The Surprising Truth In How To Be A Great Leader: Julia Milner (Transcript)

Full text of leadership professor Julia Milner’s talk: The Surprising Truth In How To Be A Great Leader at TEDxLiège conference.

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Julia Milner – Professor in Leadership

So the other day I was in the classroom; I work as a professor in leadership. And during one of the breaks, a student came to me, and we had a conversation. So he’s a bright student, great social skills, and he already works as an engineer.

So we talked about his career, and I said, ‘Well why don’t you go for that leadership position?’

And he looked at me, and said, ‘No, I could possibly not do that.’

And I said, ‘Well why?

And he said, ‘Well look, they’re different team members of my team, and each one of them is an expert in their own area, and I could not be the expert of all of these people. I would not be able to have the solution for everything, provide an answer for everything.’

And it occurred to me at that point that this is an assumption that a lot of people actually have: a lot of leaders have, and a lot of future leaders have, that you have to be the expert, and that you have to be able to give advice for everything.

So today I would like to show you that actually it’s more often than not better to not give advice, and I would like to show you an alternative, and show you what we know about learning that alternative.

So if we think about maybe like a common topic, so I was talking to my friend on the phone, and to illustrate you why advice-giving does not work.

So she was saying to me, ‘ah you know I’m really unhappy that my boyfriend does not spend enough time with me.’

Me, trying to be a good friend, what do I do, why? I think about solutions.

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So I say to her, ‘Well why don’t you have a conversation with him?’

And she started to play with me what I call the yes, but… game and I’m sure you’ve all played it before. So it goes like this.

Me: ‘Why don’t you have a conversation with him?’

‘Yes, but… that would be too difficult of a conversation to have.’

‘Okay, and why don’t you write him at WhatsApp?’

‘Yes, but… that would be too impersonal.’

To be honest, I was really trying hard at this point not to go: you know what, he’s an idiot; you should just see other people.

No, I followed on, you know and we were yes butting for at least one and a half hours, and afterwards she was frustrated; I was frustrated, and there was no solution.

So yes but is a common response to receiving advice. Why is that? Well, it’s somebody talking about our life, and you know they’re not the expert of our situation, so they come up with what they think is best at that point in time. And it often doesn’t match.

And for leaders, you know you might not get head-butted or yes butted in the face, like my friend did to me. But you might, you know they might not follow through if you advice, or they might just say afterwards you know that advice that we get from that leader is always so bad.

So what alternative do we have then, if we should not give advice? What can leaders do to still help team members? What is next?

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