It was longer ago than I care to admit but, at the same time, it’s something I remember like it was yesterday. I was on “life support” in a calculus class that I had to take my freshman year of college and found myself in a one-on-one, after-school session with my professor. He had painstakingly reviewed the steps associated with solving the problem that presented itself on the chalk board (I told you it was a long time ago!). I stood there absolutely frozen. The equation on the board might as well have been in a foreign language (and in many respects it was!). The complete and utter silence in the room was deafening. And, then, my professor, who in all likelihood had to get home to his family, uttered the following words:
Don’t just stand there; make a mistake!
I remember smiling a nervous smile and taking a step, with chalk in hand, toward the board. I focused as hard as I could on the instructions he had just provided. I proceeded to make a number of mistakes (just as he had told me to do) and he proceeded to provide me with structured feedback on those missteps. Somewhere along the way, something “clicked.” He got to go home to dinner—and I somehow passed a calculus exam or two (and, in so doing, fulfilled my mathematics requirements and got over to the history and government building where I belonged!).
Now, first of all, I would like to thank you for indulging my personal “walk down memory lane.” I’d also like to suggest that each and every one of us, in some form or fashion, has been there and experienced that. We find ourselves in a set of circumstances where we are tasked with the responsibility to do something, and we have no idea in the world how to do it. No task-related knowledge, no relevant experience and most certainly no skill.
And, if we can agree that willingness to perform is a function of task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation, the challenge is easy to diagnose. We are scared! It’s not that we don’t want to succeed or that we aren’t committed to the task. It’s that we have no idea what we are doing, and we are afraid we are about to prove that fact beyond all reasonable doubt!
Switching gears a little, when you are in a situation that resembles the one described, what do you want? Given the reality that there is no way you can get out of this “thing,” and with all the potential consequences of your non-performance racing through your head, what (more than anything) do you seek, crave and welcome? I would suggest, in a word, the answer is: direction. You want somebody to give you the benefit of their experience. You want somebody to tell you what to do. And, quite often, you need somebody to say something to break the silence in the room and, ultimately, communicate:
I can’t help you if you won’t take a step to help yourself. But, if you do, I guarantee you we’re going to figure this out!
In Situational Leadership® terms, the previous example is intended to serve as a testament to the power of a well-executed leadership style S1 (high task behavior and low relationship behavior). Leadership style S1 is a “short-term” influence strategy with one overriding objective: create movement. Predictably, when somebody “puts the chalk in their hand and actually starts trying to solve the equation on the board,” here’s what happens:
- Fear of failure gives way to commitment and motivation
- The leader can provide incremental feedback on both progress and setbacks (therefore becoming a catalyst for accelerated development)
- Reflect on your life/career and identify a time where you benefitted from a well-executed leadership style S1
- List, in specific terms, what the leader did and, perhaps more importantly, how they did it