A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
Most great leaders are self-contained individuals. (Not surprising, really, given that the process of becoming a great leader develops a high degree of self-startedness in people.) Those that aren’t self-contained – those who exhibit neediness, or a too-strong desire for validation from others, for example – generally cap out at a leadership level somewhere below ‘great’.
This characteristic – usually expressed as a lack of self-doubt, coupled with the ability to stand strong and reach inward for what’s needed in times of trial – is almost always a great asset for both the leader and their team. It brings clarity and assurance at times of crisis, and helps re-center and re-focus a stressed or up-ended team.
There are times, however, when being self-contained turns into a damaging liability – times when a leader puts everything on the line by trusting too much in their own skills and judgment. Not surprisingly, this happens most often when a leader turns their skills and judgment on themselves – when they attempt, in essence, to self-diagnose their own leadership weaknesses.
In such cases, to solve the issue they’re struggling with, a leader will eventually need to reach out to a coach or mentor for help. The alternative – and sadly, it’s a frequent outcome – is that the leader will battle fruitlessly with the same issue over and over again, often for years, without really ever succeeding in fixing it. And of course, during all that time, their leadership development is placed on hold, stunted by whatever the key issue is that they cannot put behind them.
Here are the three specific cases where I most often see leaders struggle to relinquish control and reach out to others for help:
Deep-seated behavioral traits.
Temper tantrums; inability to focus overlong on detail; promising to delegate then micro-managing – these and any of a hundred more behavioral traits can trap a leader, forcing them into a negative pattern of behavior and freezing their ability to develop further.
If you find yourself repeating a cycle of one or more negative behavioral traits, promising yourself again and again that you’ll act differently next time, then exercise some personal tough love: admit that you won’t act differently next time (or if you do, it’ll only be for a short period), and reach out for some external help.
Find someone who can coach you through the behavioral changes you need to make by providing you with tools and techniques to make it happen, and most importantly, who will hold you accountable over time to make the change permanent.
This is a tough area for any leader to recognize the need for outside help. While behavioral issues are usually self-evident, prejudices, by their nature, lurk beneath the surface, with the leader often wholly unaware that they’re even there.
Prejudices can, and do, occur in just about every aspect of leadership – not just in the more obvious areas such as gender, race or belief systems, but also in strategic and tactical issues. A preference for this pricing structure or that sales channel isn’t always a reasoned judgment – sometimes it’s just a prejudice, plain and simple.
Of course, we all have, and exhibit, prejudices from time – what we’re discussing are deep-seated, material prejudices that appear with enough regularity to undermine your leadership ability.
How can you know if you’re exhibiting such prejudices? Simple – ask a good selection of the people you work with. (If you work in an environment where you won’t get useful feedback by asking the question, then you face deeper problems.) If you hear the same consistent feedback about one or more apparent prejudices then again, don’t trust yourself to fix it – get help.
Over-dependence on a strength.
For many leaders their greatest weakness is an over-dependence on their biggest strength.
Perhaps it’s a frequently-exhibited ability to think creatively; a hard-earned reputation for grinding out the detail, or a stellar history of landing big clients: whatever their ‘signature’ skill is, some leaders develop a learned dependence on that skill – a subconscious default pattern of reaching for that strength in almost every circumstance, whether appropriate or not.
This pattern – of limiting oneself by over-dependence on a key strength – can be spotted only over time. Only someone who has worked closely with you in different situations will see it – which is one of the many reasons every great leader needs true confidants, people who will tell it to you like it is.
Think you’re limiting yourself by over-dependence on a key skill or attribute? Again, don’t try to fix it yourself. No doctor would attempt self-surgery, and nor should you – find a coach or mentor you can trust, and get yourself some outside help.
Download a free chapter from the author’s book, “The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success” which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world class leader.
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