In the Columbia program, our first professor (and founder of the program), Art Langer, spoke in the fall about the ingredients of being a leader. One of the things he emphasized was the importance of “being impressive”. It’s easy to dismiss that – it seems subjective and difficult to control.
But I was sitting in class last week and realized that there were certain classmates of mine who I always paid attention to – if they were making a comment in class, I wanted to hear it. There are other classmates who don’t demand my attention in the same way. And what’s interesting to me is that I suspect that if I did a survey of my classmates, most of us would pick the same few people as being the ones whose comments are found useful; in other words, the ones who are impressive.
So what goes into being impressive? Part of it is the general demeanor of quiet confidence. Confidence is obvious, as if one doesn’t believe in the value of what one is saying, it’s definitely not impressive. But the quiet part is important as well. The ones who really impress me are quiet most of the time, observing the conversation, but when they decide to join in, they have something significant to contribute, which makes me hang on their words. If they spoke all the time, the perceived import of their contributions would be lessened.
Experience also helps. It’s easier to be credible if one has had first-hand experience with the topic of discussion. I can blather on all day about a topic, but as soon as somebody says “well, when I was doing that…”, people pay attention. The people whose comments I find impressive in class are the ones that have clearly thought through the issue and considered the various options. They have often figured out how to apply the concept in their own life, and can speak from that basis. We can tell when somebody is just throwing an idea out there to hear themselves speak versus when they are sharing hard-earned experience.
So the obvious next question is if these are the ingredients of being impressive, how can I be impressive? Let’s tackle the second characteristic first. Phil Agre describes the process of becoming a leader in your field, which involves picking a focus and becoming the locus of communication for it. Jofish has the theory of serial expertise, wherein one picks areas where one can quickly become an expert. Until one has that solid base of knowledge, it’s difficult to have the confidence to speak authoritatively.
As an aside, this is one of the advantages of being a generalist. If everybody else is expert in one field, and you are merely competent in many, your expertise will exceed theirs in most areas. Of course, when you run into a real expert, your bluff will be called (I was talking about art with a liberal arts major last year and was almost keeping up my end of the conversation until the point where she stopped and said “Oh, wait, you know way less about this than I thought”. Ow). But the rest of the time, “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, as they say.
The quiet confidence is harder to cultivate. There is definitely a need for social awareness. It does matter how one is perceived. People that realize that their comments reflect on themselves and their reputation are necessarily more reflective and circumspect. They will be reserved and will only speak when they have something valuable to contribute. This is a skill I’m obviously still developing, as I spent too many years defiantly not caring how I was perceived. Unsurprisingly, the image others had of me was negative (complainer, troublemaker, etc.). Now I’m realizing the value of keeping my mouth shut and of waiting until I have something to contribute, to not complain about problems unless I also offer solutions.
It’s a tricky balance. Caring too much about what others think turns one into a sycophant. So there’s the tension between asserting one’s own expertise and bragging, between being aware of others’ opinions and being controlled by them. There’s a line to be walked, and the ones that manage it truly do stand out as impressive. And they’re the kind of people that I would line up to follow.
P.S. Speaking of following compelling leaders, a coworker and I had a disagreement, so I’m throwing it out to the blogosphere. Should one call one’s employees minions or acolytes?
P.P.S. Posting this way too early in the morning because nehrlich.com was down last night when I wrote this.