Leadership is tough, and often confusing.
To use two metaphors that frankly shouldn’t be seen on the same page together, being a leader often feels like you’re the only one driving northward in a southbound lane; or that you’ve suddenly found yourself alone, paddling a canoe through snaking river rapids. In fog. At night.
It’s difficult enough to lead, even at the best of times. The information leaders receive is imperfect and rarely timely, the resources they have at hand are usually insufficient for the challenge ahead, and in the heat of execution, communications are often garbled, imprecise, or ambiguous.
So it’s distressing to watch when a leader makes their already highly stressful and complicated job close to impossible by adding self-imposed – albeit subconscious – constraints on their ability to lead well. And surprisingly, leaders do precisely that, all the time.
In my work as an executive coach, one of the first things I have to ascertain are the ways in which a leader is making their job even more difficult, simply by getting in their own way. The ways in which this happens are manifold, of course, but three of them recur so often as to make them a useful starting point for your own self-analysis:
1. Bringing hidden presuppositions to important decisions.
I see it all the time: a team of key executives get together to make a decision about an important issue or initiative, and the discussion is free, open, honest and engaged. Pretty good, huh? What else could you reasonably expect?
Well, here’s the kicker – the discussion, great as it might be, only covered about 20% of the waterfront. Because of the presuppositions of one or more of the leaders (usually based on their personal history, experiences and preferences, some or all of which may or may not be relevant to the matter under discussion) a whole bunch of possible solutions or actions never even reached the table.
Presuppositions are slippery things. By their nature they are almost always held subconsciously (which means we don’t recognize the need to take them into account). They’re usually deeply felt. Most damagingly, their relevance to a specific subject matter is rarely challenged.
Try this: next time you have an important issue under consideration – a new product launch or a hiring decision, say – take five minutes to reflect and write down all the presuppositions you’re carrying in your head regarding that decision. Don’t edit your thoughts, don’t justify or defend them. Bring them with you to the meeting, and air them with your colleagues. You’ll almost certainly have a much deeper, richer and effective discussion as a result.
2. Planning based on people rather than roles.
The new strategy should include $10m in new sales targets, but you know your sales manager doesn’t have what it takes to get you $10m in new sales.
The next version of your product really should be 2 pounds lighter, but you know your head of product design doesn’t have what it takes to deliver that.
I see leaders hobble their businesses all the time because they make strategic decisions based on what they believe their team can deliver, rather than what the market is demanding and what their business should be delivering in response.
If you have people in roles that aren’t capable of delivering what that role should, your first priority is to upskill, coach, mentor or hire that skill into your organization. Not to lower your strategic goals and settle for what the existing team can deliver for you.
Yes, I know – glib, and easy for me to say. But here’s the thing: your competitors aren’t beating you because they caught a lucky break. They’re beating you because they have better people. Because they took the time to work on their team, and didn’t compromise their strategy.
3. Welding delegation to trust.
Trust is a good thing. Trust builds loyalty and welds a bond of valuable sweat equity between the trust-er and the trust-ee. Trust also makes leaders lazy and teams weak.
Why? Because it develops in the leader a default reaction when something important needs done – give it to the trusted colleague. And a few months later, the trusted colleague is overworked, resented by others on the team and the leader has no greater bond of trust with the team as a whole than they started with.
The next time you find yourself turning to ‘old reliable’ to get that vital task done, remember this: you’re subconsciously abdicating one of the most important tasks of leadership – the hard work involved in building and spreading trust in your team as a whole.