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Leadership Series Part 5: Mirroring

6 minutes

Welcome Back!  

Over the past few weeks, we have been discussing the qualities and character traits of great leaders. There are a million and one articles, books and blogs on the subject, I know.  However, this entire series is based on what I have seen in my leaders over the past 19 years as an Air Force officer.  

In these 19 years, I have had over a dozen squadron commanders that I worked directly with.  Some of these commanders were phenomenal.  Some were mediocre.  Others were terrible.  This series is all about the great leaders I have had the privilege to work for.  

In the first post, I discussed the difference between a boss and a leader, which is a theme that needs to be understood as we continue with this and future articles.  A leader is exactly as the name implies.  A leader is a person who leads and is a person that people follow.  A boss is a person in a leadership position that does not lead and nobody follows.  This difference is important.  If you would like to catch up on the previous articles in the series, click on the links below.

I: Empowering Your People

II: Footprints

III: Do Something!

IV: Leaders Are Motivators

Today’s article is about mirroring.  

What Is Mirroring?

When I discuss mirroring with others, the assumption is that I am referring to body language.  In body language mirroring, one person might cross his legs while talking with another person to find that the other person also crosses his legs, either consciously or subconsciously.  Supposedly, matching your body position with another person develops a subconscious rapport.  I will leave this kind of mirroring for another article, but this is not the mirroring of great leaders.

Leadership mirroring has nothing to do with body language and everything to do with “tone.”  The easiest way to describe mirroring as a leader is “setting the example for people to follow.”  If you regularly display stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration on a daily basis, then guess what?  First off, that would put you in “boss” territory, but your people will start mirroring those tones, eventually taking on those behaviors as the norm, even on the days you are not displaying them.

However, if you display a calm demeanor and remain cool, then your people will mirror that, too.  This lands you directly in the “leader” category.  Which would you prefer- your subordinates walking around on eggshells, stressed out and angry OR your people acting as a calm, confident and cohesive team?  

Fido Is The Best At Mirroring

If you are a dog owner, then chances are you already know that dogs mirror their owners.  If a dog is anxious, then chances are it is actually the owner that is anxious and the dog is mirroring its owner.  Once the dog mirrors certain behaviors long enough, it becomes a learned behavior making it difficult to change.  This rings true for both good and bad behavior in dogs.  

For example, if your dog jumps up on you and licks you and is extremely excited when you get home, chances are this is a mirrored behavior that eventually became a learned one.  When the dog was new, you or your family probably came home and always displayed a great deal of excitement when greeting the pup.  The dog eventually learned that this “excitement” is what the proper behavior is when the family comes home and so he began to display it everytime you walk in the door.  Make no mistake about it, the dog is not expressing “happiness” that you are home.  He is simply acting out a learned behavior that was mirrored to him in the past.  

To correct this excitement in your dog, trainers recommend you incorporate a “no touch, no talk, no eye contact” philosophy when you get home.  Do not talk to, look at or touch your dog until he is in a calm and submissive state.  Once Fido has settled down, you can pet him and he will begin to learn that THIS is the appropriate behavior when you walk through the door.  When the “no touch, no talk, no eye contact” rule has been in place for a week or two, when you walk in the door Fido will be there wagging his tail and looking calmly up at you.  Don’t believe me?  Give it a try.  A happy dog is a calm dog.  The correction involves re-mirroring the proper behavior that dog will pick up on as a learned behavior.

 Organizations Mirror Their Leaders

Your dog is happiest when he is in a calm and submissive state.  So how do you get your dog into a calm and submissive state?  First, you must be in a calm and submissive state.  You must know and understand that you are in charge.  You are the alpha dog in your pack.  Your dog needs this hierarchy.  If the hierarchy does not exist between you and your dog, then either Fido becomes anxious (bad) and displays destructive behavior or takes the lead and becomes the alpha (worse).  

Organizations are very similar.  The people who follow you work best when they are in a calm state.  This does not mean there is no stress– we all no a certain level of stress actually increases performance in the workplace.  This calmness you are displaying means there is no unwanted stress.  There is no added anxiety.  The great leaders know this and therefore model this behavior for all to see– and mirror.

Leaders know that their subordinates mirror their attitudes.  The great leaders are always cool under pressure.  They don’t crack.  Great leaders know that their tone and attitude is contagious among their people.  I have seen some pretty hairy situations where most would break under the pressure, but not the great leaders.  They were always calm, cool and collected, which made us calm, cool and collected.  And like dogs, we are happiest when we are calm and collected.

Bosses, on the other hand, were the first to crack.  Bosses always got anxious and were constantly stressed.  When bosses are anxious and stressed, the entire organization becomes anxious and stressed.  If this type of behavior is invariably displayed by the boss, then pretty soon Betty from accounting will start chewing on your shoes or peeing on the office furniture.  

airline pilots are cool under pressure

Another Example…

If a leader projects confidence, calmness, and coolness under pressure, guess what?  Her people will exude those exact same traits.  Let me try and provide an explanation with a wild example.  Imagine you are flying in your favorite airline, cruising along at 45,000 feet, and the captain gets on the intercom and says in a calm and collected voice, “Folks, that last bit of turbulence seemed to have knocked the canuder valve loose on the number 2 engine, which is giving us some undesirable indications in the cockpit.  We are going to have to divert into New Orleans. We apologize for the inconvenience, but your safety is more important than anything else and it is best to get us safely down on the ground as soon as possible…”

There is obviously no such thing as a canuder valve, I know.  Because this message was delivered from the authority figure in a calm tone, the persons on the receiving end will act in a similar fashion.  

Now let’s imagine the captain said this in a fearful and anxious tone, “Folks, I apologize but it seems like this plane is going down!  If you have a cell phone signal I highly suggest you call your loved ones or next of kin because in about 45 seconds we are going to be a smoking hole in the middle of Southeast Texas!”  That might cause a lot of alarm and panic, right?  The captain in both cases is providing the tone and attitude for the passengers to mirror.  A great leader does the exact same thing.

The Parting Shot

What is the overall feel of your organization?  Are your people walking on eggshells?  Does your organization have a fair amount of discipline issues?  Are projects, reports, and other tasks consistently late?  

As the leader, responsibility rests solely on your shoulders to get the job done in a timely and precise manner.  The great leaders know that to solve a lot of these types of problems, it isn’t with her people, but it is in her mirror.  People mirror their leaders.  If you want your people to show up on time, treat the customer with courtesy and respect, and remain calm under pressure, then you had better demonstrate those traits consistently.  

This week, take the time to notice how people act in your presence.  Whether you are a leader of a big organization, a single parent of three or a college student with a dog, practice displaying a calm, cool and collected attitude in all of your interactions and see what kind of response/results you get.  Try it with the cashier at Walmart.  Try it with everyone you meet.  Mirror the attitude you would like the other person to have when dealing with you.  I am willing to bet you will be pleasantly surprised at what happens.  


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This post was created with the help of:

 3 am insomnia, my beautiful wife’s coffee of choice and Dave Matthews Band

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