by Justin Standfield
At an online networking event I attended recently, I enjoyed learning from and collaborating with some fellow leadership development professionals. But I also noticed a trend among some of the participants, especially in their written material and website copy etc. The way they wrote about leadership made it seem like hard work, at least being a good leader seems like hard work. Let me explain.
“Doing it the right way every time for the right reason”
This phrase suggests there’s a single right way…but what if I don’t know what that ‘right way’ is or what if it doesn’t fit with my strengths and values? It sounds a bit mysterious. It also suggests there’s no room for mistake-making and, therefore, learning from mistakes if I’m expected to get it right every single time.
Blimey. That’s a bit exhausting, especially when most leaders also have some sort of functional responsibility for a product/service or technical expertise as part of their job. I’d be asking: “Do I get to sleep at some point or at least have a five minute break?”
“Unrelenting pursuit of excellence”
Again, I’m shattered at the thought of it. High standards are great but can’t I have a vanilla day when I’m just human like everyone else and operating at a slightly sub-optimal level? There’s a style of leadership that Daniel Goleman describes as ‘Pacesetting’ which is one of the dissonant styles in his model – therefore it should be used sparingly.
“Leadership is about daily sacrifice”
At times, all jobs require an element of sacrifice. But I wonder if a sustained, ongoing ‘giving up’ of something might breed some resentment in the longer term or at least a sense of losing your identity? I’ve worked with a lot of leaders in executive coaching who were struggling with their wellbeing as a result of working incredibly long hours because they perceived that “it’s what you have to do as a leader isn’t it?”.
“Being totally driven”
This is a contentious one, so I know I’ll probably divide opinion with my take on this. ‘Driven’ is a common word in LinkedIn profile summaries (checks own profile for a moment, to make sure it’s not there!), in fact so common that I’d argue that it has become somewhat meaningless…you know, one of those words that your eyes skim past without properly registering it’s import.
When I’m working 1:1 with someone on career transition and I see they’ve used the word ‘driven’ in their LinkedIn profile, I ask them to describe how ‘drive’ shows up in their behaviour. I’d say 50% of the time, people tell me they just used the word because they saw it in someone else’s profile and it looks good, or they’ll say “I thought that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say on LinkedIn”. The other 50% describe characteristics that do indeed fit under the ‘driven’ umbrella.
Being a really good leader is harder than it looks, that’s for sure. Our earliest experiences of leadership from within groups that we were a member of are likely to be school, college or university. Typically, people who were seen as leaders were the over-achievers in some way. For example, in class projects this might have been the person who took the most airtime during a group presentation (something you can still witness in adults if you watch ‘The Apprentice’); as Susan Cain says in her excellent book, ‘Quiet’, and her TED Talk: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas” – but somehow our education system hasn’t cottoned on to this yet. Another example from our formative years would be sport, where the leaders or team captains are usually the best players. In school, this makes complete sense.
But these approaches don’t work well in the workplace. This is a story we all know well, from having seen the individual promoted due to their technical expertise and then overnight being given half a dozen people to lead because they’re the expert. It doesn’t take long for everyone involved in this situation to realise that high levels of competence at a set of specialist tasks doesn’t automatically make someone naturally able to communicate with, listen to, inspire and motivate others.
Back to leadership, then. True leadership is the ability to communicate with and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for each of them. It asks us to be patient, flexible and – at times – it means that we’ll be putting ourselves last. These aspects of leadership are likely to be where leadership trainers stray into vocabulary such as “driven”, “sacrifice”, “unrelenting” and so on. However, my worry is that when these phrases are used with too heavy a hand, there’s a risk of a couple of things happening:
- If an individual is struggling to lead and finds the whole thing problematic (or even worse, so stressful that affects their mental health), they might ignore these difficulties and assume that they’re just part of the deal (because leadership is meant to be a struggle, right?), and therefore not ask for the help and support they need.
- People who are aspiring leaders with great potential will be disinclined to put themselves forward for career development or leadership opportunities; the idea of pushing on through life with gritted teeth and clenched fists like some sort of corporate Iron Man simply puts them off.
I’m an advocate for finding an authentic way through the leadership jungle that lets the individual leader play to their strengths, demonstrate their values and deploy Emotional Intelligence in their interpersonal relationships. From my point of view, this dwells somewhere around the middle of a continuum that has two very extreme ends – at one end you can find unicorns, rainbows and lotus petals, and at the other end you can see lots of furrowed brows, trophies and an unhealthy work-life balance. Of course, there will be periods of time where leading people will be incredibly challenging (2020, for example!) but I think it’s important to reassure leaders that staying true to their values – yet being flexible in their style when needed – will serve them well during difficult times.
As leadership development professionals, I believe we best enable new leaders to emerge and thrive in their roles by offering a more balanced view of leading through our written word and our presentations. If I’m a people manager and the whole leadership thing does feel like 24/7 sacrifice and unrelenting struggle, perhaps I’m not being sully supported by my own leader or maybe I need to broaden my skills?