On Tattoos and Leadership – Part 3

Welcome to the third and final installation of On Tattoos and Leadership. I’ve been pondering the possible ties between my love of ink and my love of leadership and professional life. Part 1 addressed the need to resist stereotypes. Part 2 tackled the need for balance between short-term and long-term decision-making. What have I learned through this creative mental exercise? Only that I can’t wait to get my next tat! Seriously, it has reinforced my belief that life lessons are all around us. Learning moments can be found in nearly any daily activity. I’m looking at tattoos. You can look at your child’s kindergarten play. The neighbor cutting the grass. Whatever. If you look with the intent to learn, you will.

For this final post, I wish to address a crucial aspect of tattoo culture with strong parallels to professional life. People with tattoos not only love their own ink, but they love others’ ink as well. One common challenge at work is getting folks focused more on the team and less on themselves. Yes, we all have to self-promote and take care of managing our careers effectively, and leaders can be helpful in this regard as coaches and mentors. However, it is even more important for leaders to help people understand the importance of putting the team first. Teams with members who understand this tend to have much better chemistry. Believe it or not, great chemistry typically trumps great talent.

The tattoo community understands this reality. Whether at a tattoo parlor, music festival, at work, or at the grocery store it is not uncommon for strangers to stop and ask about visible ink. However, they don’t think of themselves as strangers. Nine out of ten folks who want to take a closer look are also a part of the tattoo community. It’s a very real connection as if we’re all part of the same tribe.

In the tattoo community, ink is our common thread. At work, one great tactic for leaders seeking to build better culture and chemistry is to find that common thread and use it. Unfortunately, too many leaders spend too much time simply projecting themselves onto others, thus they don’t look at the team as unique individuals and they don’t see the potentially useful common thread that is often right in front of their eyes.

The most interesting example of this I have encountered professionally involved one of my MBA students at Wright State University. We were in class one evening discussing employee motivation and engagement. There was an energetic give and take between the students and I, until one particular student raised his hand.

His name was Dave. Dave was a newly minted executive for a large well-respected technology-related company. He was old school and liked to politely raise his hand. I called on him and we all listen carefully because Dave was known for making great contributions to our discussions. He told the class that he agreed with the ideas and tactics I have been discussing in class, but that he wanted them to be sensitive to the difference between hearing ideas in a classroom and correctly using them in practice. He then shared with us a great story.

Dave said he recently survived an embarrassing learning moment. He was a new executive appointed to lead twenty middle managers. This was his biggest role to date and he wanted to make it a success. He understood the power of saying thank you, of being supportive, and of providing feedback. He knew he needed to make a good impression as the group’s new leader. So he waited, he told my class, until the right time arrived.

Many weeks later after several significant project milestones had passed successfully and his group of managers deserved a heap of praise, he went into action. He called an ad hoc huddle and gathered his entire team. He thanked them for their hard work, praised their recent accomplishments, and then invited all of them to happy hour to celebrate. Two days later, at the designated bar, half of the team showed up for happy hour. This baffled him. Why wasn’t attendance higher? He then received feedback from a confidant on the team, a person with whom he had worked in the past. He learned that most who did show did so in an effort not to “lose points” back in the office in the eyes of the boss.

Wow. Dave reported to my class he had done something with positive intensions, but inadvertently created a negative outcome. He never thought about the fact that some people don’t drink and that some might feel social pressure to attend because the invitation came from a superior.

Dave told us he was embarrassed and became motivated to step up his game and show the team how much he really appreciated their efforts. Many more weeks passed and eventually a lot of great work started to pile up. Dave saw his moment. He once again gathered the troops in a big huddle, thanked them very genuinely, and then announced that he was taking the whole group…canoeing! You could hear a pin drop.

Dave went ahead with the trip. The same half who showed up to happy hour went on the weekend canoeing trip. The same confidant gave Dave the same feedback. He’d done the same thing twice, but now on a much bigger level. Dave told my class that evening that he felt stupid and disconnected for the first time in his professional life. He went back to the office unable to look people in the face.

Days passed and suddenly out of nowhere, the truth hit him. Dave admitted to his classmates that night that he had merely been projecting himself onto his direct reports. He professed to like drinking. He said that he loved to go canoeing. Sometimes, he admitted, he might even do a little drinking while canoeing. The students laughed. His breakthrough was in understanding that those interests had nothing to do with his employees.

Once he had his epiphany, he began to see the members of his team differently. Literally. As he observed them at work, looking at them as unique interesting individuals, not as objects upon which he could project his interests, he saw something. It startled him and made him laugh. It was right there the whole time. Every member of his team, in his or her workspace, had a very clear indication, that they were a huge fan (wait for it….) of professional wrestling!

My student Dave admitted to the class that he thought professional wrestling was the most ridiculous thing mankind had ever created. He also told us that he understood how important it was to his team. It was the shared thread. They all had at least one object at work that had something to do with professional wrestling: a mouse pad, a screen saver, a figurine, a bobble head, a poster, etc. Dave had found the common social thread. It was about them, not him.

Weeks later when the group had genuine milestones worth celebrating, Dave called the huddle. The managers gathered around and hung their heads, wondering what torture Dave was about to suggest this time. He briefly thanked them for the continued good work. Then Dave smiled and lifted a bunch of tickets high in the air. Tickets to the freak show.

The next weekend Dave went with his employees to see the men in tights. This time, the entire group showed up. Dave described how they treated him differently that evening. They looked him in the eye. They called him by his first name. They punched him in the arm as if he were just one of the crew. In essence, for the first time, he was a member of the team. He could tell they still knew and respected that he was their boss, but he was also now a full member of the team.

Strong leadership is very important, but to create great teams, leaders have to get over themselves and elevate the team. Members of the tattoo community naturally understand this. Your personal ink might rock, but the fact that you have people with whom you share that passion matters much more. At work it is no different. You might be the most interesting person in the world, but as a leader you will never be a real part of the team until you find and celebrate some of your team members’ shared personal and professional interests. It might be ink. It might be professional wrestling. It might be something else. Get over yourself, truly open your eyes, and see what you can find.

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