When I was in junior high, the school’s basketball coach said to me, “Scott, you’re going to play basketball like your brother John, right?” With little hesitation, I said, “No” even though I had wanted to join the team. He didn’t say it, but my interpretation was that he saw me as John’s younger brother—not Scott, a unique individual. To be fair, he may have intended his query as a compliment. John was a top student and an excellent athlete (and he still is). However, as a junior high kid, I was struggling to figure out my own identity in the shadow of a larger than life older brother. Right or wrong, my interpretation of that conversation was heavily influenced by a variety of factors I did not understand at the time.
I am reading a book called “Age of Opportunity” by Paul David Tripp, which provides excellent guidance for parents of teens. In chapter 3, Tripp made the point that “children are interpreters.” Whether or not they consciously realize it, children work very hard to make sense out of their chaotic and complex world. Part of the parenting role is to help them develop accurate interpretations. As I thought about this point, I realized that one of the challenges facing parents and teens today is that the work of interpretation is made more difficult because of multiple and competing worldviews. Postmodern culture challenges the idea that there are absolutes, objective right and wrong. Postmodernism encourages us to embrace varying and even competing value systems—thus making the work of interpretation all that much more difficult.
Children and parents are not the only interpreters. Leaders are interpreters, too. As a leader, one of the greatest responsibilities is to observe and listen, and then to interpret. Probably the biggest challenge for leaders in interpretation is the lack of rules and reference tools. When interpreting a language, we have these tools. I studied ancient and koine Greek in college. Once I learned the rules of the language and how to use reference tools, interpretation of Greek texts became much easier. Leaders do not have the luxury of a set of rules and references books when interpreting what happens in the work environment. Instead, leaders must rely on experience and sharing interpretations with others.
Leaders often miss this latter point. They observe, listen, and interpret, but do not take time to also check that interpretation with others. A conversation to share an interpretation might go like this: “Richard, in our production meeting this morning, there was a conversation about how to solve that supply problem. Some good ideas were shared, but I sensed a great deal of frustration, not with operations, but with the finance side of things. What did you observe?” You and Richard are now engaged in a dialogue to share and assess one another’s interpretations. It’s not likely that either of you has an accurate interpretation alone, but together, you will get closer to it.
Interpretation is automatic and natural. We do it constantly. Every little nuance of behavior and speech that you observe is run through your super-computer brain and interpreted. How do you know it is accurate? The truth is that it is very hard to know the accuracy. However, the more conscious you are of the process and the more time you take to check your interpretations, the more skilled you will become at interpretation.
When I was studying Greek, I became quite good at interpreting the language. I got good at it because of many hours of practice, a good deal of time sharing my interpretations with other students, and becoming familiar with the culture of the authors. Leaders need to do the same. They need to consciously engage in interpretation, share interpretations with others, and be culturally aware.