The Unspoken Truth About Leadership
Leadership isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. It’s more hurricanes, lost dogs, and sunrises.
Leadership… If you scroll through any search engine, Pinterest, or electronic image gallery, you’ll find countless ways how NOT to be a manager and how TO be a leader. You’ll see pictures of globular workers with their globular leaders telling you the difference between a boss and a leader, or a manager and a leader. I hate, hate, HATE this analogy (and I’ll get more into why later.)
Being a leader doesn’t mean that you are always at the back of the pack, triumphantly shouting “Let’s Go!” while film-score hero music plays in the background. There are absolutely amazing parts of being a leader. I fully love my job, and would never go back to a non-leader role. But, I’m here today to keep it real. I’ve seen too many new leaders try to be the “hero” that they’ve seen on Pinterest and Google. In trying to avoid being the dreaded “manager”, they end up letting their whole team down. The key to leadership is about balance.
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Sometimes, being a leader sucks
Crucial conversations are probably THE hardest part of becoming a leader. They certainly get easier the more you do them, but they still suck. Certain ones will always suck.
My 3-second advice on crucial conversations:
- Be yourself
- Assume positive intent (never go into a conversation like this with a write-up already in hand. You need to give the person a chance to talk about it.)
- Don’t push it off. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to your team. It’s not fair to the employee. Just have the conversation.
If crucial conversations are your sticking point, I highly recommend this book: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
Finally, there should never be something on an employee’s evaluation that they haven’t heard before. Again, that’s not fair. They didn’t have a fighting chance to improve. If you have a conversation with them about it at some point during the year and then need to mention it again at their eval, they’ll understand and already know what’s coming. If you mention it the first time at their eval, they’ll probably take you to be the bad guy. You’ll lose some of their respect because you went about it wrong. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute and think about if your own boss brought something like that up in your eval for the first time.
Your Decision is Sometimes the Wrong One
Not a soul alive can tell you that they’ve never made a wrong decision. Not a leader alive can tell you that either, and if they do, they’re lying. Leaders have to make decisions. Sometimes on the fly. Sometimes, that decision is the wrong one. The difference between a wrong decision in life and the wrong decision as a leader is that it doesn’t just impact you. It usually impacts your whole team… and if it’s the wrong decision, then odds are the impact is a negative one. And you’d be a fool to think they don’t know that you’re the cause of their misery.
So… what do you do in this case? You ‘fess up, apologize and correct it. That’s the kicker. Doing this will make everything smoother. Not doing this (like sticking with your decision because you’ve made it and you can’t POSSIBLY tell your team that you were wrong) will disgruntle everyone, lower you on the respect scale, and may even cause people to leave.
Did you know that the number one reason people seek new employment is because of their boss?
Now, there are times when you make a decision and you have to stick with it. You can’t be always changing your mind. It will leave you with a reputation for such and eventually, no one will trust your decision to ever be final. Again, balance.
You’re Always Being Watched
This is one of those things people that want to be leaders sometimes glamorize. People know leaders. When they speak, people listen. Yes, leaders can be known throughout the organization. But for what? Are they known for the great work that they and their teams do, or for being calm in difficult situations? Or are they known for all the wrong reasons like someone that doesn’t take responsibility, someone that doesn’t collaborate with others? It absolutely goes both ways, and once you’re known for the wrong reasons, it’s very difficult to get that switched around in the corporate world.
When leaders speak, people listen. They do. They listen, and they interpret. Sometimes, they interpret wrong. Not necessarily because they can’t understand, but maybe the communication wasn’t the greatest. People remember their interpretation and will throw it back at you later.
People watch leaders. All. The. Time.
As a leader, you have to recognize this. When I first became a leader, I was lucky enough to get some experience as a team leader before jumping into the official management arena. Only a few weeks after my promotion, my organization was going through some major changes in the way that our electronic health system worked. For anyone in the medical profession — orders were going from paper to electronic. It was a big deal. My department was in the middle of the chaos. So I had long, crazy hours and countless reasons to catch up on what was about to go-live, but I wasn’t involved in until now due to my current position. Now, I was a new leader. I had to get acclimated to all that, AND learn all this.
Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind. At one point, I was talking to one of the employees, and she says, “I know you have a lot going on right now, but you need to smile more. You’re smile went away since you got this job and that’s what makes you.” WOW. I was so busy thinking as I walked that I didn’t realize that I probably always had what seemed like a scowl since I was deep in thought. From that point on, whenever I was walking around people, I made sure to NOT have a scowl on my face. I don’t necessarily smile, but I control my face. I do it to this day (or at least try to.)
Another example — we had an extremely cold boardroom. After an animated meeting one day, an employee came to me apologizing if she made me angry and tried to explain what she had meant by what she said. After being utterly confused by what made her think I was angry, it came down to my body language. The meeting was a serious one, but not necessarily in a negative way. It was really productive and I was happy with the outcome. However, since my arms were crossed (because I was frozen) and the overall tone of the meeting was a serious one (because of the content) some of the team thought I was angry. Body language.
You might say that anyone would think that anyone was angry in those circumstances. You’re right. But unless they were friends with that person, they probably wouldn’t care. People tend to care if they think their boss is mad at them. Then they tend to talk about it with others that think the same. Then it has the potential to turn into more than what it was in the first place, other actions snowball, and next thing you know, you have a big mess on your hands. As a leader, it’s not fair to unnecessarily stress people out like that (and yes, people get stressed, because bosses give the raises, remember?)
The morale of both stories is to be mindful that you are always being watched and your actions are always being interpreted… sometimes not the way you are intending. It’s not as easy to just shrug it off as a bad day.
Leadership Means You Can Almost Never Think About You
Every decision you make effects those that work for you and are counting on you. Or it affects your customers. You can no longer make decisions based off of what is best for YOU (and if you do, you are a poor leader.) You have to do what is best for your team and/or the customer, putting you on the back burner.
This might be in the form of working long hours yourself so that your team doesn’t get burnt out. You’ll need to take responsibility for your teams’ actions, even if you didn’t agree with them. You’ll not be able to talk about your employees to each other, no matter what the circumstances. You’ll take risks on people and it may backfire. You’ll lose time with your family so that your team can have time with theirs. You must always be in a state of “political correctness” that you’ll sometimes despise.
Leadership Is Most Often Thankless
When I thank anyone, I wholeheartedly mean it. It’s one of the things that I like about my job. Thanking others puts meaning to their work. I’m not an “over-thanker” by any means (that would take away the credibility), but if I see something that I appreciate, I like to say it.
Being a leader is often thankless. It’s ‘not because people don’t appreciate what you do. It’s more that they don’t really know what you do. When I mentioned above about working long hours so the team doesn’t have to. Usually, they wouldn’t know that. If they did know, they would probably appreciate it, but since they don’t, leadership is very much a thankless position, as much of what you do for others may go unnoticed.
NOT Manager vs. Leader
So why do I hate the whole “manager vs leader” aspect? Well, in short, you can’t always be only the leader depicted in these monologues. Unless you are an informal leader who doesn’t have “holding others accountable” in your job description… then you are one of the lucky ones that might be able to pull that off.
If you are any kind of corporate leader, or a leader of a team where you are responsible for a certain job that you get paid for, and they get paid for, with goals and objectives, you can’t just be that leader.
YOU MUST BE BOTH. By trying to be a leader over a manager, you are failing at an important part of your job. Leadership and management are two different things. But, they are both necessary in order to succeed in your role.
Warren Bennis penned “On Becoming a Leader” in 1989 where he very clearly distinguished the differences between being a leader and being a manager. (You can find it here.)
Here are some aspects to think about:
- The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
All of the above (systems, structure, people) must be taken into account when decisions are made or processes are developed. If a manager thinks of only the systems and structure, the decision or process will fail because the people weren’t accounted for. If the leader only thinks of the people, the decision or process will fail because the systems and structure weren’t accounted for.
- The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
Yes, we all want to inspire trust and that’s what we set out to do each morning. It’s an important part of our jobs. But if you think that everyone will trust you and automatically do what’s expected of them because they trust you, you are sadly mistaken. You will have people that don’t — whether because they are incapable, they are one of those slackers that always try to slide by, or they disagree. There will be cases where you will need to utilize your control to get them back on track. You will have to tell someone what to do and how to do it. You will have to give someone disciplinary action. If you don’t you are failing yourself, that individual, and your team as a whole. You need to both inspire trust, but then take control when you need to.
- The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
Always challenge. An important part of innovation is challenging what is current. With that being said, there will be times when the status quo is what is necessary right now. The above statement makes it seem like the leader knows that there is something better and that the manager is just letting the opportunity go by. There might be something better, so by all means, challenge. But if there isn’t, because there may not always be, it has to be okay to accept the status quo for the time being and not force something that isn’t going to work just because it was challenged. You need to trust your people and know that you are not the keeper of all the knowledge.
It’s important to not get lost in all the hubbub surrounding management versus leadership as if a person can only be one or the other. Successful leaders must be both. You just have to know when to be each. BALANCE.
Leadership Means You Have the Ability to Change Someone’s Life
Do you remember your first boss? I bet you remember your best boss. And your worst. I think I am the leader that I am because I learned from great leaders and terrible ones. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t challenged by a boss, recognized by a leader, lead by a mentor.
As a leader, you have the ability to change someone’s life. Never waste that opportunity. While we all like to think of ourselves as self-made individuals, what if that first person hadn’t taken a chance on you? It’s possible that someone else would’ve. It’s also possible that you’d be in a place where favoritism runs rampant and your chance of moving up was much less than your chance of moving on.
What if that one person didn’t tell you the difficult things that you needed to hear? You’d probably never know it. You wouldn’t have improved on whatever it was that you needed to improve. Eventually, you’d be turned down for a job or some goal that you want to achieve because you’re lacking that skill.
What if they (or someone else) didn’t tell you how great you did at xyz, inspiring you to do it again, only even better this time. What if they didn’t challenge you to come out of your comfort zone in the first place. Would you have? You can’t answer that honestly because you don’t know for certain.
As a leader, you never know how you may inspire someone to do something great.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is seeing people accomplish things that they’ve worked hard to earn. This means that they’ve grown to the point of blooming.
I know this article can be a little negative. I didn’t create it to put leadership in a negative light. I created it to bring out the raw honesty of leadership. So many new and aspiring leaders try to glamorize leadership. Leadership is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it also comes with heartache, long awake nights, and disappointment.
In the beginning of the article, I referred leadership to hurricanes, lost dogs, and sunrises. Hurricanes because there always needs to be a plan for the upcoming storm. There is always an upcoming storm. Whether it be long hours or a wrong decision — all storms need plans and actions. Lost dogs are those employees that are lost and that you need to bring back around. Conversations, inspiration, and truth will hopefully do that. Sunrises are my favorite. They are the great impact that you can make in someone’s life. The plans that go well. The conversations that turn into positive changes. The reason that I love leadership.
Leadership is a gift. Utilize it wisely. If life is a game, be someone’s game-changer.