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How to Get What You Want By Paying Attention to Subtle Clues

What differentiates the great CEOs of the future from the good CEOs of the past? They pay more attention to context than content.

All leadership is a conversation. All conversation has content and context. Content is “what” we’re talking about. Context is “how” we’re talking about it.

When you’re reviewing next year’s budget with your executive team, you’re having a conversation. The content of the conversation is revenue and expenses. “Good” CEOs pay attention to the content. In many cases they are content experts, often the smartest person in the room and all too often wanting to prove it.

“A problem cannot be resolved from the consciousness from which it was created.”

“Great” CEOs pay attention to context. They’re always noticing how we are having the conversation. Are we having the conversation from:

  • Curiosity or defensiveness
  • Wanting to listen, learn and grow or wanting to defend our egos and prove we’re right
  • Claiming responsibility or placing blame
  • Openness and candor or from withholding and manipulating

Mike Riordan, the CEO of the Greenville Health System in South Carolina is one such CEO. Many times in meetings I’ve seen Mike ask his senior leadership team, “How are we having this conversation?” This question invites leaders to step away from content for a moment and identify their context. More importantly, I’ve often seen Mike identify his own context and take ownership for being defensive rather than curious.  What this looks like is a simple pause during a meeting followed by Mike saying something like, “I can tell I’m triggered and I’ve stopped listening. I want to shift and come back to listening and curiosity.”

GHS identifies their purpose as the transformation of healthcare and Mike knows that being clear about context is crucial to that transformation.

Our shorthand for context is “above or below the line.” When we’re above the line we’re open, curious and committed to learning. When we’re below the line we’re closed, defensive and committed to proving we’re right.

Conscious CEOs pay more attention to context because context, in the long run, determines how innovative, creative, effective and collaborative we and our teams can be. When we’re below the line, we are having a conversation based in fear or threat; when we’re above the line, we’re having a conversation based in trust. Threat and fear can produce short-term results, but leave a toxic residue in the culture long-term.

What we have observed over and over again is that when leaders have a conversation from below the line, issues don’t ultimately get resolved. They recycle. This recycling of issues is a major loss of time, money and energy. CEOs unconsciously try to address this recycling by doubling down on content. Conscious CEOs back away from content and address context.

Uzi Yemen, the CEO of Delek US, a publicly traded diversified downstream energy company with operations in three primary business segments: petroleum refining, logistics and convenience store retailing, regularly points out to his team when issues are recycling; and when he does, he owns that he personally is below the line and asks whether they might be as well. Just noticing context has become an integral part of Uzi’s leadership tool kit.

Conscious CEOs identify when they, and others, are below the line. They understand that this reactivity is coming from insecurity and threat and they invite themselves and others to shift.  Often, they simply ask that people pause and take a breath because whenever we’re functioning below the line, we’re often not breathing well and are amped up on adrenaline. They address context directly and invite people to value listening over speaking, learning over being right, being open over concealing facts, feelings and personal agendas. They, of course, model or lead the shift they are asking others to make.

It’s quite amazing to observe how often content resolves itself when context is shifted. Einstein knew this when he said, “A problem cannot be resolved from the consciousness from which it was created.” Shift the consciousness (context) and the problem resolves.


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