How to Be a Leader

Neil Strauss

One of the tenets of The Society is to create and empower leaders to do good in the world, and teach them how to be a leader of leaders.

Our first-ever Society adventure trip was to North Korea, which is where I met Joshua Spodek (see photo above with uncomfortable North Korean soldier). We discussed many things about leadership, among other topics, on that trip, and so it’s with great pleasure that I announce Joshua’s new book: Leadership Step by Step: Becoming the Person Others Follow

Joshua has agreed to share an exclusive excerpt from the book below. Enjoy and make sure to do the exercise:

Leadership Step by Step

by Joshua Spodek

An excerpt

Introduction for Neil Strauss’s Readers

Most leadership advice sounds nice and makes the advisor feel good but is as ineffective as telling a musician to “play with feeling!”, an actor “don’t hold back!”, or a guy learning to meet women, “be yourself!” It sounds nice but is the least helpful to those who need it most.

Any artist or performer who became great started by following instruction. Pianists play scales. Dancers do footwork. Athletes run plays. With practice, a magical transformation occurs—their repetitive, mechanical rehearsal turns into genuine, authentic, free expression. Magical, that is, to the outsider. Anyone who mastered an art knows it came through practicing the fundamentals diligently and with discipline, followed by intermediate exercises, advanced, and so on. Years of practice makes them look like they were born that way.

You’ve seen that transformation in Neil. You know he started by learning from others. He never stopped practicing. The result: he’s become incredibly genuine, authentic, self-aware, and all the other characteristics of a master. You’re on your path, learning from him and his peers as he learned from others.

Leadership education in universities remains dominated by academics who got there by publishing, not perishing, and never led or learned to teach. They teach about leadership instead of how to lead. A few luminaries are changing the practice from an abstract academic exercise to an artful practice leading to genuine, authentic, free expression.

The Feedforward exercise is like an advanced, professional “Who lies more?” Practicing a few times won’t get you much. Practice it enough and you’ll keep learning for a lifetime. I learned it from Marshall Goldsmith, named #1 leadership thinker and #1 New York Times bestseller, who coaches Fortune 10 CEOs with it at the core of his practice. His clients practice it. He practices it. I practice it.

It works. You’ll find out how when you practice it.

I’ve extended it for communities I work with that he doesn’t—entrepreneurs, hustlers, students, and those still rising and aspiring. As you can tell by this exercise being the twelfth chapter, eleven exercises preceded it and another ten follow. It’s part of a progression, but stands on its own.

Enjoy practicing it!

Practice, practice, practice.

Chapter 12: Feedforward

Marshall Goldsmith created Feedforward, this chapter’s exercise. It’s name is a play on words with “feedback.” You’ll see why when you practice it. It’s quick, easy to learn, simple (though not always easy), and, most importantly, it works. You can use it your whole life, learning from it each time you use it.

Marshall built his coaching practice on it over decades. As a testament to its ease of use, applicability, and effectiveness, his client, Alan Mulally, as an executive at Boeing, used the technique enough that Marshall barely had to coach him in person. He soon became CEO of Ford and soon after that was named both CEO and Person of the Year.

You will master Feedforward as well. It only takes a few times practicing to get the basics. I still use it regularly, over a decade after learning it.

The Feedforward Exercise

The one person you can never see from another perspective is yourself, yet you wish you could the most. After all, everybody else sees you from another perspective.

Others’ views are indispensable to improving your life and leadership skills. Most people get them through feedback. At work they get reviews from their managers. Athletes, actors, and other performers get feedback from coaches.

As much as feedback helps, it has limits, mainly that it evaluates the past.

Asking someone to evaluate creates communication issues. People often hold back what they think you won’t like hearing or might react in a way they might not like. If you ask someone how you did on a project and they say “You did part X great, part Y great, and part Z great,” does that mean you did everything great or that they didn’t want to tell you what you did poorly? You’ll never know, not because they aren’t a great friend, but because of inherent issues with communicating evaluation.

When you ask about the past, you’re asking about something you can’t change. To act on feedback, you have to translate information about the past into something you can do now.

Feedforward gets usable information and advice without the baggage of feedback. It looks forward instead of backward. It’s a simple, two-minute practice that can get you more useful information than feedback. I’ll give some background, then write the practice in a simple script.

What to do

Follow the Feedforward script ten times for one behavior you want to improve.

Like you learn scales by playing do re mi fa so la ti do, not in other orders, you learn Feedforward by following the script. If you want to improvise, you can, but you’ll do so more effectively after you master the basics. You’ll get most of it after five or ten tries.

The script

1. Identify something behavior-related you want to improve
2. Identify a person who can help and why they would be helpful
3. Say to him or her: “I’d like to improve [X]. You’ve seen me [do X] and others who are great at it. I wonder if you could give me two or three pieces of advice that could help me improve at it?”
4. Write them down. Clarify if necessary. Do not evaluate
5. Say “Thank you”
6. Optional: ask for accountability

For example, as a frequent public speaker, I might do it as follows

1. I would identify public speaking as something to improve
2. I might identify people who saw me speak in public
3. I might say to one of them: “I’d like to improve my public speaking. You’ve seen me speak in public and others who are great at it. I wonder if you could give me two or three pieces of advice that could help me improve at it?”
4. I’d record their answer, asking clarification if necessary
5. I’d say “Thank you”
6. Say they recommended I tell more jokes. I might ask them to review a future presentation to make sure I included a few jokes

You do steps 1 and 2 on your own. You can pick any behavior you want to improve—punctuality, sleeping better, interrupting less, losing weight, quitting smoking, saving money, and so on.

Tips

What you want to improve will determine whom to ask. If you want to improve something at work you might ask colleagues or a mentor. If you want to lose weight you might approach someone you know who lost weight. If you want to improve your relations with a family member you might approach another family member or someone you know with great family relations. If you want to improve your first impressions you could ask random strangers on the street.

The person you ask the advice from will feel like an expert, important, honored, and flattered.

Note that the wording of the exercise is precise. Marshall cut out many counterproductive things people say and included only what’s necessary. Feedforward doesn’t benefit from deviating from the script, at least not until you’ve mastered following it. For example, adding judgment, which beginners often do, will undermine it.

For example, people often say, “that’s great advice,” thinking it’s encouraging. It still judges. How do you feel when you help someone and they judge your help? Even if they judge you positively this time, you know it may turn negative, so you feel motivated to avoid a next time.

Step 3 asks for advice, not evaluation or judgment. In Feedforward, you don’t ask “how did I do?” If you phrase your question to be about the past, people will evaluate your past, which creates the problems Feedforward is designed to avoid.

This exercise, done properly, gets the value of the feedback without its discomfort or limitation. If I ask people for Feedforward about public speaking and three people tell me I should use humor more, I can figure out they don’t think I’m funny, even though they would not likely have told me had I asked for feedback. Asking for feedback almost never gets you information like that.

Asking clarification encourages them, as does taking notes.

In Feedforward quantity creates quality

Feedforward won’t always result in advice you want or can use. When you get useless or unhelpful advice, still say “thank you,” since however unusable, they still gave you advice. Then move on. What do you do if you want to make sure you get advice you can use?

Do Feedforward with more people. Since it costs no money, takes little time, makes the other person feel good, and builds relationships, there’s almost no downside to doing Feedforward with as many people as you like. Keeping track of all the advice you get lets you rank it. Act on the most valuable advice first and you’ll generally improve before reaching the lower-value advice, so never have to act on it.

Follow-up

The accountability in step 6 can make the difference between only hearing advice and doing it. Since most of us do what we’re accountable to someone else for, it will increase your likelihood of doing it and the quality of your work. You have to think on the fly for how to ask them to hold you accountable. The advice and your relationship usually guide you. For example, if I asked for advice on public speaking and they suggest speaking every chance I got from making a toast at dinner to someone’s birthday at work, I might say

Thank you, I would like to follow that advice. I figure I’ll have a couple chances to
speak per week. Would you mind if I check in once a week for a few weeks to make
sure I’m following your advice? A phone call or email once a week is all I’m asking,
though I’d welcome more advice on how I’m doing it.

Notice I don’t call the idea good or bad, which would evaluate it and discourage them from
helping.

Exercise checklist

1. Did you choose one behavior to work on?
2. Did you follow the script with at least ten people?
3. Did you avoid evaluating their advice?
4. Did you say “Thank you” to each?

Reflection questions

I recommend reflecting on your experience with this chapter’s exercise before continuing. You can reflect about anything you found relevant, but here are some questions you may want to consider:

  • Did you notice changes when you would have asked for feedback?
  • Who is the leader in Feedforward?
  • How did others seem to feel during Feedforward?
  • How did you feel during Feedforward?
  • Did you get any useless advice? Was that a problem?

Stop reading. Put the book down and do the exercise.

You can’t build muscle by reading about lifting weights, nor learn to sing by reading about singing, and no leader became great just reading about leadership.

Post-exercise

I use Feedforward often, as much or more now than when I learned it ten years ago. It keeps showing me how much judgment in any direction (me judging others, others judging me, third parties judging others) hampers communication and promotes argument.

More importantly, Feedforward gives a simple way to bypass judgment while getting the value of others’ perspectives. The more I use it, the more applications I see outside of asking for advice or as an alternative to feedback.

Noticing that Feedforward promotes productive conversation, I use it in social contexts like networking events, interviews, and such.

I also use it to resolve conflicts since it promotes communication but not blame or guilt. For example, when I find myself and another both trying to convince the other we are right, I’ve learned to step back from promoting my agenda and asking them for advice for their position. It usually diffuses the intensity because they get to voice what they want without my assigning
blame or admitting guilt.

I recommend trying Feedforward broadly, beyond “just” getting advice on your behavior.

Feedforward interlude

Feedforward‘s applications are so diverse and effective that I consider an extra section for applications I’ve found for it that even Marshall hasn’t written up worth it.

Other Applications

Marshall presents Feedforward as a professional and personal development technique to improve behavior. If you use it for those purposes alone, you’ll find it useful. It also gives value beyond “just” professional and personal development. As the argument it helped resolve on Sixth Avenue with a girlfriend illustrates, conflict management ranks high among its applications.

Managing Conflict

On a bright, sunny Spring day, she and I were walking in the West Village. We’d reached a stage in our relationship where we wanted to look good for the other, so she’d ask me what style of clothes I liked to see her in and vice versa.

Being a man and not a woman, I say things in a way that makes sense to me and don’t hear things as she does. I say this because when I tell this story in workshops, the women often groan in dismay (maybe surprise?) at the wording I used to express myself. In particular, to tell her what I liked, when I saw a woman wearing something I liked, I would say, “she looks good in that.”

While I thought I was answering her, evidently, she had heard me compliment other women. This time she decided to give me a piece of her mind. A bright, sunny Spring day in the West Village means lots of people, which complicates nuanced discussion. So commenced our talking past each other, her telling me how she didn’t like me comparing her to other women and how bad I made her feel. My explanations didn’t help. From your third-party perspective, you can probably see that we were trying to help each other.

At one point I had the presence of mind to realize that, independent of right, wrong, good, or bad, she wanted my behavior to change, which Feedforward does, without judgment or blame. So I used the technique.

I said, “It sounds like you’d like me to do something differently. If it would help us communicate, I’d like to try it and it sounds like you have an idea of how I can do it effectively. I wonder if you could give me a couple pieces of advice for how I could do it.”

She continued to tell me how wrong I was and how bad I was making her feel, apparently not noticing I had changed my message. It happens in Feedforward that the other person responds with judgment even though you ask for advice, not judgment. They do what they’re used to. Having practiced it many times in low-stakes situations, I was prepared for this higher-stakes, raised voice, public situation. I remained calm and repeated the Feedforward script, politely but persistently. She still didn’t catch on to my new message and continued telling me how wrong I was.

The third time, though, she caught on, thought a moment, and suggested how I could tell her my
tastes so she’d understand.

I said “thank you,” told her I’d try, and then continued to ask her to hold me accountable by reminding me if I did it in a way she didn’t like.

She said she would, resolving the months-long conflict.

While resolving one conflict may not sound like much, the technique applies more broadly. It has two main effects in conflicts: it’s disarming and it lowers emotional intensity. It disarms the other person’s argumentative weapons by asking them for advice, not pushing or blaming. Lowering emotional intensity transforms arguments into problem-solving sessions.

(I can’t help note that one of her pieces of advice was for me to tell her “You would look better than her in that outfit,” which contradicted her telling me that she didn’t like being compared. She did like favorable comparisons, so it’s not like she was communicating crystal-clearly either.)

Networking and interviewing

Another application arose from noticing something when I ran Feedforward workshops: no matter how much I told participants to spend no more than a few minutes with each person, they talked longer, often in deep conversations. I could barely pull them apart.

Instead of fighting the trend, I came to see Feedforward as a simple, effective conversation tool, especially with new acquaintances, even for shy people. To understand its value in this context, have a friend do Feedforward with you so you feel it from the other’s perspective. You’ll feel what engages people: you feel like an expert, you feel flattered, and you want to hear how your advice works out, which leads you to want to see the other person again.

What more do you want in an interview than for the other person to want you back? Though the exercise is about getting advice to improve yourself, you can ask for advice on anything. Listen for a person’s interests, ask advice in that area, and you’ll engage them.

Getting mentors

Teaching in universities, I see the time and money schools devote to finding people willing to mentor students. After finding them, the school has to act like a matchmaker, hoping the potential mentor’s skills and experience overlap with some students’ interests. Students often take the connection for granted, like they were entitled for them for paying tuition.

Something is off for schools to work so hard to push something on students that they would value more if they worked for it. Mentor relationships give tremendous mutual benefit. If you want a mentor, you’ll appreciate the relationship more if you find and create it than if someone hands it to you. Schools see the problem as a lack of mentors or access to them. I see it as students’ lack of skill to create mentor relationships, which the schools’ coddling exacerbates.

Feedforward gives you a tool to create mentor relationships, which will motivate you to find potential mentors and initiate. Think of when you’ve given advice. You probably wanted to hear the results. You probably wanted them to succeed—after all, you felt you gave useful advice. If they had trouble, you’d probably want to help them more.

That pattern of wanting to participate in their success using your advice, in a potential mentor, will lead them to want to mentor you. Imagine that: where universities work to give students something they don’t appreciate and that mentors reluctantly relent to, you can lead valuable people to want to help you. Here’s what you do:

1. Identify and contact a potential mentor. You have to figure out your criteria and how to initiate contact. The more you do this process, the more skilled you become.

2. Do Feedforward with them. You don’t have to tell them you’re doing an exercise. Ask for accountability, specifically requiring you to report back. They will nearly always agree to because you’re showing determination and that you value their advice, which feels rewarding.

3. Act on their advice. It will take how long it takes.

4. Report your results. If they agreed to hold you accountable, they’ll take your call or answer your email. It doesn’t matter if the advice worked or not, just report your results.

5. Do Feedforward again. You don’t have to tell them you’re doing an exercise. They’ll think you’re asking more advice, which they’ll appreciate because you’re taking initiative with them. Again, get accountability.

6. Act on their new advice.

7. Report again on how it went.

8. You now have a mentor.

After twice seeing you act on their advice and reporting back, they’ll be happy to take future calls and emails. It’s up to you to take the relationship in new directions beyond advice.

The more you practice Feedforward, the more applications you’ll find. The key is doing it enough times to master it. Then you’ll have a tool you can use the rest of your life. Your arguments will decrease in number, shorten, turn into growth experiences, and you may get named CEO or Person of the Year.

Did you enjoy this excerpt? Want more advice, exercises, and inspiration? Be sure to pick up the complete book today at a local bookstore, or purchase on Amazon here: Leadership Step by Step: Becoming the Person Others Follow