Head Smooshing to Show You Care

Some people just aren't the feeling type. That doesn't mean they don't care. They just don't show their caring through their emotions. My son, Ian, for example, is not a touchyfeely little tyke. On the contrary, he's a rough-'n'-tumble boy, often with mud on his face and dirt on his feet, who tends to shy away from sentimental stuff. For example, one day when Ian was jumping on our backyard trampoline with his brother and sister, Alex and Bina, I called down from our deck to let them know I was going away on a business trip. I said, “I love you, kids!” Bina responded, “I love you too, Daddy!” Then Alex chimed in, “I love you too, Daddy!” Then Ian said, “I love your shirt, Dad!”
Like many people, Ian is uncomfortable showing his emotions, and that's perfectly fine. Unlike his brother and sister, Ian has never been one to come up and spontaneously kiss me on the cheek. However, sometimes he does slap both of my cheeks, pull my face toward his, grit his teeth, and smoosh his forehead into mine as hard as he can. I consider this his way of showing me that he cares.

The important thing is to show your caring heart in whatever way you can. Just make sure you check with HR before smooshing somebody's head.

Showing That You Care

Showing how much you care doesn't come easy for some leaders, especially the more introverted or analytical types. Keep it simple, and let your actions speak louder than your words. Don't just tell people you care about them, show them! Here are some real-life examples.

The owner of a Chicago-based highway construction business makes it a point to visit his night crews during the largest and worst snowstorms. Having come up through the ranks, he knows that crews respect you more when you show that you care about them, especially when it would be more convenient not to.

A partner at a law firm regularly takes starting lawyers out to lunch, but instead of taking them to a fancy restaurant downtown, he takes them to the downhome barbeque place by the railroad tracks next to a prison. Why? It loosens them up—you literally have to drape your necktie over your shoulder so it doesn't fall into the sloppy food! The lunches help the partner get to know his people in an informal way.

The CIO of a large office management company catches people off guard by beginning the annual strategic planning meeting in an unexpected way. He stands in front of the 12 executives and looks each one in the eye while telling them why he is grateful they are a member of his team. The CIO happens to be a painfully introverted technologist, so being this socially vulnerable is extremely uncomfortable. But he does it anyway. As he goes on, both he and his team well up with emotion. It's clear that he deeply cares about them.

The owner of a successful event management company takes her staff on a yearly “sanity” outing. Each outing is held at a different resort, which is chosen based on the quality of its spa. She makes sure her team is thoroughly and luxuriously pampered. Managing large-scale events is insanely demanding, and by taking care of her staff, she ensures that they will take care of her business (and customers).

Tough Like an M&M

One of my former bosses, Dick, wasn't some touchy-feely, bleeding heart organization-development wimp and he wasn't the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve. So it was hard to know whether he cared about me, or whether I should care about him.

After hanging up my Speedo and retiring from the U.S. High Diving Team, I got my first “real” job working for High Performing Systems, a leadership-development consulting firm based in Athens, Georgia. My boss, Dick Thompson, was a no-nonsense ex-military officer who had done two tours in Vietnam and had been decorated for heroism multiple times as a member of the elite Green Berets. While I greatly admired Dick, I was very intimidated by him. He was tough, quiet, and intense. He walked with an ironrod posture, talked in a concise and clipped manner, and could stare right through you when he was upset. Dick was a Southern Baptist who held a black belt in karate—which meant that I worked for someone who could literally kill me with his bare hands if he wanted to and believed that God would be on his side if he did.

One day Dick and I set out on a two-hour drive up to the mountains of north Georgia. We were going to lead a threeday adventure-based leadership-development program with an international forest resource company. Dick and I would be co-facilitating, and much of the training event would be spent wearing army fatigues. I was thrilled at
the prospect of working side by side with someone who knew so much about leadership—not just from textbooks (Dick had a PhD in psychology), but from years spent in the trenches leading teams in do-or-die situations. It still bugged me, however, that I didn't have any sense of who he was behind his rigid exterior.

Then Dick did something that helped me see him in a totally different light. As he turned the ignition key, he turned to me and said, “Would you mind if I put on a little music for the drive?” Thinking that I was about to get a two-hour dose of old-timey gospel music, I answered unenthusiastically, “Fine with me.” Then to my pleasant surprise, the screeching guitar notes of Creedence Clearwater Revival's famous Vietnam War song, “Run Through the Jungle,” came pelting through the car speakers. With that, Dick hit the gas pedal, leaving a small patch of rubber on the pavement.

For the next two hours, with John Fogerty singing in the background, Dick and I talked about his days in the battlefield fighting the Viet Cong. He opened up to me, sharing stories about what it was like to be a member of the Special Forces. I learned that he had spent much of his time in covert operations behind enemy lines. He talked about what leadership meant to him and how his Vietnam experience had influenced and shaped those ideas. He told me what it felt like to be responsible for people's lives, not in some abstract way, but literally. Dick talked about the strong bonds that formed when he and his teammates
faced firefights together, and how the pain would linger for weeks after a teammate was killed. The more we talked, the more open Dick got; and the more he revealed to me, the more I appreciated him as a human being and not just as my boss.

Dick Thompson was like many proud leaders. Like an M&M candy, they're hard and crusty on the outside but sweet and soft on the inside. Sure, he was intense and a little hard to get to know, but once he opened up, you learned that he was honest, decent, and good to the core. Most people are, it just takes getting to know them to see their inherent goodness. Dick wasn't just my boss; he was a human being who had had some hard and amazing life experiences. He was someone I could admire, learn from, and listen to rock 'n' roll with.

Opening Yourself

When relationships become more personal, people usually care more. For a leader, that caring comes with a risk. When you care about people, you become more sensitive to their needs and their interests and opinions become harder to dismiss or ignore. Real relationships are obliging. Some leaders fear that by caring for others, they'll lose objectivity or independence and be taken advantage of in the process. These risks do exist, but the danger is greater if a leader is remote, aloof, and rigid. When you're as accessible as a stone obelisk, your people will secretly wish for your
failure. Conversely, when people care about you as a leader, they'll strive harder to help you succeed. Regardless of the reservations you may have, you can't be an open-door leader without opening up to your people. I've listed a few simple starting points below and you can find more in the Actions and Reflections section at the end of the chapter.

• Get out of your office. Don't cloister, walk the halls, and dedicate a few hours each day to not looking at a screen of any sort.

• Smile more. People won't approach you if you're a perpetual grump.

• Set up and post a LinkedIn profile so people can view your educational background and career history if they want to.

• Display a few pictures from your life outside work and/or your family.

• If your company sponsors a softball league or folks get together for trivia night, join in the fun. Participating in casual activities should help defrost you.

• Use these words liberally and sincerely: “thank you.”

Do these things even if you're uncomfortable. Strike that. Do them especially if you're uncomfortable. Remember that doing uncomfortable things is how you grow.

Open-Door Actions and Reflections

1. Refl on the core question, “Do you care about me?”

2. Do you think your boss does or doesn't care about you? Why?
Now think about the people working for you.

• Do you honestly care about them?

• How do you think they would answer that question?

• What evidence would they provide?

3. Are there some employees that you care about more than others?

• Why?

• What would have to happen for you to take a greater interest in the people you care about the least?

4. Think of a leader you've worked for who was hard to get to know at first.

• What happened that eventually helped you see the leader differently?

• Before getting to know him or her, did you think the leader cared about you?

• How about after getting to know him or her?

5. How much of your non-work identity do you reveal to the people you lead?

• What are the benefits of being more open with them?

• What would it take for you to let them see the “real” you?

6. Put yourself, and later your team, through a personality survey like the MBTI or DiSC profi . Understand what makes you tick . . . and what ticks you off. 7. Have a “Bring an Object to Work Day.”

• Get each team member, including yourself, to bring an object from home that best reflects “what you're all about.”

8. Start checking in with people, not on them.

• Ask, “How are you doing?” not “How is the project coming along?”

• Show them that you care about them beyond what they're getting done for you.

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