I enjoy listening to Mike Rowe’s podcast series, called The Way I Heard It. The podcasts always start with some interesting piece of history, followed by a discussion with one of Rowe’s acquaintances. I enjoy listening because there is always a couple of gems in the podcast that make me laugh out loud.
I was listening to an episode and the historical beginning was about a locomotive greaser (old term for lubrication technician) who invented an auto-lube device in the 1870s. I won’t ruin the story for you by giving the punchline, but you’ll enjoy it. During episode 210, Rowe discussed something that happened during the taping of one of his early shows with an old friend named Sean McCourt, a producer on one of Rowe’s earlier television programs.
Rowe was interviewing a guest on camera with McCourt in the production booth, and Rowe was wearing an earpiece through which McCourt could communicate with him. During the interview, a “Gucci wearing” network big-wig, who remained nameless, entered the production booth and started dictating to McCourt what questions Rowe should ask the on-camera guest. But McCourt knew that Rowe knew what he was doing. In fact, McCourt knew that Rowe would ignore the “advice” if it was received.
So, he leaned over the microphone and parroted the instructions. However, what McCourt did not do was depress the button that unmuted the microphone. He was talking into a dead microphone. The big-wig never knew.
I laughed when I heard this because it’s exactly what I might have done in that situation. Over my leadership career there were many times when I “filtered” information to my team members. Senior people can think their input (meddling) is welcome or appreciated. It is not. The only thing team members want, or need is clear mission, vision, values, and objectives coupled with clear guidance (policies, plans, processes, procedures, and measures). Senior people may think, because of their experience or authority, that they know best how to perform every task. Sometimes it’s just an ego thing.
What leadership lessons can we learn from this scenario?
1. Productive leaders should know their team members. McCourt understood that Rowe knew what he was doing. He had a history of excellence in doing his job. This is why organizations need a reasonable span of control (ratio of direct reports to leader). It allows leaders to get to know a group of people. When you know your team members you can identify their strengths and weaknesses. Leverage their strengths and train or coach them to improve their weaknesses. Don’t coach them on things they are expert at doing.
2. Use judgment. McCourt heard the bigwig. He evaluated the input, used judgment, and decided what Rowe needed to hear. Certainly, leaders should strive to give their team members general direction and should give good structure and support through standardized guidance. However, productive leaders should act like an umbrella, shielding their team members from unhelpful distractions. It’s likely that, if the microphone was unmuted, Rowe would have retaliated. During the podcast Rowe mentioned also another situation where a producer was giving too much direction; Rowe simply placed his earpiece on his lapel microphone so the audience could hear everything! Yes, this was immature and clearly was an act of passive aggression.
3. Have the fortitude to act. Productive leaders can’t just think about what they should do. They must be assertive and act. McCourt could have been spineless and simply passed the big-wig’s comments on to Rowe. He didn’t. He had the fortitude to act in the best interest of the objective. In this case McCourt acted by not unmuting the microphone.
Knowing your team members, having good judgment and acting in the best interest of the objectives will also enhance the level of trust between you and your team members.