Leadership Spotlight

Leaders Find the Positives

A task force team was driving back to the office to brief the squad supervisor following a recent operation. The squad supervisor had been on-site and had noted some operational challenges for the team leader. Luckily, the squad pitched in where needed and overcame these, resulting in a successful and safe operation.

When they got back to the office, the squad supervisor asked the team leader into his office for what the team leader thought would be a serious rebuke. Having been on other operations throughout his career, he knew that many supervisors seemingly took great pleasure at chastising people when they made mistakes. The squad supervisor was relatively new to the squad, and this was his first operation observing the team leader. As they walked into the office, the supervisor, who had arranged two chairs around a small unobtrusive coffee table, asked the team leader to make himself comfortable. By averting his eyes from the supervisor, the team leader displayed his nonverbal discomfort because he knew what he could have done better. The supervisor noted this and began speaking. To the team leader’s surprise, the squad supervisor congratulated him on the successful operation and commended him for his excellent ideas. As the squad supervisor chatted with him, the team leader began to open up a bit more. The squad supervisor, a keen observer of nonverbal behavior, recognized that the team leader was aware of some of his recent shortcomings. The squad supervisor also realized that he had effectively de-escalated the team leader’s discomfort, resulting in his being in a better state of mind to discuss his recent challenges.

Following the pleasant exchange, the squad supervisor tilted his head slightly, smiled, and asked the team leader what he would do differently in the next operation. Self-assured because of the supervisors obvious encouragement and recognition of his strengths, the team leader quickly leaned in toward the supervisor and outlined a number of things. The team leader then asked the supervisor what he thought. The supervisor also leaned in and nodded as he commended the team leader on a good, honest self-assessment and added a few comments of his own. The team leader nodded in agreement. The supervisor asked if there was anything more that they did not cover. The team leader smiled as he shook his head, thanked the supervisor for such a productive debriefing, and commented on how excited he was to put some of the new ideas into action on the next operation.

Reading and understanding how to bring out the best in people is the great leadership challenge. Effective leaders learn to recognize comfort from discomfort in their people’s demeanor and know that it is easier to teach and mentor by beginning an instructive dialogue with what went well. When the leader can nonverbally de-escalate discomfort and begin an enlightening dialogue with all that went right, many team members will inevitably want to do better and will continue to strive for excellence because they know it is recognized by their leaders.

Special Agent Robin K. Dreeke, an instructor at the Counterintelligence Training Center and an adjuct faculty member of the Leadership Development Institute, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.