ARTICLE: Can you master the inner game of leadership?
Though many people are loath to admit it, leadership is very difficult. Faced with the ever-shifting variables of leadership, people understandably latch on to one approach, embracing their own developed leadership style and expecting others to accommodate it. But anyone who goes into a leadership position with a forceful do-this-my-way style will soon be frustrated that the world is not bending to their will. Insecure in the shades of gray and contradictions of leadership, their hardened approach may work in certain situations, but not most, and they will quickly lose their most talented employees.
Then there are other leaders who seem naturally clear-eyed, calm, and confident. It’s not that they think they have all the answers; they often are the first to admit they don’t. But as they describe their approach to leadership and key lessons learned, it becomes clear they have spent many years working through different approaches to arrive at a balance point that resolves the core challenges of leadership.
What does it take to reach that level of comfort and self-awareness? Here are 7 paradoxes that are hallmarks of a leader’s life that must be mastered to improve the chances of making good decisions and effectively leading people:
Be confident and humble: The best safeguard against confidence that leads to arrogance is humility—acknowledging to your team that any ambitious effort is going to be difficult and will carry risks and the possibility of failure.
Be urgent and patient: Leaders need to recognize the need to slow down, bring people along by sharing context and rationales, and make sure there are proper processes and resources in place, even while feeling the weight of the world.
Be compassionate and demanding: Demands for exceptional performance have to be balanced with a sense of compassion and the understanding that a team is made up of human beings. Everybody is struggling with something in their lives, and there are moments when understanding and appreciation are more important than a tough conversation about meeting next quarter’s target.
Be optimistic and realistic: Leaders are expected to be optimistic and to build energy, enthusiasm, and passion for the ambitious goals that they’ve laid out for the organization. The best approach is to let people know about the big challenges (ideally paired with a plan for addressing them) while not overwhelming them.
Read the weather and set it: CEOs need to be able to sense the mood—“read the weather”—in meetings or as they walk the hallways or visit stores and factory floors. Yet leaders must also recognize that they play an outsized role in setting the weather, because they establish the tone through their body language and energy.
Create freedom and structure: For leaders, that means allowing for some work that may appear unproductive, with side trips down blind alleys and seemingly unproductive brainstorming. The challenge is knowing when to let the conversation unfold and knowing when to step in to redirect the discussion.
Be selfless and focus on your well-being: The very best leaders are selfless, realizing it's not about them, but rather what they can do for their employees and organization. Yet they must learn to take care of themselves first; otherwise, physical and emotional energy will be compromised, limiting the ability to help others.
By understanding how to navigate the most critical challenges, anyone can be a more effective leader, regardless of their title. Many factors beyond their control may keep someone from achieving the title they want. What can be controlled, however, is how to lead others. Ultimately, that is defined by how the following questions are answered:
What values are bedrock for you and will never be compromised, regardless of the challenges you face?
Will you see the people who report to you as assets to help you achieve your goals, or will you see your role as unlocking skills and talents that they may not see in themselves?
Are you able to embrace all the demands and paradoxes of leadership and recognize that you must be intensely self-aware and see growth as a lifelong journey?
Are you willing to take full accountability for results, always strive for improvement, and not instinctively blame others when you miss the mark?
Do you understand that trust is binary and that people either trust you or don’t, based on how you act at every moment?
Do you have the guts and wisdom to make tough and unpopular calls?
If employees could choose their managers and leaders, would they choose you? And if so, why?
Do you understand that, despite all the attention leaders get the higher up they go, ultimately it’s not about you?
This realization is the final leadership test, the one that will determine success in becoming a calm, confident, and effective leader.