Read Before You Lead: Why Every Thermostat Has a Thermometer

By: Tim Elmore

In 1990, I began using a metaphor to teach students how they could earn the right to influence others. This metaphor has now become common language among educators: a thermometer and a thermostat. I found that while students are both simultaneously, they also tend to be more of one than the other depending on their environment:

  • Thermometers simply tell you what the temperature is. These are the people who simply reflect the social climates in which they live.
  • Thermostats actually set the temperature. These are the people who influence the social climates in which they live.

Thermostats and Thermometers” became one of our original Habitudes(R), when I started our non-profit organization Growing Leaders.

I will never forget an early experience I had with this image.

I was teaching a group of high school students about “Thermostats and Thermometers” when a teen in the audience raised his hand. When I called on him, he said he’d just had an epiphany. He reminded us all that inside every thermostat is a thermometer. He is right. Inside each of those electronic thermostats on the wall is a smart device that diagnoses the current temperature. So, when a user sets the temperature to a certain level, that internal thermometer registers whether or not to heat or cool the room.

The application is that anyone who attempts to influence a group of people should first read them before they try to lead them. Read the room before you lead the room.

Heating or Cooling a Room

Leaders don’t need a title, position, or badge to influence others. Genuine leaders influence people by understanding the current “temperature” among a group and responding accordingly. They observe when a community is cool and needs to be heated up–when it needs some passion infused into the team. They also can see when a group is hot and needs a calming presence.

This is what cultural expert Erin Myer calls “reading the air.”

Erin describes a time when she spoke to a group of executives in Japan. When she finished her speech, she asked if there were any questions. After waiting in silence for a couple of minutes, she smiled and said, “OK, if there are no questions, I’ll close out this session.” With that, she walked to the side of the room. Fortunately, her colleague was Japanese, and said, “Why did you stop? There are some questions that need to be answered.” When Erin reminded him that no one raised a hand during the Q and A time, he said, “You missed the cues. Let me try.”

With that, he walked to the front of the room, smiled, and asked again, “Does anyone have any questions?” A few looked up at him, and he then began calling on them one by one to ask their questions. Erin, of course, was baffled. Later, she inquired, “How did you know there were people who had questions?” He replied, “Their eyes were bright.” By this, he meant he was able to “read the air” and noticed that some audience members looked up with bright eyes as if to say, “I have something to say.” The Japanese, unlike vocal Americans, don’t frequently speak out. They simply give you eye contact and appear keenly interested.

Advice for Teachers and Leaders

Let me ask you a question. How well do you read social cues from your team or your students? How about your own children? Especially today, we need to be sensitive to the silent cues people are sending us about their state of mind. To be effective thermostats, we must first be good thermometers. Erin did not understand that in Japan people signal to ask a question differently than we do in the Western hemisphere. Likewise, Generation Z signals its needs differently than adults do. Let me offer some simple suggestions to get you started.

1. Pause and observe faces before you speak. Practice the phrase “look before you leap.” You can read a lot on a face, which can inform your approach. 

2. Don’t assume your best “talk” is the best one in this moment. We often have rehearsed “talks” we use on kids. It may not be relevant for the moment. 

3. Remember that timing is everything. A good decision at the wrong time may get no better results than a bad decision at the right time. 

4. Listen first and control your emotions. Always listen and digest before you issue any comments. While listening, be sure to manage your own emotions.

5. If possible, inquire about the situation first. Get a minute one-on-one with a student you trust, and ask him or her about what’s going on. Peers seem to get it.

6. Limit your words and ask questions. The best response may not be a lot of words from you. Sometimes, less is more. Use more questions than statements.

7. Don’t think, “lecture” think, “respond.” Always see yourself as a “first responder” to the situation you find yourself in with students. This works best.

There may be no better illustration of this than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in August  1963. That day, he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people at the Washington Mall. The manuscript he carried with him to the podium took 11 minutes to deliver. When he finished, he recognized he’d not had the impact he had hoped. The speech was good, but the divine “aha” had not yet happened. In that moment and in response to singer Mahalia Jackson’s request from the audience, Dr. King pushed his notes aside and began to interject, “I have a dream today.” And then, for the next six and a half minutes, he offered words that have stirred us all for the last 50 years. It’s considered the most inspiring speech of the 20th century. And it was an add-on from a speaker who knew how to be a good thermostat. 

I am thankful he was able to read the people well so he could lead the people well.

Thermostat and Thermometer is a lesson in our Habitudes® for Social and Emotional Learning curriculum. For more information on our Habitudes® for Social and Emotional Learning Middle School and High School Editions, click HERE.

Read Before You Lead: Why Every Thermostat Has a Thermometer