The best Leaders create room for People to suck
You and your team need to struggle sometimes
I have rescuer tendencies. When I see people struggling I want to help them. I rationalise that if they succeed faster, then we succeed faster, then we can get more done. This is short term thinking, people need room to suck, to struggle, to work it out for themselves. That is how they grow.
When I think back to those times where I learnt the most about myself, about my capacities, about my weaknesses. It was when I was given space to suck. When I had to work at the edge of my knowledge and strengths for an extended time to succeed.
Now I am in a position of leadership I realise that I too need to create space for my team to suck. It is in that created space where they work at the edge of their capacities, that they grow and learn.
Finding your own way
In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life — Albert Bandura
There are stories everywhere of those people who went through significant adversity and found their way to their own successes. These people serve as inspiration for those who come after them.
Thomas Edison is a name you will be familiar with.
He is most famous for his invention of the light bulb. What you may not know is that he was not the first person to develop an incandescent light bulb. There were several others throughout Europe who had produced lightbulbs. But they were not sustainable solutions requiring expensive elements and having ineffectively short lives.
The reason that Edison became famous for the light bulb was his persistence. He tested over 6000 different filaments with his associates to find one that produced a reasonable length of light with an affordable filament. The others did not have the patience to continuously work through the problem. They did not persist. Edison’s story is written about and appropriately celebrated.
However, in the day-to-day mundane of your place of work, there are few stories of adversities overcome, capacities stretched, and success in the face of a challenge. Certainly in my work, those moments are soon overrun by the next big challenge and moment.
Nobody prepares a heart-warming documentary or composes a celebratory song about them.
Because of this continuous tempo, of one challenge after another, a culture of quick wins has become entrenched. There is no room for people to find their own way, to learn at the pace best for them. There is no room for sucking. Everyone needs to succeed fast all the time.
To truly understand something, you need to find your own path through that challenge.
It is that seemingly never-ending stretch of frustration, where your own determination and perspiration finally yields a small victory. It is that, the victory when it all seemed lost, that gives you the knowledge you need to succeed. The increase in self-efficacy that proves you do belong.
Creating space to Suck
This is a team sport.
I’ve written previously about how the most successful, productive and effective teams have learnt how to find their way to a yes. They do not get stuck in the No Corridor. To successfully navigate that corridor, your team is reliant on people I call Bumpers and Magnets.
Bumpers are those people who have seen problems or projects like this before, because of this earned knowledge, they can see impending problems just before they arrive. They can help teams before they run into a ‘No’.
You know what a No sounds like; ‘Oh no, we can’t do that’, or ‘That’s not how it is done around here’, or ‘We don’t have a policy for that’. These are all No’s that pepper teams when they are trying to get ‘stuff’ done. The thing is, these are often self-imposed limitations and there is nearly always a path to yes. Often it is a ‘yes, if’ or a ‘yes, however’. But it is still a yes.
These bumpers help you find the ‘if’ or ‘however’ that enable the yes. And you know how they got to become bumpers? They were able to spend time sucking. They had projects that had to struggle through barriers, they had to learn what works and more importantly what doesn’t. They need an environment that allows them to suck for a while. They spent some time working out how to get to yes.
If you have been given time to suck, to work through difficult problems, to work right at the edge of your knowledge, to realise the breadth of things you do not know, and then succeed. Then you grow and can help the team succeed in the future.
The only way to create this space for people to learn like this, to sit with problems and struggle, is to have an environment that supports it. Your team needs to have the resilience to allow people to spend time in that struggle, to talk through the problems and find their own way through.
The Willingness of the Individual
Ryan Holiday wrote a pivotal book explaining stoicism called ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ in which he talks about the opportunity that challenges present. But personally, I prefer to listen to Chuck Norris.
I’ve always found that anything worth achieving will always have obstacles in the way and you’ve got to have that drive and determination to overcome those obstacles on route to whatever it is that you want to accomplish — Chuck Norris.
Owning this mantra, that drive and determination, is a personal choice in each moment. The best people to have in an organisation turn out to be those with the highest threshold for absorbing the suckiness. For thriving in the struggle. Those with drive and determination.
These people have an inherent persistence, they have an appetite for growth. These people either have this nature intrinsically or because it has been fostered by their motivation for the goal.
Each of these motivations requires an aspect of leadership. To foster that ability in them, or to create an environment that provides evidence of the importance of the goal and its value to them and the organisation.
Owning the Suck
It’s not the will to win that matters, everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters — Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant
Bear Bryant was a famous American football coach who realised the importance of those who can embrace the suck in pursuit of a higher goal. In finding those willing to do the hard things regularly, he found players who made the game easier.
These people own the suck. They realise that the things that you learn about yourself and your skillset when it is really hard, prove the most valuable in the long run.
Bear Bryant was a leader that knew that — you need to be too. You need to realise that there are things you are putting off doing because they are hard or you are not very good it. You know that your team is trying to find shortcuts or workarounds to things that are hard. Because you are too.
It is your responsibility to own the suck, and let your team do it too. You can talk to them about it, you can forewarn them that it is going to be hard for some people. But that the skills you hone now, in this job that requires persistence and effort, will let you succeed in the long run.
Remember how inspiring it was when Daniel Carusso finally worked out that during those mind-numbingly boring exercises like polishing the car, hammering nails and painting, he had learnt the fundamentals of Karate. Those times sucked for him but proved so valuable in the long run.
Your team needs the space to do this as well. To embrace and own the suck. You need to show them that it is okay. You need to own the suck as well.
Being a leader isn’t all glamorous speeches and perfect strategic manoeuvres. It is spending hours preparing for a feedback and reporting session with one of your staff. It is ensuring that you have researched the latest environmental scan so that you can make good decisions this quarter. It is offering training and assistance to your teams.
You need to embrace the suck because in those moments you gain so much. You grow and improve, but it is hidden behind the veil of hard work.
I aim to create a little Spark inside of the reader's mind, that could form into a flame in their soul. You are capable of more than you know. You may just need a prompt. I hope this finds you where you are, and offers you a little hope that your hard work is worth it.
You can reach me at leonpurton.com.