One of the keys to leadership success involves having something to aim for, something that inspires both you and others to reach and achieve your common goals. We often hear this outcome focus described as being “on purpose,” and another way to express that is through the concept of intentionality, or leading deliberately.
But there’s another aspect of intentional or deliberate leadership that goes deeper and that is far more intimate than setting aspirational goals or assigning measurable targets.
I watched my son dodge waves at the beach this chilly winter morning. He’d watch a wave come in, let it get within a metre or so of him, and then he’d run up the sand until he was beyond the reach of the water.
Eventually, he was waiting until the water was barely inches from his running shoes before commencing his retreat. And with each progressive wave, he got even bolder and cheekier, pushing his luck until inevitably the waves lapped over his shoes and he got a soaker.
He looked down at his wet shoes, socks and pants, laughed, and went right back to dodging waves.
Playing it safe
Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretzky said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
As a leader, if you don’t take any “shots” then you’re not doing your job.
Risk is inherent when you lead people, whether it’s taking a chance on delegating an important task to someone who may or may not be ready for it, or agreeing to speak to a bigger group than you ever have before.
The speed of learning
The fastest way to learn something is to experience it, mess it up, and go again.
Just as a pendulum swings past the centre line many times before finding equilibrium, the best way for you to build your leadership skills is by taking things too far. You need to make mistakes. You need to aim for Personal Bests.
You need to challenge your limits.
Progress is happiness
There’s a joy that comes with stepping further than you ever have before. There’s a thrill in taking on challenges that are just beyond what you think you’re capable of.
Reach for them.
I’m not talking about diving into the water, fully dressed, on a chilly winter day.
How often do you call it quits on a great idea before you’ve made it happen?
My two young sons set up a lime-selling stand at the end of our driveway this past weekend. They did quite well out of it, but not without initial sibling drama.
You see, they almost gave up before making the first sale because neither of the boys wanted to be the one who held up the sign to alert passing cars. Too embarrassing, apparently.
And then I witnessed my older son, Ben, take the lead in a way that belied his 11 years. He said to his little brother, “Whoever is holding up the sign when someone stops gets three quarters of that sale, and the other person only gets one quarter.”
My younger son worked the sign like a pro.
Here are three questions that leaders ask themselves before giving up on a project or an idea, thus allowing themselves to get more completed than a significant number of their give-up-too-soon counterparts.
Question 1: Is it worth the effort?
My older son, consciously or unconsciously, asked himself whether the lime stand was worth it. And to him it was, for a few reasons. Firstly, he’d never done it before and it was exciting. Secondly, there was money in it. And thirdly, he was avoiding doing homework – perhaps the deciding factor in the end.
If a project or idea is worth the effort, then it’s worth weathering the challenges that come with it. Great leaders don’t change their minds quickly. If they’ve decided something is worth it, it will take serious convincing for them to renege.
Question 2: How can we make this work?
Once Ben decided to continue with lime stand, he didn’t let something like an argument about holding up a sign get in his way. Instead, he stopped and thought about possible solutions. Knowing that his little brother would do almost anything for money, it didn’t take him long.
Leaders have flexibility about the journey. They know what result they want to get, and a glitch in the process doesn’t mean anything other than it’s time to get creative about the how.
Question 3: What am I willing to give up?
Ben gave up 25% of the takings, and as a result the boys probably made even more than they would have if the split was 50/50. Why? Because my younger son was incredibly motivated by making more money than his big brother, and persisted well beyond the time his big brother lost interest. What was lost in margin was made up in volume.
Leaders know that sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes giving up something now brings even more later.
Your current initiatives
Pick a project you’re working on. Perhaps one that’s stalling, or not working. Ask yourself the three questions.
When is the last time your emotions got the better of you at work?
I remember being in a meeting with a senior manager who consistently cut me off every time I began to speak. It would happen in every meeting we were in, and I increasingly dreaded attending meetings with him. In one particular meeting, after he cut me off again, I spent the rest of the meeting intently looking at the agenda, because if I made eye contact with the rest of the attendees, they would have seen the tears welling up in my eyes, and I didn’t want anyone to know how hurt I felt.
What women often want when I coach them
Very often, when I’m coaching or mentoring women in leadership positions, one of their objectives for our work together is to learn to manage their emotions at work. But when they say “manage,” what they really mean is “hide.” Their biggest fear is often that they’ll burst into tears, look “soft” to their bosses and colleagues, and undo all the hard work they’ve put into their leadership careers. And so they curb their feelings when perhaps what they should be doing is listening to them.
And that was what was happening with me.
Now please hear this. I’m not referring here to crying as a result of depression, burnout, or workplace bullying. I’m talking about those situations where you tear up, and later chide yourself for crying in front of colleagues because you tell yourself you should have been able to handle it.
What your emotions are telling you
Author Anne Kreamer and her colleague Mark Truss, in a 2009 survey of 701 respondents, found that 41% of the women they polled had cried at work in the preceding year.
So if you’ve cried at work recently, you’re far from alone.
Whether you hide away in a washroom stall and have a cry, or whether it happens in front of other people, it can be embarrassing for you, most definitely but it’s also be a potentially compelling message that you really need to pay attention to.
Is it sadness, or is it something else?
For so many women in leadership positions, tears at work are not an indication of sadness at all. They’re not a sign of weakness or unfitness for a leadership position either. They don’t mean you can’t do your job, and they don’t mean you need to turn off your feelings at work to stay in control.
For many women, workplace tears are a sign of frustration and anger.
Think about it. You don’t want to seem weak so you don’t want to cry, but it would be even WORSE, in the eyes of many women, to get really angry at work and to say what you REALLY think about things.
And that tension between feeling angry and frustrated, but not knowing how to express it, can often end in tears.
Early emotional management
If that’s rings true for you, and it will for many women, then take some time to figure out what it is that you’re angry and frustrated about. What you’ll likely discover is that there are issues you haven’t dealt with for fear of looking bossy or mean.
For me, I wasn’t standing up for myself in that meeting, and I felt like I had no communication strategies to deal with the senior manager who consistently cut me off. I felt helpless, and in my mind, each time he cut me off and I didn’t have a way to handle it, I would doubt my own leadership abilities.
Deal with the issue
When I swallowed my pride and met one-on-one with the senior manager to address the problem with him face to face, he was absolutely shocked …. In a good way. It hadn’t registered with him that he was cutting me off. He was passionate about his work, and when he had an idea he would speak it. He apologised profusely and told me he had every respect for my work and it wouldn’t happen again.
And true to his word, future meetings with this senior manager, from that moment, were very different. He treated me with respect, and even gave everyone in the room permission to let him know if he cut them off as he said it was a bad habit of his and he wanted to fix it.
What do your tears mean?
Consider, if you find the tears welling up at work for you, if there’s an issue that you need to address. Perhaps, like me, you have an issue with a specific person that needs addressing, whether it’s something you deal with yourself, or if you raise it with your boss.
Perhaps you’re unclear on the outcome for a particular project you’ve been assigned, and your frustration can be managed by meeting with key stakeholders and getting more clarity.
And if the problem is stress related or bullying, escalate it in accordance with the policies of your organisation and seek assistance.
Let your tears not mean weakness. Let them mean it’s time to take action.
What mistake has your team losing trust for you by the second?
I spent a good part of this past weekend helping my 8-year-old memorise his two-to-three minute public speaking assignment for school and speak it with expression. In order to do that, I created a system.
First, I would read a sentence from his speech to him with expression. Second, he would read it to himself, silently, with expression. Third, he would read it out loud, with expression. And finally he would speak (not read) it out loud, with expression.
The system worked like magic. My son was remembering his speech. He spoke with vocal variety, gave me plenty of eye contact and was using appropriate facial expression and gestures.
But once in a while I would skip a step and try to move things along. My 8-year-old, normally a rule-breaker at home, would pull me up and bring us back to the system.
Because it was no longer my system.
It was our system.
He was invested in it. He believed in it. He put his trust into the system. And by extension, he put his trust in me.
The danger of ignoring the system
How often, with our teams, do we promote a way of doing things and then we don’t live up to that approach ourselves? All organisations have systems and policies. Performance reviews, reports, quality assurance processes. The list is long. (Often too long.)
Promote the system and not follow it, and you may as well not have the system in the first place. Without consistency, you will not only not get the results that the system was put in place to achieve, but you will have no leg to stand on when your team isn’t following the system either.
But even worse, you lose credibility with your team.
Because you are the champion of the system. As their leader, you are a representive the organisation. You are “management.” If you, leader, support a system in word or by virtue of your leadership position, but you don’t live it, work it or apply it, then your words and your actions don’t match.
The message to your team: you don’t need to believe what the boss says. You don’t need to follow the policies and procedures of the organisation. What management says and what we, the team, do, are two different things.
In other words, disregard systems.
Selective system use
Imagine being a new employee at a large organisation and it comes time for your annual performance review. When you were recruited, you were told how this performance review is a cornerstone of the company’s success because the company values its people and their growth. You get sent on a half day training course on how to fill out the performance review questionnaire and how to have a valuable conversation with your boss. You spent the previous months diligently capturing your achievements and successes, which you carefully craft and capture succinctly in your review.
On the day of your meeting, as you sit with butterflies in your belly in a meeting room, your boss arrives. Your boss, who is meant to have read your review and come ready to discuss the review, your performance, and your career at the organisation. He/shewalks in, sits down, and says, “I haven’t had a chance to look at this yet. Anything I should pay attention to?”
Demotivating your team
In a complex, varied world, systems give people a sense of structure. A sense of control. A feeling that at least they know what’s coming next and they’ve got some influence over it.
Take that away from your team and you pull the rug out from under them, destabilise them, and create an environment where they cannot trust. They no longer know what to focus on and what not to, because what is said and what is done do not match. They begin to watch for clues as to how they’re REALLY meant to behave, because the policies and procedures, the systems, are just words on a page.
Follow the system
Your organisation needs systems. There are mandatory systems which you have no control over, but have to follow. You might not like it, but to be perfectly blunt, it’s not about you.
It’s about what works. For the organisation, for management, and for the team.
If you have a problem with a system, take it up with your own “management,” but follow it with your team anyway.
And when you create your own systems for your team, follow them religiously.
Because not everyone is going to be like my 8-year-old son. In fact very few people will have the courage to raise it with you when you’re not doing the right thing. They’ll observe in silence and come to a conclusion about which systems need to be upheld and which are voluntary.
And when they do so, you had better hope they get it right.