How Leaders Hold Their Tongues To Become More Influential
This is a story about leadership, strength, and emotional intelligence.
It's also about a big issue many prominent leaders are making: letting their internal emotions dictate acts and decisions without realizing how they're undermining their power in the work and relationships process.
I call this phenomenon American Airlines Way, but that's not because people on American Airlines are particularly vulnerable to this bug.
Instead, it was Doug Parker, the outgoing CEO of American Airlines, who gave the simplest explanation for the problem I've ever seen (along with how to avoid it).
Do not change the priority.
Parker gave an interview just before the pandemic in which he explained what it would be like for him to fly with his airline as CEO. Among his points:
First, besides traveling for transportation, as we all do, Parker flies to keep his eyes open and to see what's going on in the company he's led for so many years.
Second, it turns out that Parker flies pretty much in stealth because while he goes to "Doug," that's his middle name. He wrote " William Parker " on his boarding pass, credit card, and ID, "William Parker" so employees might not recognize him.
Third, and this is the real takeaway, Parker said he's learned to stick his tongue out when he's at airports or on a plane and see that airline operations aren't working correctly.
Here's why, as he told Micheline Maynard on The Points Guy:
“You don’t want to change the priority of something that wasn’t a priority. You want to be careful people don’t leave what they’re doing so they can take care of something you’ve noticed.”
I don't know when Parker came to this realization so early in his career, but I think it's a good time, especially given that he's stepping down as CEO later this month.
This applies to almost any leader, industry, or relationship. It explains two fundamental principles of emotional intelligence when it comes to business:
Be careful not to let emotional reactions dictate your practical (as opposed to logical, thoughtful) reactions.
Be aware of the emotional messages you may convey to the people you lead (whether intended or not), along with your actual and actionable guidance.
Here, we have a situation that has a double effect, in which making quick suggestions based on emotional reactions also creates an additional emotional response in other people.
The mere fact that the CEO asked them to do something makes it all the more important.
Watch the border
Let's illustrate this with another example from history — one that's a bit outdated, but you might find it funny. It's about J. Edgar Hoover, who was the Director of the FBI for nearly 50 years during the 20th century.
An agent once wrote a memo to the Director about an investigation, as the story goes. Hoover returned it to him with a handwritten note across the top: "Pay attention to the boundary!"
Instead of asking for more instructions (Hoover was intimidated), the agent made an intelligent guess about what the Director meant and shifted other FBI agents to the international border with Mexico and Canada.
Someone later realized what Hoover meant: his note had nothing to do with international borders; He was annoyed that the agent had used very narrow margins ("boundaries") in the memo.
"The chief was just here…."
Another general example is that you don't need to run an airline or a big government investigative force to enforce this act.
Imagine that you are the CEO of a small factory, and your strategic assessment has consistently been that quality control should be priority #1.
But while you are on the ground, you notice that the pace of production is lagging. You feel anxious or embarrassed, or maybe you want to inspire people and be seen as a good boss. So you offer encouragement and challenge:
“If we can create X tools by the end of this transformation, everyone will get a bonus.”
The team is excited and working a little faster. But, look at what you've done: You've introduced a competitor's "most important thing" to your operation, and you've done it unconventionally.
Your employees now hear:
Yes, quality control is the top priority.
Except for when the manager comes here and decides that speed is more important.
Perhaps doing this now and then won't have much effect, but imagine the cumulative effect if you get used to it.
"The manager wanted to know why there were so many people standing on the factory floor."
"I wondered why the break room was so messy."
"He stated that our travel expenses were up 10 percent compared to last month."
You are more likely to create unintended priorities if you show great emotion in the process.
“The chief was here, and he wanted to know why so many people were standing around him, and he brought this up.”
"If everything is a priority…."
It doesn't mean that you can only have one priority or move it. It's a fact that you probably have to manage many competing demands.
Doing "American Airlines Way" (I guess we can call it "J Edgar Hoover Way," but now I'm sure how many readers will remember his identity) means thinking first before making these kinds of statements.
We've spent a lot of time examining emotional intelligence and leadership, and it's true. If you can learn how to tap into both your feelings and the emotions of those around you to increase the likelihood of achieving your end goals, that's probably a good thing.
If you emotionally react to each problem, your feelings will indicate its urgency. And if you report that everything is a priority, then, in the end, nothing will be a priority.