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Looking Under the Cover

With a real-life illustration, Seth Godin reminds us of the pitfalls of literally judging a book by its cover. It's a cliche you've surely heard so many times that its inference now seems trivial. That's why we all need an occasional reminder.

During The Leading from the Heart Workshop, I break participants into small groups and show them pictures of four individuals. By looking at a snapshot of each person, groups must guess the individual's name, age, race, and family status. They must speculate on each person's occupation, educational background, and hobbies. Just from looking at a picture, they must deduce where each person lives and what make of car each drives. In other words, they must typecast the four pictured individuals by studying their appearance in the photographs.

Try as participants might to suppress preconceptions, their stereotypes are quickly exposed. Participants draw on biases implanted by--who else?--their parents, friends, teachers, and the media. But the ways participants answer two specific questions in this exercise have significant implications for values-based leadership. The first question is: what was the subject's most significant accomplishment? And the second: what is the subject's biggest aspiration?

Almost all participants answer those questions with career-related responses. For example, most typically assume a professional-appearing woman's greatest achievement was receiving her MBA, and that she aspires to becoming a CEO. They consider a young-looking man with earrings, spiked hair, and a chin puff to be proudest of his high school diploma, and lacking any aspirations at all.

But in a video of the individuals telling their true stories, all four subjects describe their real-life achievements and goals in very personal ways. They report their successes in finding a spouse to love, having children, or potty training a two-year-old. Their aspirations are to be good parents and an inspiration to their families, and to give back to their community. Missing is any mention of money, promotions, or a corner office.

The final question in this exercise asks participants to determine how probable it is that they would meet the individuals in the photographs. Most say it is unlikely they will ever meet any of the subjects. In truth, it is doubtful they would want to meet the people they describe in their answers, because those people are the product of their biases. But the people in the video are real. All are interesting, gifted individuals anyone would enjoy getting to know. How many wonderful people do we miss knowing because our get in our way?

As leaders, when we make assumptions about our employees' values--when we judge them by their covers--we mistake what employees value most, and miss out on the opportunity to lead effectively.
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