Engaged Leadership: Avoiding the Pitfalls of “Going it Alone”

Shawn Umbrell
Aug 19 · 5 min read
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Let me ask. How are you doing? No, really. How are you doing? You’ve spent the last six months leading your organization through arguably the most turbulent period of our lifetime. But you’ve led through difficult times before. In fact, you’ve thrived in some really difficult times. That’s how you made it to where you are today. But this has been different. Right? You’ve never viewed leadership as a burden, but the amount of responsibility you have and the stress of the current environment are beginning to feel like some pretty heavy weights. You’ve tried, but you just can’t seem to make everyone happy. Rather, you don’t think you can make anybody happy. Your shoulders are starting to get tired.

The punches keep coming and some have landed with pretty good effect. But you’re still putting up a really good fight; or are you? I challenge you right now to pause. Pause for sixty seconds and consider whether or not you’re being the leader your organization needs you to be. Time…starts…now.

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Welcome back. If you’ve determined that you’re in a good spot, you can leave. But if you hesitate (even slightly) to say that you’re leading in the way that your organization needs you to, please stay. If you’re not sure, let me help by asking a few questions. What are your top three priorities right now? Could your staff answer that question? What’s your intent for the next ninety days? Can your staff answer that question? What transitions do you foresee in the near future? Have you allocated the resources and personnel necessary for those transitions to succeed? Have you “operationalized” these transitions? One last question. Have you started to isolate yourself and only seek counsel from those who will tell you what you want to hear?

Ouch! Please know this - Your leadership matters. But sometimes leaders get so deep into the woods on complex issues that they can’t see how ineffective they have become. The forest just seems to get thicker and thicker and you go deeper and deeper into it. Before long, the way out is hard to find. You might even get to the point that you begin to believe that you are in the woods alone. That you alone determine success or failure. When you finally realize what’s happened, you’ll look around and find that your people are still there and longing for something that you’ve stopped giving them…purpose, direction, and motivation. Sometimes, leaders get so consumed with their responsibilities of “looking up and out” for their organization that they completely neglect their responsibilities to also “look down and in.” Now is not the time to isolate yourself. You cannot afford to “go it alone.” So, what should you do? Start by getting engaged and lead your people. Consider these five engaged leadership actions to get back on track.

1. Assess your current situation. Start with your organizational culture and climate, then work your way down to systems, processes, and ongoing operations. Don’t simply assess from a personal perspective, but from that of your entire staff. Collective staff input is critical for you to gain a complete and accurate understanding of your situation. If you only seek input from a trusted group of advisors, you will have gaps. Gaps can be very costly in time, money, and trust. That’s right. Trust. When you fail to gain input from your entire team in times of crisis, trust will erode. Everyone’s senses are heightened, and they want to share their input with you. By shutting people out, whether intentionally or unintentionally, you will create a trust gap. You don’t need me to tell you how important trust is. You’ve spent years building it. Are you willing to risk losing it?

2. Communicate your priorities and intent. Better yet, over-communicate your priorities and intent. Every time you have an opportunity to talk to your team, revisit your priorities and intent. Have the team repeat them to you. Ask them what they’ve done in their specific area to help achieve them. By doing this you will determine whether your message has been both received and understood. It will also allow your people to highlight their role in the team’s success. You’re not doing it alone. This also gives you the opportunity to re-communicate and reorient efforts if necessary. If you struggle to communicate your intent, consider describing these three things: 1. The purpose of what you want to happen (the why); 2. The three to five key tasks that the entire team must complete in order to accomplish the mission; 3. The set of desired future conditions that will exist at the conclusion of the event or operation.

3. Identify key transitions and operationalize them. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a staff section that is focused on future plans, most of your staff is probably focused on near term priorities. As the leader, you must think deep into the future, identify critical transition periods, and then allocate the proper resources and personnel ahead of time to allow the transition to occur successfully. This will require you to visualize your desired future environment, describe it to your team, and direct them to execute the tasks necessary to accomplish your intent. To operationalize the transitions you must include the entire staff in the planning process. Not just a portion of the staff, the ENTIRE staff. To be completely effective, your staff must work together on key planning efforts. A failure to do so will create, you guessed it, gaps.

4. Identify probable points of friction and assign a leader to each one. Points of friction are those physical locations or moments in time that may be most challenging for your team and that may pose a threat to the successful outcome of your event or operation. Do not neglect point of friction analysis. Point of friction analysis consists mostly of anticipating where things could go wrong. Once complete, determine which of your leaders is best to handle each one. Give clear assignments to these leaders to ensure your intent is met.

5. Be present. If the previous four points aren’t achievable, just be present. Your team needs to see you. Your actions, more so than your words, will be an inspiration and example for your team to follow. Communicate early, often, and honestly. In the toughest times, your team needs you to be present. Your presence alone just might rule the day.

Look around. Have you traveled a bit too far into the forest and are feeling alone? If so, take stock of your current position. Find ways to implement these five engaged leadership actions into your daily routine. They might be new to you or you might just need to start them again. Either way, remember this: Your leadership matters. If you’re going to head off into the forest, take your team with you. Don’t go it alone. Your people are ready and capable of carrying some of the weight. Let them.

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