Leadership 101: Show, Don't tell
by W. THOMAS SMITH, JR.
July 27, 2012
We writers have a saying, "Show, Don't tell." In other words, we shouldn't tell our readers something is "good." We should describe the goodness. Rather than telling the reader that a woman is beautiful; we describe her attributes in such a way that the reader sees just how beautiful she really is.
Show-Don't-tell works the same with leaders and subordinates. As leaders we shouldn't simply tell our subordinates they're doing good work. We should show them. DEMONSTRATE to them our appreciation for their good work. How? It's up to us individually, and it depends largely on the circumstances. But if we are not demonstrating - and demonstrating regularly - our subordinates are either failing to perform, or we're falling short as leaders. Perhaps both.
IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH
Keep in mind, demonstrating our appreciation for a job well done does not require a lot. In fact, there's a fine line between showing and telling. And it's best to operate close to that fine-line so as not to spoil our charges with too much on the front end.
You wouldn't award the Navy Cross to a sailor or Marine just because he had completed a task on time. Nor would you award top-tier medals to every rifleman in a platoon just because every rifleman is doing his job (though we do live in the age when every kid gets a trophy for simply participating in a sport). Lofty medals should be reserved for those who go far above-and-beyond their everyday jobs, else the awarding dilutes the value and salutary prestige of the medal itself.
But there are myriad simple yet substantive ways to recognize individual achievement and demonstrate sincere appreciation for that achievement whether in the military, in business, or any other endeavor where there are leaders, followers, goals, and measures of performance. And it doesn't require a lot of effort or creative thought. Again, it's up to us individually to determine how, but it may be something as simple as making a surprise phone-call or scheduling an out-of-the-way visit for the singular reason of saying, "Thank you for doing what no one else could have. You're vital to this organization, and I will not forget what you've done."
The "thanks" must be recognizably sincere. You don't want your "thank you" to be "hollow flattery" or "thanks as an aside." And you never want to "damn" your subordinates "with faint praise."
I know a guy, a rather gregarious sort, who - every time he sees me - shouts, "Tom, the world's greatest writer and my absolute favorite." He then proceeds to boast to everyone else in the room what an "amazingly talented scribe" I am. Problem is, I'm only his favorite as long as I'm the only writer in the room, because as soon as another of his writer-friends comes within his presence, they suddenly become "the world's greatest writer" and his "absolute favorite."
Hollow flattery is cute and marginally polite the first go-‘round, but absolutely worthless, insincere, and borderline boorish the fifth or sixth time.
THANKS AS AN ASIDE
Thanks-as-an-aside is nothing more than "thank you" as an afterthought.
For example, if you - as a leader - are pouring additional responsibilities onto one of your best-performing subordinates, and while pouring you add, "By the way, good work on the project"; well, that compliment may well-be drowned in the sea of responsibilities being poured. Moreover, thanks-as-an-aside smacks of hollow flattery or worse, damning with faint praise.
DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE
We've all been damned with faint praise. It goes something like, "Yeah, I suppose you make a pretty good cake, but the chocolate is too sweet." And this after the person who baked the cake just spent the previous 12 hours baking and decorating a zillion cakes for a charity event.
Then there is the "Well, at least you tried." Or "Hey pal, I appreciate what you're doing. Now let's get to work."
The truth of it is this type of "thanks" - if we can call it that - has no value other than to subtly mask the declarer's condemnation of another.
There are all sorts of clever ways to demonstrate sincere appreciation at the basic level.
Again, you as the leader must determine how to "show" thanks, and it may be something as simple as a surprise phone-call or an out-of-the-way visit. Depending on who or what it's for, a true "thank you" might be as easy and effective as a sincere smile, a handshake, and 60-seconds of truly affirming, articulated gratitude. It might be a special note, a card, a thoughtfully worded email, a little book, a small yet unique memento of either the effort in which the achiever was involved or one of your (the leader's) personal belongings.
I brought back a rock from Iraq in 2007 and gave it to a highly decorated retired Marine colonel who - when he was a young captain - fought in the 1968 Battle of Hue, Vietnam. I told him I picked up the rock in the Iraqi city of Fallujah where Marines fought and won a great urban battle in 2004 and were victorious - in large measure - because of lessons learned 36-years-earlier in Hue. The man nearly wept. And it was just a rock.
Other ideas include inviting the achiever to a special meeting with other leaders (so you can "show them off"), a simple giving of the leader's time (lunch, coffee, or dinner) or - if the achiever is a woman - all of the above and perhaps flowers or an appropriately decorated cupcake. As you can see, the possibilities are endless and limited only by the leader's creativity and knowledge of what matters most to the individual to be thanked.
It doesn't take much as long as we remember to never pass off hollow flattery or thanks-as-an-aside as real thanks. And we must always remember to show, don't tell.
Stay with us. There's so much more, including more on Show-Don't-tell. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here. If you have questions or suggestions, I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. is director of the Counterterrorism Research Center of the Family Security Foundation. He is is an author, New York Times bestselling editor, columnist, war correspondent, military analyst, field-grade officer in the S.C. Military Dept., former SWAT team officer in the nuclear industry, and former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, Smith writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of six books, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, Townhall.com, The Washington Times, and others.