Mind the Gaps

blog Aug 31, 2023

His latest book, Turbo Leadership, is a selection of 40 bite-sized reflections from Sam Chand on topics ranging from listening and handling criticism to discovering potential leaders and dealing with underperformance. AVAIL editorial director Matt Green sat down with Dr. Chand to explore some of the relevant issues the book addresses that impact today’s leadership landscape.

AVAIL: You stress the importance of constantly learning. I’m interested to know if there’s any area that you’ve feel like you’ve had to upskill in recent years.

SAM CHAND: There are two areas I’ve had to upskill on purpose. One is listening, and the other is communicating. I’m having to listen to more nuanced conversations. People are saying things by not saying things—saying one thing, meaning another. So I have to listen carefully, not just for what is being said, but what is not being said. I also have to listen carefully to how something is being said. I’m listening for vocabulary because it sometimes tells me what they might be listening to, what is shaping them. Just because they are speaking does not mean I’m understanding. The second one is communicating. Clarity has become the key word now. So, just when you think you are clear, you’ve got to get clearer. Making the complex simple. Making the obtuse something that can be visible and giving people action items so they can translate what you’re saying into something actionable.

AVAIL: Do you feel like the need for these two areas has increased?

SAM: The present circumstances have put a spotlight on it. It was there all the time, it was just taken for granted, and now there’s a spotlight on it. It’s more conscious than unconscious. The recent pandemic, people’s structures, the divisiveness—all these things have brought it to the surface. You can’t just say something and assume people understand what you're saying. Words have different meanings now than they did at one time.

AVAIL: One of the things that you write about is the need to be continuing generating new thoughts and new ideas. What are some of the things that you do consistently to generate new ideas, to cultivate that creativity?

SAM: I do two things on purpose: One is I read voraciously, and the other is I talk to people. Talking to people generates new ideas—even if they’re talking about their issues. When I’m consulting with a client, they create conversations that I may have thought about unconsciously but now become conscious. In a given day, I’m going to end up talking to three to five people who are paying me, but I’m learning from them. The other thing is I read voraciously and widely. I read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos. I read religious information, secular information, stuff on the left, stuff on the right. Any given day I’ll read three newspapers, all sides of every issue. I’m just looking for worldviews.

AVAIL: Looking back, what would you see as one of your biggest leadership mistakes and what did you learn from it?

SAM: My biggest leadership mistake, bar none, was trying to persuade people to take my journey with me when they’re ready to get off the train. When an employee is ready to look for another employment, when a church member is thinking about going somewhere—leaving your church.

AVAIL: This principle applies to a lot of areas, doesn’t it?

SAM: Yes. You can persuade people, but it’ll be short term. And then, when they disengage the next time, it’s not going be as pretty as it could have been the first time. When you talk people into staying, when you talk people into doing business with you, when you talk people into working for you, then you’ve got to do a sales job to keep them there, if that is the door they came from.

AVAIL: What would you say is one thing about your leadership style that’s changed in the last 50 years of your journey?

SAM: I did not understand the pain that leaders carry. When I was younger, I thought, If I were like him, I wouldn’t have a care in the world. CEO of the company. I could come, go, do whatever I want to make a lot of money. If I’m the senior pastor, who does he ask for time off or comp time or sick leave? I didn’t understand that the higher you go, the greater your pain. I had no appreciation for it. The older I’m getting, the greater respect I have for high-level leaders who carry pain. So, you can dog your CEO, your supervisor, your department leader, your senior pastor all you want to. But you have no idea the stresses and the pains that they carry in their lives.

AVAIL: So, you’ve grown in your empathy because you’ve been able to be in people’s shoes and see what it is that they are experiencing. And then, of course, with consulting, you’re hearing from them directly as they share in a transparent way.

SAM: I wrote a whole book about it called Leadership Pain. I had no concept of the pain. I remember looking at my pastor when I was in college and saying, “Man, he’s got a good life.” People ask, “Why is that CEO getting paid that much money?” Well, he is getting paid that much money to make three to five decisions a year that will impact thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

AVAIL: You talk in chapter 40 about your greatest regret being you didn’t have enough mentors in your early leadership journey. How would you recommend finding, approaching and acquiring mentors?

SAM: When I was younger, I did not have all the options of being mentored. At that time it was either in person or buy a book. But who could afford to buy a book? They didn’t have Barnes & Noble where you could go and sit and read a book, and they didn’t have online resources. Of course, your mentors could be your parents, your pastor, your supervisor. It could be an older person in the church or in your workplace. It doesn’t have to be an expert—it’s just somebody you look up to that you can glean and learn from. Now there are mentoring programs, you can have coaches, consultants, books, podcasts, webinars, TED Talks. I just started watching leadership mentoring programs on YouTube. We won’t live long enough to watch all of them.

AVAIL: There is something to be said for the life-on-life, relational investment that we receive from mentors in our life. Do you find that people are more receptive to being asked to be mentors than maybe people that need to be mentored may think?

SAM: Absolutely. I don’t think anybody’s going to turn you down. I think it’s about the ask. It’s about a relationship. If you would just want mentoring from anyone, hire a coach—and coach is not that expensive. If you want to be mentored by somebody you know, you’ve got to build a relationship with them, and they’ve got to see value in you. They’ve got to say to themselves, If I was to mentor Joe Blow, how receptive are they? Have they shown any interest before? People want to know why you want to be mentored. What for? Why me? I think you’re going to need to present a case for that. I think life-on-life is still the most substantial way of getting mentored. But if that is not available, you can actually be mentored in many different ways available to you now.

AVAIL: We’re in an incredibly divisive era for leaders to have to navigate. And you seem to have relationships with leaders in a lot of different tribes. Can you share a bit about how you’ve been able to maintain relationships across different tribes and communities and what that’s looked like.

SAM: That question has been asked of me fairly regularly because people see me in so many different domains—ethnically denominationally, doctrinally, et cetera. First, I keep focusing on the essentials and not get bogged down in distractions. Second, I have higher doses of empathy. I want to know where they’re coming from and what is happening in their life. Third, one of the things I’m getting better at is holding conflicting thoughts in my mind at the same time. I’m very much more about “both-and” than “either-or.” I used to live an either-or life. Now I can hold three conflicting thoughts at the same time, argue for all three of them and not feel like I have to make a choice. So that allows me to stay focused on the relationship. Finally, I really, really subscribe to the primacy of relationships. I ask myself the question, Is this issue large enough to throw my relationship away?

AVAIL: What do you wish you spent more time learning and studying early in your journey that maybe would’ve equipped you for some of the challenges that you faced later on or might be facing now?

SAM: One is vision casting, and the other is understanding people. I knew that I had to be a visionary. I get that, but I did not know how to cast that vision. There’s a big difference between having a vision and casting that vision in such a way that people will understand it, embrace it, pay the price for it, follow it and create a commitment toward it. The second thing is understanding people. I was naive to think that if it is godly, biblical, scriptural, holy, people-serving, heaven-focused, that people will just embrace it. Understanding their motivations, their histories, their context, their previous hurts and disappointments, their limitations, their passions and their commitments to life would have helped me minimize conflict, be more productive, certainly have more people who would understand where I’m coming from because I could frame where I was coming from in their context.

AVAIL: Distraction has become a major obstacle for leaders and our ability to accomplish our goals. I think it’s only gotten worse because of technology and the cultural static around us. Are there any habits that you’ve cultivated to maintain focus and avoid distraction?

SAM: One is to not fight distractions. The higher you go, there’ll be more distractions. When somebody pokes their head into your office or gives you a call and says, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?” It’s never a minute. Distractions are part of life. Instead of seeing distractions as something bad that you’ve got to overcome and fix, you start seeing distractions as part of life. I live in Atlanta. I can bemoan the traffic here, but if I’m going to continue living in Atlanta, I might as well make peace with it and then organize myself accordingly. The second thing I have done is, at the conclusion of the previous day, I’m going to say to myself, Here are three things I have to get accomplished before tomorrow. Not everything is as important. So I will create these goals, and so when other things are happening, I let them go because I have my goals. You cannot have a long list—maybe three at the most, five major goals for the next day that you have to get done.

AVAIL: What’s an area in which you’ve changed your mind?

SAM: That I have to agree on everything to work with you. Earlier in my career, simply because my upbringing and the church ecosystem I was in, we had to agree on the whole doctrinal statement, on all the minutia, to be able to work together. People will say something like, “You know, I go to a Christian dentist.” And I say, “That’s really good. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Then my question is, “Is he a good dentist?” It just opens up your horizons of learning—totally opens up my world to me. I don’t have to agree with that newscaster or with their lifestyle. I don't have to agree with the author to learn from them.

AVAIL: There’s been a lot of attention lately given to toxic and abusive leadership. I'm wondering if you’ve observed anything in particular that you’ve seen that contributes to the development of this toxicity in leadership?

SAM: It’s pride, hubris. What I have in front of me right now is something I typed up yesterday, a piece I’m working on called “The Fastest Ways to Leadership Failure.” I asked 30 of my friends, and they gave me their ideas, and I categorized them. The one thing that showed up again and again—I would say 90% of the respondents said pride and hubris. No. 1, pride leading to arrogance. No. 2, not giving credit—taking credit. No. 3, feeling you won’t get caught. No. 4, refusal to be accountable or correctable. And so on. All of the 14 points are under that one point of pride. Toxicity starts with one thing: pride. It’s the original sin, right?

AVAIL: So true. As we finish up here, are there any exciting things going on in your life that you want to share with the AVAIL readers?

SAM: I don’t know if it’s exciting or not, but I’m struggling with it. I’m working through it. And that is saying no more, and fewer yeses. In fact, I asked my family to help me with this. “What should I be saying yes to and saying no to. For example, I’m saying no to preaching, which I’ve done for 70 years—not all 70 years—but I started preaching actively when I was 20. I'm saying no to large conferences. I’m saying yes to smaller groups of leaders. I’d much rather do a day-long round table with 25 or 30 leaders in a room than speak to 10,000 people. I want to create content, and I want to influence influencers. It used to be I wanted to influence, now I’m clear about who I want to influence: influencers.

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