Leadership Soft-Skill: The Art of Tact
Posted by Orrin Woodward on March 4, 2013
The sixth soft-skill of leadership from the Center for Creative Leadership’s list is political savvy – the ability to influence people to obtain goals. The heart of being politically savvy, according to CCL, is networking, reading situations, and thinking before speaking. Political savvy is the tact to say the truth that needs to be said, but in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship more than the truth enhances the cause. Unfortunately, this may be one of the most violated of soft-skills and why many potential leaders are without influence even though they have great ideas for improvement. Tact, therefore, is an essential quality to develop in working with others.
I define tact as the ability to influence others through using proper words and actions without offending the other party. Truth in love is the principle, but it is easier said than done. For instance, how many meetings have the readers attended where truth needed to be told in order to move the meeting forward? However, instead of progressing in a tactful way towards this objective, someone, in contrast, went off on the other party, impaling him or her on the “sword of truth.” Predictably, the other party, instead of hearing the merits of the suggestion, responded to the attack personally and mounted an attack of his own on his antagonist. Both sides defend themselves and the meeting accomplishes nothing, but further damaged relationships. In consequence, the truth exposed is buried under the escalating emotions and the only real, but wrong, lesson learned is to not share truth at all. The team, in other words, has chosen peace rather than progress.
Thankfully, there is a better path. Indeed, a person who masters truth with tact is worth his weight in gold. Perhaps this leads the reader to the same series of questions I asked on my leadership journey. But, how is this essential leadership skill learned? Mainly, by practicing good judgement. But, how does one get good judgement? Typically, by experience. But, how does one get the experience? Usually, through poor judgement. Needless to say, I have violated the tact principle so many times, that if I had a dollar for every failure, I would match government’s inflation. Well, not actually, but the reader gets the point. Incidentally, RESOLVED 13 Resolutions for LIFE shares how to utilize the PDCA process to grow by personal experience.
In any event, there is no substitute for courage and experience in developing tact. The courage to engage in crucial conversations and the PDCA process to learn from the experience. Normally, when people have to deal with truth, they are uncomfortable and let their emotions get the best of them. Instead of sharing the truth in love, this comes off as a personal attack on the other party. Remember the earlier article on EQ and maintaining one’s equilibrium in pressure packed situations? This is when EQ and tact must be married together, for the truth isn’t more important than the relationship. Simply stated, if the leader damages the relationship, the he has lost the ability to influence and it doesn’t matter how much truth he has to share.
Therefore, before I enter into any situation where tact is required, I remind myself to never share more truth than the person has the ability to handle. Each person, in a word, has a capacity for truth like a cup has a capacity for liquid. Thus, when a person pours more truth than a person can handle, it’s like pouring too much coffee into a cup. In effect, the attempted helpful action – sharing truth – has become offensive because “truth coffee” has spilled all over the person and burned the other person.
The reason the LIFE Business provides access to our recommended top five books is to help a person learn tact. Even so, tact, in truth, is only learned by applying the principles in real life situations until it is finally mastered. Sadly, most people, through fear of failure, avoid sharing truth at all, thus eliminating their ability to lead because they have eliminated their ability to influence. A person does not need to be a leadership guru to develop tact. In fact, every person needs tact in order to influence. Nonetheless, people will live their entire lives violating the principles of tact, burning their most valuable relationships with too much “truth coffee.” Indeed, knowing the truth, although important, isn’t sufficient. Above all, a leader must learn to share truth with tact, building relationships and influence with others on his journey to leadership excellence.