There were so many things about the beautifully difficult job of leading people that I didn’t understand, the boundless ambiguity and emotional demand that dot the daily landscape of influencing others...
The 10 challenges I didn't understand about leadership
I was so eager. Young and motivated, wearing cheap suits and blind ambition, dashing wildly into my career. I was driven to top performance by an abundance of passion and a fiercely competitive spirit. By all accounts my employer was lucky to have me. All you had to do was ask me… I’d back it up. I was self-righteous about what I "knew" and had an incessant desire to drive change. I worked for some inspiring people through the years, others who managed reasonably well and even one or two I desperately disliked. Regardless of where they rated on the spectrum of ability, without hesitation I inserted my solutions into organizational conversations I wasn’t invited to. A few decades later, I’ve gained an appreciation for tailored suits and lessons learned the hard way.
What a gift it would be to mentor the person I was, encourage her to throw her argyle sweater vests and unyielding arrogance in the trash and show some grace, patience and humility in her journey. I’d have been far less critical of those tasked with navigating the ship. More importantly, I'd have learned more, connected more and grown more as a person.
10 things I learned about leadership that changed my perspective:
1) Slow down and seek to understand. Take your ideas about leadership and throw them out the window. It is *really* hard. See 2-10…
2) Decision makers cannot implement every good idea. Some really smart, innovative ideas will not get done. It doesn’t mean that management is incompetent or detached or complacent. It means they are selective and strategic and have a core focus on what is essential. New initiatives sometimes have complexities and cross-organizational ramifications that aren’t practical to pursue with the current resources.
3) The “that’s easy for them to say, they’re making more than me” mentality- get rid of it. A larger title or salary doesn’t make missing out on the personal joys in life easier for anyone. Working an all-nighter during a crisis or terminating an employee are things that take a physical and emotional toll. Leaders do not have an immunity shield to everyday life. Hardships like cancer, divorce and depression don’t discriminate in who they affect.
4) Leadership is lonely. From social media connections to happy hour invites, from water cooler talk to impromptu lunches discussing Netflix marathons, leaders don’t get the same authentic connection that others on the team enjoy. Social isolation is the norm for the person at the helm.
5) It is said “comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s worth adding “it’s also as useful as a gas gauge on a horse.” It’s arbitrary and irrelevant. Great leadership requires an evolving and diverse skill set, from vision and empathy to problem solving and adaptability. It’s not valid to compare your sharpest skills to their weakest. Leaders need a vast portfolio of proficiency coupled with a self awareness to hire rock stars who can compensate in their weak spots. If you’re better at a skill than your boss, they were smart to hire you.
6) It would be cool if leaders were like superheroes; perfectly poised to save the world, ready to fly in heroically at even the first hint of a jam on the industrial-sized printer. But leaders screw up. They hire the wrong person. They misspeak in a vulnerable moment. They inadvertently respond to something they were BCC’ed on. It doesn’t matter the “what.” It will happen and you have to get over it. Good leaders learn from their mistakes, but flawless performance in a cape and tights isn’t in the job description.
7) You may understand your chapter inside and out, but the leader has access to the entire manuscript. When you question their decision or lack of action, it may simply be that they can’t discuss it. From contracts to personnel issues they have legal and ethical protocols to follow. Contribute your knowledge and expertise to the project, acknowledge that they have a more complete picture than you, then peacefully trust the process.
8) Leaders are the organizational thermostat, setting the energy and passion in the room. If your leader is having an off day, fight the temptation to follow the energy. It may be a great opportunity for you to act as the emotional generator, the interim force to push the people and projects through until the “power comes back on.”
9) Love languages matter. Just like with other relationships, leaders give and receive motivation, love and appreciation different than you do. You’ll have a better relationship with them if you understand and master their language. Don’t assume ill intent when your languages don’t match up. They may just need some time or guidance on better understanding yours.
10) Leaders rarely own their own time. They often travel extensively, are scheduled meeting to meeting and are likely processing and connected in between. It’s a relentless cycle of commitments, information, decisions. Wash, rinse, repeat. Don’t take their time constraints personally and remember that while you had hours or days to prepare for your meeting, they’ve perhaps had just moments.
There were so many things about life and the beautifully difficult job of leading people that I didn’t understand; things about motivation, versatility, stress, and the boundless ambiguity and emotional demand that dot the daily landscape of influencing others.
Albert Einstein said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” I can’t turn back the clock to change the perspective of the ambitious young professional I was, so focused on performance metrics and organizational change. I can simply put the thoughts to paper as a lesson for others and reminder to myself to show grace, patience and compassion along the journey.