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The Best Leader isn’t Perfect, They’re present

Keep your door open…

My office door stays open. I’ve worked for people who kept their office door open. I’ve worked for people who kept their office door closed. I felt connected to the ones who kept it open and disconnected to those who kept it closed. The office door, open or closed, speaks on its owner’s behalf. A closed door doesn’t communicate “strong leader within!” In fact, it may communicate exactly the opposite.

I keep my door open to say:

  • I’m available. What you need is as important as what I’m doing.
  • I’m not hiding anything (even when I’m booking a flight or ordering flowers for my mom’s birthday). I never want to be the object of speculation…what does she actually do in there??
  • I’m part of the office community. Our workplace has a few offices and a ton of cubicles. If my office door was closed all the time, it would separate me from my community.

Occasionally my door does close, but it’s the exception, not the rule. It may be a discussion of a performance issue or other human resource concern. It may be a critical incident or potential/actual PR nightmare. It could be an announcement not quite ready for publication via the office grapevine. The closed door isn’t common so no one will knock unless it’s important. They know the door will open again soon.

A wonderfully talented woman I know took a COO position at a medium-sized non-profit. She had tons of associated experience but no direct experience as a COO. During the interview, the CEO had promised good communication and ample support. In practice, however, the CEO did what she always did, worked day in and day out behind her closed office door. The lack of leadership turned out to be the reason a COO was needed in the first place. Nobody was getting leadership support. The solution wasn’t to hire someone without the right experience. It was a setup. My friend resigned before a full year passed.

I don’t know why this CEO works behind a closed door. She may be in over her head or she may be doing work she’s more comfortable with than leading. Whatever the reason, that closed door doesn’t inspire confidence, it makes people who need her leadership and guidance crazy. She may think powering through her work inspires confidence. It doesn’t. Her work is leading. Being available is how leading is done.

I’ve known a couple of leaders who were done…burned out or bored, waiting for retirement. One kept her door closed most of the time and the other stayed away from his office as much as possible. I have no idea how to address this situation except to hurry up and retire so others can escape your misery. At least when someone feels afraid or in over their head, there’s a remedy.

There are different reasons a leader might feel overwhelmed or afraid. I’ve seen two examples of this. The first was a friend of mine who got in way over her head. The second is someone I know who was essentially lied to during the interview about a ginormous problem within the leadership team.

My friend Susan applied for a job she wanted but didn’t expect to get. She loved the mission; it spoke to her, so she applied. She knew she wasn’t fully qualified and likely would not be the best candidate. Not only did she get an interview and then a second one, but she also got the job. Oh no. Now what?

She decided to pretend. She appeared to stay very busy and largely inaccessible, closeted in her office. She was trying to figure out the job. She thought she would “re-emerge” once she had a better handle on it. It was a bad strategy. She couldn’t learn the job if she wasn’t doing the job.

She had to open her door. When she did, she learned some surprising things:

  • She knew things. Someone would come to her office, ask a question and she knew exactly how to answer it. She gave good advice. She also realized when people ask questions, she learned what they did and didn’t know. She was able to plan some training opportunities to allow her staff to feel heard and supported.
  • Because she was in the top leadership position, people treated her that way. Her team would stop by to update her on their work. She got a handle on the discreet roles people had and how each person approached their work. While she learned, her team discovered she was a good listener.
  • Sometimes someone would come to her with a problem she didn’t have a clue how to solve. This is when she really wished her door was closed! Damn! She wanted to make something up or pretend she didn’t have time to talk. She learned to confess her cluelessness and initiate a problem-solving conversation.

Great leadership does not mean knowing everything. For Susan, not only did she not know everything, she didn’t even know what she should know to do the job, but there she was. Unless she was going to walk away, she had to take responsibility and be brave. To become brave, she learned to be transparent, communicate, and listen.

Anna, another young leader I know walked into a situation she did not anticipate. Within a couple of days at the helm, a reliable department director, Bill, told her this. “We’ve got a problem getting ready to blow. Your predecessor couldn’t manage the personalities of this team. It’s the main reason she left. Deb and Mike are both incredibly good at their jobs, but they hate each other. I rarely say “hate” but even “intensely dislike” doesn’t describe their relationship. The rest of us can’t take much more. We really hope you can fix this.”

Anna told me later her first thought was “You have got to be kidding me! How can I fix something I knew nothing about and apparently has been going on forever?” She told me she really wanted to hide in her office for about six months. She had some executive experience, but had never faced a situation like this.

What she finally managed to say was “Can you tell me more?”

Bill was reluctant because he didn’t want to be in the middle.

Anna said OK, let’s do it this way. I have to have information. I won’t reveal my source. Tell me one or two strengths of both Deb and Mike.

Bill said, “Oh! I can do that. She’s a solid decision maker and great with our clients. He’s the smartest person here and he plays well with others, except her.”

“What sets off their conflicts?”

“Their personalities are polar opposites. There might never be a setting where they would actually like each other. Something happened before I got here. Nobody seems to have a clear story, but it cemented the depth of their feelings.

“Why do you think it’s getting ready to blow?”

“They’re both team leaders and very competitive. One of Deb’s long-standing external referral sources has started working more with Mike. She’s convinced he’s been contacting her best people and lying to them.”

When Bill walked in her office with this bomb, she felt like she didn’t have a clue. She wanted to send him back out, close her door, and wait for it to go away. Instinctively she knew she had to lean into it, not hide. She started asking questions.

Perfect. Without even realizing it, Anna demonstrated leadership. Bill felt reassured, even hopeful they wouldn’t all go down in a blaze of dysfunction. He didn’t need her to have an instant answer, he needed her to be willing to tackle the problem. Anna learned when in doubt, ask questions and listen. She learned she didn’t have to know everything but couldn’t freak out and run screaming into the night.

I’d love to say it was smooth sailing from there, but of course, it wasn’t. Anna arranged several rounds of team building and professional development opportunities. She also offered individual mentoring. In the end, Mike left. He felt misunderstood but also admitted he’d learned some things. The remaining team was stronger than ever.

Leadership is difficult. There will always be problems and sometimes the solutions will not be in our wheelhouse. That’s where colleagues, consultants, friends, books, and even google come in handy. The people who look to us for leadership don’t need us to know everything every time there’s a problem. They need to know we won’t hide from it, or them, behind a closed door.



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