Reading people...Leading People.

“If you can’t read people, you can’t lead people.”

I awoke this morning (a lazy, late awakening) with this thought on my mind. As I’ve given it more consideration, some things have surfaced that strike at the heart of why I think it would be bouncing around in my subconscious.

A good many of my thoughts emerge from a state of dreaming, both day-dreaming and night-dreaming. When I’m suspended in between worlds, my brain waves tend to be less taut and twisted, free to move about with full range of motion. The thoughts aren’t profound, more than not they are simple straightforward no-nonsense observations of the obvious. Things that are right in front of my face and yet inaccessible to the hurried heart. I find myself oblivious to the obvious on most days. I’m dragging around so many preconceptions and predispositions that I’m largely unaware of truth in its most undiluted form. I’m looking for life to say what I already believe, or truer still, I’m looking at life to find validation for my chosen stances and standards. This makes it easy to miss what life is actually saying. That’s why dreams often stir things to the surface that are most true. That’s not to say that my dreams aren’t often zany and abstract, they are, but I can tell the difference between fact and fiction in the first 15 seconds when I wake up. Nonsense tends to evaporate like the morning dew, but truth lingers like a spring fed puddle. And it is truth I’m most interested in.

So this morning when I pondered this idea of “reading people” being so integral in “leading people”, I felt my heart attach to it like a tick.

When I think of reading people, I think of being able to see beneath their skin and beyond the sounds their mouth is making as they talk to me. I think of the ability to pick up on non-verbal queues that are soundlessly speaking volumes about their present state of being, state of mind. I think of looking into their eyes and seeing what makes their pupils dilate with delight or contract with caution. I think of someone who is able to read between the lines of what someone is saying in order to get to the heart of what they are really trying to say. I think of watching others interact with people around them to see their triggers and defaults, their evasive avoidances and their knee-jerk propensities. I think of someone who is able to ask questions that don’t seem obvious to anyone else, but are, to him or her, glaringly obvious. A person that is good at reading people hears often, “That’s a really good question” or “I thought you’d never ask”.

“The thoughts of a man’s heart are like deep waters, and a man of understanding draws them out.” This is found in the Bible in the book of Proverbs. It is a piece of wisdom that speaks of something deeper than reading people based on face value alone. A man of understanding is able to read people and work toward drawing out the feelings under the face, the desires behind the declarations. They aren’t distracted by diversions. Like hounds, they pick up a scent and they follow it to its source. This idea of reading people is more of a scent than a sight. More of a sense than a sensibility. And I’m not sure it can be taught, that’s the problem. It’s caught by being around other people who have this horse-sense, horse-whispering gift to move beyond the surface into the substance.

Leading people is directly connected to the art of reading people. You can’t effectively lead someone when you have no idea how to pick up on non-verbals. And just because they’re called non-verbals doesn’t mean it’s not a language, cause it is. Leaders must be fluent in what is called “body language”. From movements to vocal tones to strategic pauses to stuttered hesitations…these elements of body language demand a certain level of mastery or you will hit a leadership lid at some point.

I think I’ve hit “leadership lids” along the way and it typically happens when I’m getting lazy in the “people” department. I’m defaulting towards lists, ideas, programs, responsibilities and one-way-streeted communication (I’m dishing out the directives and expecting others to carry out the duties). One-way streets are easier to navigate, but they don’t empower others to give feedback and pushback. It is lazy leadership that doesn’t want to be bothered by people. When I get lazy, I bypass reading people and move abruptly to leading them. They sense this in time, and it isn’t long before they pick of on my emotional illiteracy as a leader rendering my leadership unfit. This disqualification happens frequently and the leader wonders what happened. They evaluate themselves based on the job description and they’re fulfilling their duties with flying colors, so what gives? Why the team-tension? Why the mass-mutiny? Whatever could be the reason from this treason?

I believe it is the unwritten leadership qualification of “Reading People”.

When this unspoken law of leadership is broken, people disband. They gravitate to another place or another person. They move about looking for someone who can “take their ideas into consideration”. They are looking for someone who listens carefully and responds with clarity. They want someone who assesses the lay of the land on the factory floor. They are pining for someone who swaps shoes with them and then speaks on their behalf. They don’t know how to articulate this desire, but I think if they could put it into words it would sound something like this, “I just want to be led by someone who I can read and who can read me.”

That’s the flip side of “reading people”. You’ll probably notice that the same person who struggles to read others has a fear of letting others read them. When you’re trying to follow a leader that doesn’t advance with transparent candor and confident vulnerability, you never know where you stand. You’re always second-guessing them and yourself. Systems fail and infrastructures collapse when the leader is leery to open himself up like a book to be read by his followers. When a leader holds his cards close to his chest, his team will do the same. It’s almost a law of nature. People will always follow suit before they follow assignments.

Reading people is essential to leading people.

People will always be led by the leader who can be read.

Just a couple thoughts on my vacation. I love to chase after ideas that come to me by night.


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