A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials: The ABC’s of Leadership: O is for Observant


“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said”.  Peter Drucker

Leadership is all about communication; yet most leaders, in fact most humans, have become horrible (ineffective) communicators, which is perhaps why there is such a state of dysfunction in almost every aspect of society.  With our ever-increasing obsession with self-absorption, as opposed to self-awareness, we have lost both the art and the science of observation, and how all of our seven senses can improve our communications and our ability to lead.

Technology, while being a huge enabler, has also diluted our observational skills. Texts and emails have become substitutes for critical discussions and debate. We are no longer able to gauge the reaction to what we communicate because we cannot observe the non-verbal messages such as body language and facial expressions.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched  – they must be felt with the heart.” These words come from one of 20th century’s most articulate educators, authors, political activists, lecturers, and leading humanitarians. Helen Keller was stricken with an illness at 19 months old, which left her blind and deaf. She overcame her disabilities, through the power of observation, to become that great communicator and leader.

Brad Snyder, a brave veteran, who lost his sight as the result of stepping on a landmine while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, shares his remarkable journey to recovery to mentally and emotionally overcome his blindness in this New York Times opinion piece. Although he has adjusted to ‘seeing’ and ‘observing’ the outside world through his other senses, he still faces the challenge of understanding how sighted people perceive him.

My two beautiful Weimaraners, Casey Girl and Rollie Junior, aka Jr. or RJ, continually teach me the wonder of observation by applying their amazing senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, movement and balance. Obviously they cannot talk, but they, though their behaviours, eloquently communicate.
Nothing eludes them. When awake they are constantly aware of both their biological and emotional needs. Because of this, they are generally in a state of bliss.

Over the last year or so, Casey Girl, who is nine years old, has been suffering from arthritis. Junior, who is four, unmercifully torments her, except when she is in pain. He then becomes her healer, licking her hip and leg, whimpering periodic crying sounds to express his sadness. Similarly when I am feeling poorly, they both comfort me by curling up next to me, or resting their heads or paws on my lap.

When Junior gets into trouble, which is more often than not, Casey Girl tries to set him straight. They happily share their food with one another, yet are jealous for my affections. They also have a remarkable ability to let me know what they want – food, walks, attention. Both of them have an uncanny ability to read human emotions. When I am happy, they are elated. When I am worried or disturbed, they look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and attempt to distract me. They can distinguish between people who likes dogs and those who fear them.

As an expert in organizational dynamics, I have found that most organizations do not view emotional intelligence as a quantifiable skill. Nor do they make the connection or see the relationship between emotions and communications, and by extension – leadership. To properly make this connection, one needs to understand the art and science of observation. Randy Nelson put this into perspective when he wrote, “The skills we develop are skills we need everywhere in the organization. Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class doesn’t just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be observant. There is no company on earth who wouldn’t benefit from having people become more observant.” I would add that there is no group on earth who would not benefit from this.

A sad reality in most organizations is that leaders do not hear what they need to hear. Instead, they hear what their subordinates believe they want to hear. Observant leaders are better able to assess this input by comparative analysis against other inputs and judge the consistency of the messages. Being observant leads to better decisions. I further believe that observation extends well beyond the present moment. In decision-making, recollection of previous observations allows for people to also factor in what may appear to be seemingly unrelated such as comments, events and situations. More often than not they are very related. True intuition, for example, is the ability to be observant.

Being observant mitigates risk. I can’t tell you the number of instances I have been called in to handle a critical situation such as a work related suicide. What I have found in every instance is that the event could have been avoided had people been more observant. There are always ‘red flags’ which are almost always nonverbal but loud. I have found observant people are wise. Borrowing from Marilyn vos Savant, “To acquire knowledge one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” In every aspect of society we are lacking wise leaders. When things go well, they readily credit their leadership for the successes; yet as readily absolve themselves when confronted with a disaster, claiming they were not aware. If they were genuinely not aware, they were not observant, and therefore not wise, and therefore a poor communicator, and therefore a poor leader.

Andrew Faas is the author of ‘From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’, and is a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University.

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