Overcoming organizational sluggishness: How to move your teams in a ‘hurry-up’ world

Dr. Earl WalkerBy Earl Walker

How many times have you found yourself leading a group of people assigned to perform a clearly defined task, yet all you hear around the table is complaining or, even worse, silence? And to make matters worse, nobody seems to want to come up with new ideas or solve problems presented by the assignment.

The solution to these challenges lies in recognizing that good leaders are good listeners. Their role is to find a common purpose for the enterprise and then get others to sign on to solve daily problems as well as long-term challenges. To get buy-in for tasks that need to be accomplished, leaders must understand what motivates employees.

Understanding grows out of listening. But how do you listen in a “hurry-up” world? Good leaders unlock the door to success by using three keys: observation, encouragement and reflection.

– Observation. When a leader observes his group, he must watch for feelings and content. Only by understanding both can you really understand other people. Watch for feelings by following body language—facial expressions, the eyes, the use of hands and posture.

For example, a person whose eyes connect with the leader and others, whose arms are open and not crossed, whose hand gestures are involving, and whose posture is leaning forward in the chair is probably fully engaged and appreciative of the ideas presented. Those who sit quietly with crossed arms, who are expressionless with eyes that don’t connect with the leader, or who sit back slumped in their chairs, are indicating that they are not comfortable or not interested.

Listening for content is equally challenging. Too often, leaders spend time thinking of what they will say next instead of hearing what others say. One way to deal with this problem is to summarize what others are saying on a flipchart or a sheet of paper. This forces you to focus and listen.

– Encouragement. Use encouragement to draw in indifferent or dissatisfied members of the team. Listen to all ideas and comments appreciatively; too often leaders respond to critical comments in a way that that others may misinterpret.

A good leader responds to criticism by asking for clarification: “I need help understanding what you are saying. What I thought I heard was….” If you begin with the assumption that the other person’s comments are meant to be helpful and respond appreciatively, others members of the group will take your cue and respond with similar respect.

A leader can also offer encouragement through non-verbal behavior—eye contact, smiles and reinforcing phrases. Such gestures go a long way toward helping others engage in the conversation and make valuable contributions to the discussion.

The use of reinforcing phrases such as “good idea” and “I like that thought” encourages team members to contribute and build on each other’s ideas.

– Reflection. After the meeting, leaders review the meeting’s successes and the motivations and goals of the other group members.

Several years ago, I served as leader of the Higher Education Committee in San Antonio. I often reflected on what drove others to get involved and asked myself how I could work more effectively with them.

One thing I learned was the importance of orchestrating the structure of meetings. Reflection taught me that members of volunteer organizations as well as employees in businesses need social time before and after a meeting. Camaraderie is one of the benefits of contributing to a group effort.

Organizations are sluggish “critters” and leaders in a “hurry-up” world find this frustrating.

Organizations that fail to develop and grow run the risk of going the way of K-Mart and much of the domestic textile and steel industries. Employees are the key to avoiding failure. All leaders need to learn and practice good listening skills to help people get focused and get moving on the tasks at hand.
Earl Walker is dean of business administration and Robert A. Jolley professor at The Citadel. He assists in curriculum development for the Leadership Program. He can be reached at earl.walker@citadel.edu.


Powerful Persuasion

Echoes of Aristotle in Martin Luther King’s famous letter

By Patricia McArver

Martin Luther King Jr.. (2014). The History Channel website. Retrieved 9:04, February 9, 2014, from http://www.history.com/photos/martin-luther-king-jr
Martin Luther King Jr.. (2014). The History Channel website. Retrieved 9:04, February 9, 2014, from http://www.history.com/photos/martin-luther-king-jr

Any list of American leaders who have changed history would have to include the man who awakened a generation to the realities of racial injustice.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his leadership of non-violent demonstrations in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet his most important lesson for future leaders lies in how he used words to inspire others to action.

A prime exhibit is his Letter from the Birmingham Jail – an epistle of nearly 7,000 words written in response to eight religious leaders who called for an end to demonstrations to open public facilities to Blacks. Dr. King penned the letter to the white leaders representing Jewish, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian faith communities.

While it may not have been intentional, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail is a classic example of Aristotle’s three elements of persuasion:

  • Logos – logic or reason
  • Ethos – character or credibility
  • Pathos – emotion.

Each of Aristotle’s persuasive elements is used to justify why he could not accept the leaders’ appeal to abandon the demonstrations.

Logos – the legitimacy of non-violent protests

Dr. King’s letter presents reasonable arguments for the demonstrations. He protested that he is not “an outsider” because, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), he was part of the Birmingham chapter that invited him to come.

The measured steps he listed reflect a deliberate and thoughtful process. First is investigation; the SCLC studied cases in Birmingham to see if cases of injustice existed. Second is negotiation with city fathers – an effort which he says resulted in broken promises.  Third is the step of self-purification in which members received training on how to passively respond to acts of hostility. Finally comes direct action designed to create a crisis that will inevitably lead to negotiation. He notes that demonstrations were delayed twice because he did not want them to become a distraction for the local elections, further underscoring his reasoned approach.

A second logical argument deals with fairness and alternatives. How, Dr. King asks, can officials violate the Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate to integrate public schools while demanding that minorities follow oppressive laws? If non-violent acts do not address racial segregation, he reasoned that Negros could turn to violence to redress their grievances, thereby creating the very outcome the religious leaders hoped to avoid.

Like a good debater, he bolsters his arguments with carefully chosen facts. He points to voter registration, where different standards apply to Blacks and Whites, noting that some Alabama counties have no registered black voters even though Negroes make up the majority of the population. Logic suggests the situations are inherently unfair.

Ethos – establishing credibility

One can gain credibility by establishing shared values – something Dr. King’s letter excelled at. He anchors his credibility in their shared bond of faith, beginning with his greeting of “My Fellow Clergymen,” and closing with “Yours in the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”

Dr. King further emphasizes their common ties by quoting historic figures the leaders undoubtedly admire: Jesus Christ, The Apostle Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln and Old Testament icons Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These references served as the foundation for Dr. King’s use of pathos, his most powerful weapon.

Pathos – the central issue of morality

The strongest persuasive appeals rely on emotion and Dr. King uses the universal concepts of justice and moral law to shame those who are supposed to be society’s moral leaders. He shines his light of inquiry on white moderates who conveniently look the other way. He points to the disrespect shown women who are wives and mothers, and the humiliation of grown men who are called Boy and compelled to use inferior facilities marked Colored. He questions those who fail to challenge the violent treatment that defenseless demonstrators received at the hands of police.

However, his strongest words take aim at the leaders’ failure to be accountable to moral laws and to God. He wonders how they can ignore unjust treatment in Birmingham while imagining that they certainly would have helped Jews persecuted by the Nazis. If these leaders ignore racial injustice, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history, Dr. King argues. Their churches will be reduced to irrelevant social clubs.

Dr. King’s final appeal to a higher power his most powerful point. He asks the leaders’ forgiveness if he has misrepresented the situation. But, he adds, if he shows, “a patience that will settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”

His ringing rhetoric demonstrates the far-reaching power a leader wields by using carefully chosen words. The Letter from the Birmingham Jail is worthwhile reading for anyone called to lead through change. Dr. King’s arguments – grounded in logic, character and emotion – constitute a persuasive punch. No doubt, Aristotle would agree.


ImagePatricia McArver is a Visiting Assistant Professor in The Citadel School of Business and serves as Interim Vice President of External Affairs for the college. She assisted Dr. William Sharbrough in developing the course Communication for Leadership in the MASS-L program offered by The Citadel.

The Citadel’s Core Values

The Citadel has long promoted its Core Values  and its vision of “Achieving excellence in the education and development of principled leaders.”  While helpful to students, these values can also be integral to life in any organization or career.   Business professionals, public service employees, counselors, educators, and military personnel can all benefit from incorporating these into their daily lives both at home and work.

The Citadel’s Leadership degree is specifically designed to create leaders for our communities that are capable of instilling these core values of honor, duty and respect into their everyday lives.  The value of Honor indicates a life-long obligation to moral and ethical behavior as well as integrity and the ability to “do the right thing”.

Duty refers to an individual’s primary obligation.  Whether this is school, work or family, individuals must be accountable for their actions and holding others accountable for theirs. Duty also refers to accepting consequences for your actions and serving others before yourself.  Finally, the value of Respect means to treat yourself and others with dignity and worth – the way you want others to treat you.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine, “The Most Successful Leaders Do 15 Things Automatically, Every Day” lists several items that fall into these core values of honor, duty and respect. Most notably: being accountable to others, empowering others and treating others the way you would like to be treated.

The Citadel’s Leadership program prepares students for success in leadership positions in the profit, non-profit and government sectors by instilling these core values.  For more articles on Leadership, visit: http://www.leadershipnow.com/articles.html.