Recently, I spoke to an awesome group of CEOs and business leaders. During my presentation about holistically leading with purpose in life, the audience was engaged in the subject matter, contributing to the collective conversation, and open to the leadership lessons to be had in our time together – everyone except one.
One gentleman sat in the back, with his arms crossed, dawning a dour expression. He was not emotionally involved, he self-disconnected from the group as whole, he did not take notes, and he did not laugh at my jokes.
I noted his demeanor and continued with my talk with a new mission - to connect with this guy - knowing I cannot please everyone, all of the time, but why not at least give it a shot.
More often than not, during a talk when I consciously zone in on one person to engage them, that person and I successfully connect, and in turn I can connect that individual to the rest of the group to maximize their learning potential. So it was a humbling experience for me when my deliberate effort was met with a healthy dose of windy city resistance.
An hour and a half into the presentation, at the first break, I approached my mission, patted him on the shoulder, and asked him, “Are you hanging in there? Do you even like being here in the slightest?”
He answered churlishly, and I’m paraphrasing: You know Dan, you bring up Chick-fil-A and other companies that are anti-gay and divisive and I take offense to that. So yeah, I’m having a hard time being here.
Despite feeling taken aback, I chose to respond in a calming tone; “All right, if you feel comfortable telling me that, then I feel comfortable enough to tell you I give hundreds of these presentations, to thousands of people and you're the first one to complain about my examples. So do you really think it's Chick-Fil-A or do you think it might have to do a with you?”
In a more phlegmatic fashion, he responded, “Fair enough.”
I invited him to step outside so we could talk privately, and said to him, “My goal today is to add value to you, and if I’m not adding value then maybe you can help me get better.”
Small talk ensued and we found commonalities on other topics. Once he felt like we were standing on common ground together, he confided in me, “You know Dan, you bring up a lot of good points about being present with my family, leading my kids with purpose, simply thanking my employees, but I feel like I’ve already blown it. I’m just not a people person.”
I said, “That may be true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change for you and those you love right now, from this day forward.”
From my vantage point, once he felt his thoughts and concerns were legitimately listened to and understood, that created space for him to really open up, gain value, in turn take away value from our conversation, and then empowered him to give value to others in his life.
We resumed for the second part of my talk and he was a different person. He was engaged, he contributed to the conversation, and acted positively toward everyone else in the room.
There are two living leadership lessons in this anecdote:
First, often when we are in leadership positions, we can often fall into the trap of thinking it's my way or the highway. However, to be a true leader, instead of just holding a leadership title, you have to sell the vision to people and bring everyone along in the process.
To bring people along in the process, you have to meet people where they are, instead of expecting them to be where you are. Meet them on common ground so you can learn what is important to them, and in turn sell them the vision based on their personal interests.
This guy’s real frustration was his own lack of confidence in his ability to put positive leadership in practice. He told me, “I have years of failure at this behind me, I don’t know that I can change.” I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn that about him, if I settled for expecting him to be where I was, instead of meeting him where he was.
As a leader, do not give up on good people. Engage them to find common ground.
President Reagan was the master at finding common ground. You could disagree with him on ten issues and he’d search to find an eleventh issue to unite with you.
Second takeaway, it's never too late to get to the next best version of yourself. You only have from this day forward. Don’t beat yourself up about the past, use the past to create a better today, and propel you toward an even better tomorrow.
Engage people to find common ground and know it is never too late - this is legacy leadership in earnest.
P.S. You can learn more ways to meet people on common ground from my book, Lead Like Reagan.