questions a coach has to ask. As I’m watching and listening to the person I’m working with, I’m asking myself—and sometimes I ask them—who they’re being, what they’re doing and are they getting the results they want.”

“Well,” she said with a sigh, “that certainly wasn’t the result I wanted from that presentation.”

“So then, who were you being?”

Suddenly, I saw a light go on behind her eyes. They brightened and her face relaxed.

“I just realized,” she told me, “I was being a kid. Most of these franchisees are older than me. Most of them are men. And most of them have been working in the business since they were in high school. I feel ludicrous when I try to tell them what they should do.”

“How can you change that?”

“I could find out what the top performers are doing that the others aren’t. I could ask the other VPs what they think. I could dig deeper in the data and see if there’s a trend. There’s a lot I can do.”

I could see the wheels spinning so I returned to my salad.

“Wait a minute,” my friend said suddenly. “Do you think it would work if I used what you just did with my franchisees?”

I gave her an astonished look.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you think I am, a fortune teller?”

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