5 Signs I Need To Put On My Desk (And You Might Too)

As a leader, you probably need to remind yourself of certain things on a regular basis.

I know I do.

As a young leader, I thought the problem was everyone else. They need to change. The system needed to change.

Not anymore. Now I realize I’m the problem. Sure, the system and other people have their challenges, but when I fix myself, everything tends to get better.

After all, if you’re the leader, you’re responsible. You led yourself and everybody with you to the place you’re not enjoying.

So, full confession. I don’t actually have signs on my desk, but I feel like I should have a few. Every day, I make mental notes to remind myself (seemingly again and again) of some basic things I keep forgetting as a leader.

Here are five things I need to constantly tell myself to help me lead better.

They might be able to help you too.

1. Shut Up

I talk too much. As a boss, as a podcaster, as a friend, as a spouse, I tend to have an opinion on everything and have no trouble voicing it.

The longer I lead, the more I realize that’s counterproductive.

Think about it. In team meetings, if you go first with your thoughts as a leader, you effectively shut everyone else down. Who’s going to disagree with the boss?

If you want non-thinking yes people around you, keep talking. If you want leaders, start listening.

Most of your team is waiting to be heard.

I’ve found the same thing in podcasting.

Over 400 episodes and 16 million downloads later, I’ve learned that with very few exceptions, the best interviews are the ones where I speak the least and let the guest speak more.

So many interviewers try to interject their own ideas, prove a point, or show how much they know. That’s almost always a mistake.

Once in a while, I host a roundtable or the interviewee turns the tables and starts a fascinating conversation (like Adam Grant did here). But for the most part, I try to talk for less than 10% of the interview.

Wonderful things happen when I shut up.

First, most leaders aren’t used to getting that much air time. So they say things, they tell stories and offer insights they don’t normally share.

Second, it builds trust. Many leaders worry that interviewers are trying to ‘get them’. I’m not. Any silence shows respect and builds rapport.

Here’s what I’ve learned. If you listen longer than most people listen, you hear things most people never hear.

2. Ask More Questions

A close cousin of shutting up is reminding myself to ask more questions.

It’s so easy for me to try to bring everything to a conclusion and move on, but I’ve found the more questions I ask, the better my team tends to do.

A few questions to keep in your pocket for your next meeting include:

What do you think?

How would you solve it?

What else is on your mind?

Anything underneath that?

What else is bothering you? Feel free to tell me everything.

How can I help?

And when people tell you things you don’t want to hear, the only answer you give is “Thank you.”

Here’s another little hack: try to do a meeting where you only ask questions and don’t make any statements. You’ll develop leaders a lot faster and reduce your frustration in the long term.

You’ll notice that the best leaders ask questions. A lot of them.

Often when I’m around top leaders, it can be hard to get a question in because they keep asking you questions, even though (arguably) you have far more to learn from them than they do from you.

A few times a year, I get an email or text from a friend who’s a top podcaster. He asks me questions about my show. His show probably has 3x to 5x the downloads mine does, but he’s always seeking to learn, grow and adapt.

Which, of course, makes him the great leader that many (including me) see him as.

3. It’s Not Binary

My natural tendency as a leader is to look for two options.

Do we stay open or decide to close? is a very logical but restrictive question.

It’s almost never binary.

Often your breakthrough lies in finding a third option (or a fourth, or a fifth).

So, what if it’s not binary?

We could stay open or decide to close or we could…

Sure, we could launch a new product next month or hold off until the next quarter or we could…

We could go do the staff retreat at the ocean or in the mountains or we could…

The next time you’re left with two options, add three words: or we could.

Your breakthrough might be right around the corner.

4. It’s Not About You

It’s so easy for me to make leadership all about me. After all, the one common denominator any of us have is ourselves.

Even if you’re a founder (and I’ve founded a few things), it’s not about you.

The mission is more important than you are.

When insecurity takes over my leadership, I tend to put myself at the center of everything from decision-making to communication.

When I’m acting from a place of deeper security and humility, it’s easier to put the mission and others ahead of me.

One of the most important decisions you can make as a leader is to make the mission more important than you are.

When you do that, everyone wins. And so, actually, do you.

Fun side note: Leaders who make the mission more important than themselves tend to lead better things and bigger things.

5. Success is a By-Product

Few leaders are fans of failure, so it’s almost automatic to want to chase success.

But success is a terrible goal.

Leaders who chase success rarely end up successful in the long run. Instead, they end up frustrated. Success didn’t come (or not nearly enough success arrived), and as a result, they find themselves perpetually discouraged.

As much as you and I are being pitched every day by people who promise they can make you successful, the reality is ‘success’ is

  • Not guaranteed
  • Definitely not automatic
  • Fleeting if and when it happens

Hustle isn’t a good goal either, because it’s so easy to simply hustle yourself into the ground.

I’ve found that success has a way of taking care of itself if you’re focused on more important objectives.

Success isn’t the goal, it’s the by-product.

A much more worthy goal is to try to make a difference. Make a contribution. Serve people. Help people.

Even then, success isn’t guaranteed, and even if it doesn’t arrive the way you hope it would, you’ll have lived a meaningful life.

What Sign Should You Put On Your Desk?

Those are some things I need to remind myself of.

I know some of you might find these a bit stark, but I’m an Enneagram 8 and I can take the straight talk. To me it’s more effective than “be your best self.” 🙂

How about you? What sign do you need to put on your desk?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Signs I Need To Put On My Desk (And You Might Too)

29 Comments

  1. Paul Spittka on April 27, 2021 at 6:59 am

    Doug Fields once said at a Youth Pastor conference, “Lead strong. Love stronger. Leave a lasting legacy.”

    I have this piece of paper right above my computer in my office to remind me what ministry (and life) is all about.

  2. Cathy on April 26, 2021 at 9:53 pm

    Hi Carey,
    I am a talker and extrovert, I am an Elected Member in Local Government here in Australia, I am also a mum of 6 adult or near adult children soon to be Nana, you could imagine how easy it is for me to “advise” rather than listen….. oh boy so easy!!

    Yet,

    I have just finished a short course on Coaching my Community…..oh Jesus (not blaspheming but desperately praying) help me listen and not advise. The solutions to people’s problems generally lie in them, we need to facilitate their growth by fishing and teasing the answers out of them…… that is true empowerment. Even communities grow better and wiser as they create solutions to their own problems. Grassroot change is always more effective than top heavy change.

    I am also reading an Aussie book called Quiet Leadership https://www.amazon.com.au/Quiet-Leadership-Steps-Transforming-Performance-ebook/dp/B000XUBC04

    Powerful book!! Something I think everyone from CEOs Managers, Political leaders, and church leaders (speaking to myself) should grasp.

    My motto is now “Learn to listen, Learn to Listen and then LEARN TO LISTEN CATHY” but Carey IT IS SOOOOOOO HARD! I am forever the mama with everyone advising and correcting. I am constantly kicking myself, shut up shut up shut up.

    So I plod on believing that my neural pathways will change eventually each time I stop myself advising and listen to my kids, my husband, my friends and my community. It is not easy, but I think worth it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Brian M on April 26, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    My sign (Carey said it somewhere…can’t remember where) – “The grass on the other side is always spray-painted”.
    Another of his that, while not a sign, still rings in my brain – “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig liked it.”
    Can’t make this stuff up. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2021 at 6:25 pm

      Those are two of my favorites!

  4. Aaron Andrews on April 26, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    As it relates to sign number one; when I was in the Army and a question was asked in a meeting, answers were solicited from the lowest ranking up to the highest so that everyone felt free to add their perspective or ideas w/out any undue influence from leaders above them in the chain of command. I’ve always tried to do the same because if I have an idea that conflicts with what my leader just shared, I’m unlikely to share what may actually be a great idea in order to keep the peace. That’s not a great situation and it can result in the best ideas leaving the room locked in the heads of those who never got a chance to share them with the team.

  5. Beena S on April 26, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    Asking more questions would be the sign I need, thanks Carey, great article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2021 at 6:25 pm

      Love it!

  6. Gregg Doyle on April 26, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    Funny, Seth Godin sent the following out this morning. This is a direct copy with no changes. His last line sums up how I feel about leaving comments to anyone I have never met. This probably includes 99.5% of facebook.

    Decoding the sign
    A “Deer Xing” sign isn’t there to tell the deer where to cross the road.
    It’s there to let drivers know that this is the spot where deer often choose to cross the road.
    Because deer can’t read signs, and even if they could, they probably wouldn’t bother to obey them. People, on the other hand, are far more likely to be killed by hitting a deer than they are by a shark bite.
    A good signmaker is aware of “who’s it for” and “what’s it for.” In this case, the hope is that drivers will be more careful.

    Too often, signs of all kinds (metaphorical signs, not just physical ones), are simply ALL CAPS YELLING about how the signmaker is frustrated about something they can’t control. If you can’t influence something, why are you yelling about it?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:36 am

      Huge Seth fan and read that too. Thanks for sharing Gregg.

      Small letters grateful, Carey.

  7. Nadia on April 26, 2021 at 1:45 pm

    I used to have a Post-It that read “Even Jesus left a To-Do List: Matthew 28:18-20” and I also had an ad for Aston Martin with a Post-It that said “Dream Big”….somehow the two Post-It notes balanced me out.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:36 am

      Fun!

  8. Jon on April 26, 2021 at 11:04 am

    From a previous guest you interviewed I have been using the following and it has worked extremely well for me. I also use it in my speaking engagements and leadership training for others. Thanks, Carey for all that you do!

    Listen
    Learn
    Lead

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:37 am

      Love that Jon! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Tucker Stipe on April 26, 2021 at 9:51 am

    Embrace your current moment instead of longing for another one.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:37 am

      That’s good Tucker!

  10. Juliet on April 26, 2021 at 9:47 am

    This is every leader’s ‘must read’. Some leaders rather than adopting good listening skills, begin to stricten their actions and inactions just to make life miserable for their followers, after being told of what “they do not want to hear” by a genuinely concerned follower.
    “Listen more and talk less”. Thank you Carey. It’s such a great piece!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:37 am

      Thank you Juliet!

  11. Bruce D Southerland on April 26, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Sign on my desk: Lead confidently from a place of vulnerability and weakness.

    • LISA YORK on April 26, 2021 at 10:21 am

      How did you get to a place where you could lead confidently from a place of vulnerability and weakness?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:38 am

      I like that one. Lisa asks a great question, I think it’s mustering up the security and the courage to do it anyway and not letting the fear hold you back. Thoughts?

      • James on April 27, 2021 at 10:09 am

        Great article. It seems to me that security and courage come from the gospel when I stop preaching it long enough to be transformed by it. Said the other way round, insecurity and fear are marks of worshiping impotent gods.

  12. Terry Broberg on April 26, 2021 at 8:41 am

    This is really helpful Carey. I am building an international Children’s Ministry team with Walk Thru the Bible. As we Zoom together it is interesting to work together cross-culturally and communicate effectively. More questions and more listening will be key.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2021 at 6:32 pm

      Love hearing this!

  13. Deryck Frye on April 26, 2021 at 6:41 am

    Thanks for this Carey. I love the “ask questions” part and the specifics underneath that idea as to what we can ask. Very practical. I wrote them down. I want to be great at attracting leaders and don’t assume I am the smartest in the room because I’m not:)

  14. Gideon Amowogbaje on April 26, 2021 at 3:53 am

    Thanks for this Sire, I’m so learning much reading on your blog and I always look out for more

  15. Patrick Steven Mateketa on April 25, 2021 at 9:20 pm

    I have found this to be very helpful.. It has enhanced my leadership ability. God establish it in me!

  16. Ron (Hill) St.Hilaire on April 25, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    I am writing a book on Christian Communications. I would like to do an interview with you …taped…via telephone… 15 minutes. I would like to send you a more formal invitation… about who I am, what this book is all about. Where can I forward this invite to…via e:mail. I am the leader and founder of Men in UNITY…men’s ministry. And a retired 23 year broadcast journalist, writer, author, foreign correspondent, producer, teacher, journalism, international speaker etc. – Radio name Ron Hill. Please respond. ~ Blessings

  17. Ron (Hill) St.Hilaire on April 25, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    My sign should read…”talk less…listen more”.
    ——-
    Also… I am writing a book on Christian Communications. I would like to do an interview with you …taped…via telephone… 15 minutes. I would like to send you a more formal invitation… about who I am, what this book is all about. Where can I forward this invite to…via e:mail. I am the leader and founder of Men in UNITY…men’s ministry. And a retired 23 year broadcast journalist, writer, author, foreign correspondent, producer, teacher, journalism, international speaker etc. – Radio name Ron Hill. Please respond. ~ Blessings

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2021 at 6:39 am

      Hi Ron! I think my team is reaching out. Thanks for asking! And great sign. 🙂

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