No one likes conflict. Not the young, not the old. Women in particular learn at a young age to please, and to make nice with those who disagree with us. When the naysayers argue loudly, we learn that if we don’t want to give in, then we had better sidestep them quietly. We’d better stay off their radar as we proceed.
When I was a college student I had a truly life-altering experience that forever changed my view on naysayers. I was the brand new publicity director of the campus radio station, an entirely student-run organization made up of entirely cool kids. I was new at the station, having not worked my way up the food chain but instead being granted a top spot in my senior year. I knew it was a tough crowd, and that they felt I hadn’t paid my dues (this included a 3:00-6:00 AM DJ time slot, which I gladly embraced when I took the publicity job). I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do in the role and presented my thoughts at a staff meeting. It meant changing the way they’d always done things, and I thought it was a change for the better.
A big scruffy guy named Dave spoke up immediately, telling everyone without hesitation why it was a bad idea. I could see he had the group’s respect — after all, he had not only put in his years as a DJ, he was also an art student and a bass player in a rock band to boot. I honestly don’t even remember how the rest of the meeting went. I do remember that I approached Dave afterward and told him I wanted his help on publicity, that I thought he had good ideas and I would love his assistance. Dave accepted almost immediately, and in no time at all he became the strongest member of the team and my greatest ally.
I’ve carried that memory, and that lesson, into many battles. I’ve had my own consulting business for 13 years now, serving the technology industry’s largest and smallest companies. As recently as this year I encountered someone in my client’s company who many considered a foe — a person who is fairly critical to the success of any endeavor because he has the ability to shut down projects (or apply resources in support of projects).
Once again, I was new, proposing ideas that made everyone say “We’ve never done that…that’s not how we usually do things.” Just like many times before, I worked on building a relationship with this individual and — here’s the key — asking about his ideas, aligning my goals with his goals, pointing out the overlap, and helping him see how my endeavors would further his mission. I invited him to contribute to my projects while others literally laughed in my face, saying, “He’ll never be part of that!”
About a month ago, we completed a project together that everyone had told me would never fly. Throughout the process he looked to me for guidance, sought my approval on his contributions, and executed just what I asked of him. The project was, according to everyone, very successful.
This is what the face of leadership looks like: Speaking your mind respectfully. Challenging the naysayers inclusively. Seeking the best possible outcome for everyone. It means shushing the voice in your head that tells you you’re crazy. It means laughing along with those who laugh at what you’re about to attempt.
And sometimes it means working the 3:00-6:00 AM time slot. Coffee anyone?