We expect a lot from our leaders, both creatively and professionally, and perhaps because there’s such an excess of training, writing, and cultural knowledge about how to lead, I find it’s sometimes hard to acknowledge that leaders don’t always get it right. What happens when leaders are struggling?
In working environments, especially, we tend to give struggling or inexperienced leaders a lot of leeway while we simultaneously attempting to guide, fix, control, and incentivize the work of followers. What about leaders who need help leading well? Who's holding them accountable and guiding them to do their best work?
Below are three common challenges that leaders in all industries face on a regular basis. The more responsibility the leader holds, the greater the challenge. I'm interested in how leaders can overcome these challenges, with the support from followers in their circle or in their organization. I've offered here three unexpected strategies, for leaders, that acknowledge the role that followers play in any success story.
CHALLENGE #1: ORGANIZE
Manage your own time effectively and guide workflows for your team
THE PITFALL: MICRO-MANAGING
When leaders fall into this trap, they become so busy monitoring others, that they don’t get around to doing their own work. Worse, they can interfere with the work of the same followers they are ostensibly trying to manage or assist. I know I’ve done this in the past, thinking that my way of doing things was the best way, or that the project would fail unless everyone did exactly what I thought they should do.
Most of us have also experienced the stifling presence of a micro-manager, and I’ve never heard anyone welcome that kind of attention. In fact, it’s one of the most universally agreed-upon complaints. The micro-manager drains our energy, and squashes creativity and initiative at lightening speed. So, why does this behavior happen and how can leaders avoid it or get out of it quickly when it does occur?
THE FIX: LET GO
I believe one big reason leaders may micro-manage is the temporary misunderstanding that leadership means we need to be in control of followers. Or, the fear of losing control in general. The micro-manager, in effect, is trying to do both roles, that of leader and follower, at the same time. This is one reason, I think, that it is so annoying!
The fix, then, is to redefine leadership as being in connection with followers. Recognizing that it’s not control, but connection that is effective, reminds us to see and hear what followers are actually doing and saying, what they need, and then let go. Let the work go into their hands. The job of followers is to do the work. Let followers do their work, and let them know that you are available if they need help or have any questions.
If letting go is difficult, start by delegating small tasks where the stakes are lower, and gradually build up to larger pieces of work. Also, leaders who struggle with micro-managing might do well to schedule themselves regular uninterrupted personal time, so that they can put distance, both mentally and physically, between the role of the leader and the role of the follower.
CHALLENGE #2: FORECAST
Predict problems in advance and strategize to minimize or avoid them
THE PITFALL: TUNNEL VISION
When leaders get overwhelmed, they can start making decisions in isolation that have negative impact on others or that cause costly delays. It may seem more efficient to just work alone and keep going, but no one person can have all the relevant information all the time. Inevitably, forging ahead, even in the interest of expediency, will catch up with us. We will make bad decisions by overlooking, diminishing, or forgetting about the valuable perspectives of those working below and around us.
Worse, shutting out the input of others can act as negative reinforcement. We cancel a meeting but still think we know the answer, because we weren’t in a room with others to review the most recent data. Our next decision isn’t received well due to our own lack of information, but we assume others are questioning our leadership ability rather than voicing legitimate concerns.
THE FIX: SHARE AUTHORITY
Tunnel vision gets sticky when we the position of leadership itself becomes defined by always having superior knowledge or reasoning ability. In order to feel secure in our leadership position, even bad decisions must be labeled “good.”
To escape this dangerous spiral, we again need to step back and redefine the leader’s role as the manager of collective knowledge, rather than the sole source of knowledge. We must be able to distinguish between different circles and levels of authority. Rather than one single authoritarian voice, a team is made up of many voices, each of which have authority over certain areas of expertise or narrow sections of a project. Leaders who stay curious and implement a regular system for receiving input, suggestions, and guidance from multiple voices will largely avoid the pitfall of tunnel vision, or be able to climb out of it quickly when it happens.
CHALLENGE #3: DIRECT
Channel the team’s energy toward goals that are both ambitious and realistic
THE PITFALL: PLAYING IT SAFE
Tasked with coordinating the efforts of others over time, it’s easy to see how leaders can feel tempted to stay in the same groove over time. It takes less effort to keep things going the same way, again and again, than to adjust and revise and update systems and strategies. Even when a product or service is no longer competitive, the momentum of old systems can make it feel difficult to change.
Leaders who are feeling resistant to change, or simply tired and uninspired, may use money or perks as incentives for uninspired work rather than tapping into a shared purpose and refreshing the way things are done. These short-terms strategies will never substitute for genuine engagement with the team and a willingness to continue growing and evolving together.
THE FIX: TRUST THE PROCESS
The leader who has gotten too comfortable with outdated ways of doing things may actually believe that playing it safe is the only way to keep the business afloat, despite evidence to the contrary. The role of leading has become distorted into a role of disciplining, and keeping followers in line with the status quo.
Leaders can avoid or escape this pitfall by redefining the leader as an explorer, whose job it is to inspire followers to see the business or the project as a journey of discovery. When things aren’t working, being humble enough to return to a period of trial and error in order to test out alternatives. Spending time with followers to identify a (possibly new) shared purpose will provide a new compass to support the leader in moving forward into new territory.
Do you have a favorite strategy to leverage partnership in the work place to meet daily leadership challenges? Please leave your stories in the comments, or contribute to my current book project by answering a few questions about professional communication where you work.