Even the greatest leaders hit a rock in the middle of the road sometimes.
One day, something gives you pause: a meeting that didn’t go as you expected, perhaps, or an exciting new challenge that turns out to be no challenge at all (let alone exciting).
Maybe an exchange with a colleague leaves you puzzled, or you simply feel drained – whatever the trigger, the end result is a realization that for weeks, maybe months, you’ve been operating at less than your usual high level.
You feel disengaged, less motivated, perhaps even frustrated – even though on the surface at least, nothing fundamental has changed about your role. In short, you’ve lost your leadership mojo, and you can’t put your finger on why.
Of course, external events can cause any of us to lose our sense of direction, or reduce our previously high commitment to work challenges. A major life change – getting married, having kids, getting divorced – or material changes in the business environment, like a change in ownership, or a radical shift in direction can throw event the most seasoned leader for a loop.
But what about those times when there is no obvious cause – when disengagement and a sense of malaise simply creeps up on you for no apparent reason? In that case, chances are you’re facing one of these four hidden challenges:
1. It’s no longer about you
Most leaders have a healthy sense of self-worth. Even those with genuine humility know that their leadership isn’t a mechanical skill – it’s intimately bound up with who they are, with what they believe, and with how they conduct themselves.
For some leaders, this ‘leadership ego’ (the close identification of their leadership with who they are as individuals) is so strong – and so important to them – that when the time comes to step back and let the rest of the team take the limelight, they face a difficult challenge. Intellectually aware that such a step is necessary for the good of the enterprise as a whole, they nonetheless are left feeling personally unfulfilled, aimless and underutilized.
How to fix it:
If this is you, the key is to stay in ‘starter’ mode as much as possible: find ‘player-coach’ assignments – new challenges that keep you front and center of the action. As you anticipate each assignment reaching fruition, position yourself to hand off responsibility to someone else on the team and move to the next ‘starter’ activity.
2. It’s (still) all about you
Some leaders, particularly those with a lot of financial skin in the game such as founder/owners, suffer from the opposite dynamic. Feeling that day after day they alone have been pushing the rock uphill, what was once an exciting daily challenge of their leadership skills becomes instead a weary sense of drudgery; a locked-jaw, joyless task of carrying the full weight of the entire enterprise on their own shoulders.
How to fix it:
This challenge is a not uncommon one for business owners and c-suite executives – and it persists because the cost of fixing it is high: re-tooling the rest of the team.
If you’re carrying the entire weight of the enterprise on your own shoulders, then (assuming you’re not simply delusional about your own abilities) chances are high that the rest of your team aren’t up to the challenge of taking on some or all of that weight themselves.
Executive development may be part of the answer (using formal training, coaching and mentoring to up-skill your team), but you may also have to accept an unpalatable truth – that some of your team members (maybe even some of your most loyal and high-performing colleagues) don’t have what it takes to get your business to the next level.
3. Your organization has become over-systematized
Remember the old adage about the frog in boiling water? (Apparently if you place a frog in a pot of water then heat the water one degree at a time, the frog will stay in the pot until it boils to death because it doesn’t notice the slow increase in temperature. I’m not sure how true it is, and I don’t propose testing the theory, but the analogy will suffice for our purposes.)
Well, the same thing happens to many leaders. Proponents of creativity, initiative and controlled risk-taking, they wake up one day to find that the environment in which they’re operating has morphed over time into a highly controlled, risk-averse, over-systematized bureaucracy – one which has sucked the life out of their own role as leader.
How to fix it:
There’s only one strategy if you’re a boiling frog: get out of the pot.
Over the years I’ve counseled many frustrated leaders stuck in a bureaucratic straitjacket, and I’ve yet to see one who, if they wanted to regain true fulfillment as leaders, didn’t have to jump ship. This may mean moving elsewhere within the organization, or finding yourself a new role elsewhere, but unless you’re the owner or in the C-suite, don’t kid yourself that you will change the system from within.
4. The painting is finished.
The British painter Francis Bacon said “I have no fear of making the first stoke on a blank canvas. My fear is not knowing when I’ve made the last one.” Like many leaders, Bacon had no problems starting something, but he feared over-painting – ruining a potential masterpiece by working on it too long.
For some leaders, that sense of malaise with no obvious cause is an intuitive warning that the painting is finished. your job is done, and it’s time to move on.
How to fix it: Be happy, and find a new challenge.