Leadership: Show, Don’t Tell

Terri Davis magazine

Somehow there exists this idea that leadership is about telling other people what to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Great leaders can motivate with their words, no doubt. There are easy examples that come to mind, from Michelle Obama to Vince Lombardi. Take your pick. We all have our idols and favorites. But do we idolize and favor them so much for what they say, or do we actually love them because of what they do, and what they do with the words they choose?

When I coach business leaders and people climbing in their career and looking for direction, there is a lot of two-way communicating going on. We talk a lot about aspirations, how they feel about where they are today, why they might feel stuck or unsure of what to do next. It’s a process. But a big part of that process is also showing the way, not just describing the path to their goals, whatever they may be. Mostly people come to me not sure of the next leg of the journey. Some of these people are long-time high achievers, who feel unsatisfied. Sometimes these are people starting their careers who lack the knowledge to know what the options are. After all of the conversations, and all of the advice I give based on my experience, I still feel the most valuable thing I do and achieve for anyone is to show them the way to the next step. Telling someone how to do something is so much less impactful to that person than showing them the way. How do I do that?

First, I really listen to the words, and not just the words, but the feelings behind them. I have become good at reading between the lines of what people mean when they say certain things. I dig in. I ask further questions about what’s really important to them, what they feel they’re missing, and what they really want to achieve for themselves. I take all of that away and develop a plan for them; it’s not a plan on paper, it’s not even a map of directions. It’s me finding ways to help facilitate their goals and help them actually achieve the satisfaction or the direction they lack on their own. I walk the journey with them, from signpost to signpost. We test the weather together. We walk through the rain and enjoy the sunlight together, so to speak, in walking by steps into a new future. It’s difficult for people to make any decision alone. Being an ear, an experienced voice, a person who has been there herself, I don’t ever simply give “advice”, because who am I to condescend to anyone about their life. But I do try to give myself as an example to people I coach, as someone who knows what it’s like to struggle for answers, who also keeps learning, who also has hopes and dreams and fears. I create a safe place for deep conversations, and I inspire, at least I hope and try to inspire this way, through my own actions and my own way of working and being in the world, which has also been a work in progress. Just like everyone else.

Ultimately, leadership to me is showing rather than telling. When Vince Lombardi brandished his newspaper roll under a fedora to inspire his team with words, his words were actually the underpinning, the text, of his actions and the inspiring way he led. Michelle Obama, exactly the same. We admire and love her not just for what she says, but more importantly, for how she acts, and how she involves us in the journey towards being our best.

In leadership, show, don’t tell, is my motto. It’s the best way to pass knowledge that sticks. Be true. Don’t just say it. Be ethical. Don’t just use the words. Words are words. How you are tells the story. Show, don’t tell.

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