Oswald Letter

Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

We’ve all heard the old saying “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” It’s pretty straightforward. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings describes it this way: “Don’t criticize another person’s work until you’ve tried to do it yourself; don’t judge another person’s life until you’ve been forced to live it.”

Pretty sound advice for anyone — especially managers.

How many times have you, as a leader, walked into a meeting just knowing that you had all the answers? As you enter the room, you’re thinking, “All I have to do is get these people to listen to what I’m about to tell them and then get them to do it.”

I mean that’s what leaders do, right? They lead. Why waste a lot of time as the team gropes for answers when you can just spell it out for them and save everyone a lot of time? There’s a reason you’re in a position of authority. You have more experience than the others. You’re smarter than the others. There must be a reason you’ve been anointed to lead this group. You might as well cut to the chase by telling them exactly what needs to be done and, more important, just how they need to do it.

Well, hold on a second, Big Shot! How about taking the time to understand what the others on your team are thinking? Instead of walking in the door and immediately barking orders, how about listening to what others have to say about the issue in question? Why not ask a few questions in order to LEARN what others might be thinking?

Sure, it might take a little longer than the command-and-control method that you had envisioned, but how might it change the results? Could it be that you might LEARN something? You might have more experience than anyone else on the team, but do you have more experience with this specific issue in this environment? You might be the smartest one in the room, but do you really know more about today’s topic than everyone else participating? And, if you do, is it still possible that you might LEARN from what the group has to offer collectively?

You see, being a leader requires more than control. A leader doesn’t have to have all the answers and can’t. A leader needs to listen. A leader must put herself in the shoes of those she is leading. “Don’t criticize another person’s work until you’ve tried to do it yourself.”

It takes patience to listen. It takes time to let others have their say. But you know what — more times than not, you’re going to hear things that change your perspective. You’re going to LEARN that other people have good ideas. You’ll discover small details that could make a big difference in the results. Your team is going to come up with solutions that will be better than what you could have come up with on your own.

As a manager, you have a big job. Your schedule is jam-packed and you’re constantly on the run. It’s tempting to just take control and save everyone a lot of time. But if that’s your approach you’re not much of a manager. If you fail to listen to others, you’ve taken away their voices. If you don’t let them share their thoughts, you lose a wonderful teaching opportunity. If you don’t hear what they have to say, you won’t be able to evaluate their critical thinking skills.

A manager who doesn’t listen — who thinks he has all the answers — needs to walk a mile in the shoes of the people who work for him. He needs to try to understand his people before he criticizes them or just takes away their voices completely. If you can put yourself in the place of those who work for you, you’ll see that it’s important to let them be heard. It’s important to them to be able to share their ideas. They want to contribute and, if you’ve done your job in hiring them, they will be of real value in the process.

Do you want a group of people working for you who are willing to let others do all the thinking? Would you be happy with a team that is content to sit idly by while someone makes every decision? Do you want to be surrounded with people who you have nothing to contribute? You see, if you can honestly answer “yes” to all those questions, then you have the wrong team. On the other hand, if you can’t, then you need to make sure you understand every person on your team and what they can contribute in every circumstance.

Elvis Presley performed a Joe South song titled Walk A Mile In My Shoes. The lyrics included this line: “Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” Good advice for all managers.