A Humbling Lesson in Leadership


I am usually confident in my decisions, not because I’m innately a good decision maker, but because I’m a data-driven guy. When I examine the data, it tells me where to go — and go fast!


Like many entrepreneurs, I’m also an all-out analytical thinker. I see opportunity in data and numbers. While this is a sound approach for innovating, supporting our clients and growing a business, I’ve recently realized it doesn’t always work perfectly in times of crisis.


Several weeks into the pandemic, I had a pretty good feeling that our company was going to be OK. The data was pointing in that direction.


I was optimistic because we were prepared and well-positioned operationally. We had a strong base of client partners who retained us for diverse work. We didn’t rely on outdated media models for revenue. Importantly, we also had proven systems in place that enabled our entire team to operate well remotely.


In hindsight, I realize my feeling of optimism was also fueled by my own comfort. My family and my employees were safe, healthy and secure. I had the luxury of spending my remote work time thinking about the business, strategizing about how we would get through the downturn and come out better than before.


In the meantime, I was doing all the things good leaders do in times of crisis: talking to the team often and trying to support their needs, giving confident direction, offering solutions to every problem presented.


I was not, however, reading the room correctly.


My positivity fell on deaf ears. My early enthusiasm for working through the chaos was not being matched. My ace leadership team wasn’t with me.


Realizing I wasn’t connecting, I took the time to write down my frustrations and gather feedback from my inner circle. I also turned to a trusted advisor who helped me understand that I was moving through this crisis way too fast for my team. I was leaving them behind and appearing not only unfazed by the chaos, but unsympathetic.


This experience was not just humbling, it was enlightening. As I’ve processed it, I have a few takeaways that I believe are universal lessons for leaders about how to better read the room — and not just in times of chaos.


1. Listen to hear, not to solve the problem.

I had forgotten Rule No. 5 of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In my case, I needed to stop trying to solve the problem with every interaction. I needed to slow down and actively listen to the questions being asked.

Not everyone thinks the way I do, nor relies so heavily on facts. This diversity of thinking is one of the things that makes our company so great, and I had not embraced it.


2. Use your whole brain.

While I’m sure my team appreciated my optimism that we would weather this storm intact, the company was not their biggest worry. I was missing the emotional cues, not picking up on body language or facial expressions (thanks, Zoom meetings!), nor paying close enough attention to the subtext of what my team was telling me.

Whatever your own default way of thinking, you must remember to engage your whole brain, both the analytical and the emotional aspects. Sometimes, for some of us, this requires practice.


3. Refresh your playbook.

One of my jobs as company leader is to rally the troops and keep them moving forward. But leadership must be fluid — and my playbook needed a refresh. I needed to connect, not convince.

We all need to seek ways to improve and grow, and not fall back on old habits to solve novel problems. At Luckie, we’ve begun to rely heavily on a behavioral thinking model (HBDI®) that defines the way each of us thinks (emotionally, analytically, innovatively and organizationally). As a team, we are forcing conversations to go through all four quadrants intentionally to make sure we approach major issues with a whole-brain approach.


4. Meet your team members where they are.

We marketers tell this to clients all the time. You have to understand where your customers are in their journey and speak to them appropriately through each phase.

Leading your company through a crisis is very similar: To be effective, you need to know where your team members are and meet them there. If you get ahead of them, you get nowhere. In the absence of data, refer back to No. 2 for guidelines.


5. Be patient.

This is not my strong suit, but I will get there with practice. I’m learning when to slow down instead of automatically moving at full speed.

I realize I’m privileged to be in a position to reflect on this crisis in real time. I am proud that our company is still going strong, and I am especially grateful for the patience of my team and the lessons they continue to teach me. My pledge to them: I’m working on it. I will read the room better moving forward, I promise.


What leadership lessons have you learned this past year?