Dave Barthmuss – Week 28: 30-in-30 Honoree

When asked to describe what leadership means to me, I often reflect on some of the more challenging times during my General Motors’ career – and there were many to be sure. But the hardest thing I probably had to learn was how to turn a detractor into an advocate – or a “hater into a hugger.”

We often think of leadership as the act of leading our own teams to victory and success. But what about those who lie outside of our chain of command? How do we convince people to think as we do?

This gets to the heart of a concept I call Advotocracy — the act of leading through advocacy

In my 30-plus years in PR, I’ve learned that most difficult situations involving outside detractors are best solved by being transparent and trying to understand your critic’s point of view. By finding common ground with your detractors — even the most determined ones — you can turn them into your partners and, eventually, your most vocal advocates. That’s what Advotocracy is all about.

According to my Advotocracy roadmap, there are three basic steps to engage and transform a hater into a hugger: identify the issue, open up and be transparent, and keep your foot on the gas. Persistence, perseverance and determination are also key. They are tools that can be found in every effective leader’s toolbox, and are among the key building blocks of any successful Advotocracy.

Identifying the issue is the most critical and often the least understood part of the equation. Many leaders falsely think they know the real issues behind the challenges they face with hostile audiences. All too often, however, they fail to fully consider the other point of view, and don’t fully understand the reasons folks don’t see the world as they do. Frankly, it’s an easy mistake to make; it can be considered basic human nature to look at the world through your eyes alone. If you want to build a successful Advotocracy, you must set aside preconceived notions, unconscious bias, and fully look at things from as many different perspectives as possible. Leaders embrace the fact they can be wrong and accept ideas and perspectives they never thought might be true. And that can be very uncomfortable.

Enter the Southern California Leadership Network (SCLN), an organization which has been inspiring leaders and driving change with these kinds of lessons since 1987. As a graduate of Leadership LA, California Connections and as an SCLN board member I learned the cold-hard fact that as a leader, you can’t sit back and wait to see how things play out, especially when dealing with vocal detractors.

SCLN challenged my Detroit-based, Midwest mindset from many different perspectives, and really helped me identify and grow an ability to build the kinds of engaging bridges that have turned the most determined of detractors into proactive third-party advocates. My preconceived notions were challenged by an amazing diversity of opinions and worldviews presented by my fellow classmates, guest speakers, and many of the remarkable places we visited across the state and even a few steps beyond our national border. My SCLN experience, which continues to this day, given my role as the Board’s 2017 chair, made me a better leader by showing me how others think and the different values that are placed on issues, products and behavior.

SCLN taught me to be humble, how to understand and show empathy for folks I used to consider adversaries, embrace transparency, and the value of persistence. Frankly, I found that my most vocal detractors weren’t all that different from me, and once I learned to find our common ground, I was able to build something great with them. In short, SCLN helped convince me (as Jay Baer writes in “Hug Your Haters”) that: haters aren’t the problem, ignoring them is.

As I read the stories or watch the videos discussing the leadership journeys and accomplishments of the SCLN alumni being honored as part of the Network’s 30th Anniversary celebration, I’m humbled to be among them. Likewise, I’m honored to be among the more than 3,000 SCLN graduates who serve at the highest levels of business, government and non-profit organizations throughout our region, state perhaps even our country. Turn on the TV, scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feeds, pick up a newspaper, and you, like I, know that today our mission is more meaningful, relevant and timely than ever before.