What a Science Fiction Novel Taught Me About Leadership Communication

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite science fiction books.  It tells the story of humanity’s survival in the wake of a catastrophic accident to the Moon. In the first half of the book, humans establish temporary colonies in the Earth’s orbit to save the knowledge and genetic material of what had been life on Earth.

As the surviving humans orbit the Earth, they are bound by a complex system of location and movement different than on the ground. In space, it’s not enough to be moving fast or moving towards one another; you also need to match orbits and orbital velocity to connect and accomplish your goals. (I’m not doing justice to the astrophysics, but please bear with me for the metaphor!)

Here on Earth, I know a lot of leaders who want to move fast. 

And of course, they also want their teams to move fast. There’s just one problem… 

The leaders aren’t always in the same “orbit” as their team members. 

What does that look like?

Excessive velocity

Speaking fast and writing stream-of-consciousness style.

Off-target information transfer

The leader believes they have communicated, but the message wasn’t received.

Missing input

The out-of orbit leader isn’t going to hear what’s really going on because the team member may give up sharing information because it takes too much energy.   

Myself, I tend to be impatient, my mind racing ahead of a situation, and I have to consciously remind myself to change speed and direction to “match” the person I am interacting with, who probably started at a different “altitude” and set of assumptions for the topic at hand.

What helps me get in orbit?

Good personal “meeting hygiene”

As for any conversation, my state of mind and body is greatly improved by taking a few deep breaths, making eye contact, and avoiding distractions like computers and phones.

Simplifying and sequencing

If I’m excited about a topic, the information will just spill out.  Instead I try to think about what the listener needs to know, what they care about, and what I would like them to do.  

Checking for understanding

I’ve spoken, but has the information actually been transmitted?  A pause and simple question like, “Does that make sense?” gives the listener the opportunity to speak up.

To be sure, aligning your orbit with others takes time and energy. But don’t skip the investment, because with it, you can shoot for the stars together.

Want another story?  See my previous newsletter post “The Shift from Expert to Leader:  What a Modern-Day Fable Teaches Us” here.

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