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Why Leadership Is so Hard

It's very hard for leaders to show that they're good at leading, and that they know what they're doing. Which is why sometimes they need to do a lot less.
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Many burdens of leadership are well known and visible: getting people to back a common purpose and vision, managing change, and maintaining a balanced personal perspective. But there are a number of hidden challenges, common to both new and old leaders, that underlie the more familiar work. To be a truly effective leader, you're going to have to address them as well.

Let's start with identifying the three hidden challenges. I’ll call them competency, doing, and control.

How Can a Leader Show Competency?

As an individual contributor, it’s easy to show that you know what you’re doing. If you have mostly transactional and tactical responsibilities, your decisions, actions, and results are largely clear. However, as a leader, your portfolio is larger, more ambiguous, involves more people, and is more vulnerable to a wide variety of influences.  With this comes both increased authority and less direct control over outcomes. 

Many leaders mistakenly try to fill this gap by becoming “overly competent.” Usually, that means they invade someone else’s work while ignoring certain key responsibilities of their own. We see this in the start-up CEO with an engineering background who avoids his broader company responsibilities by staying immersed in the daily activities of the technology team.  We might also see this in the corporate Vice President who is running a new cross-functional department; rather than genuinely delegating work to the team, she keeps them tightly tethered so that she won’t feel left behind. 

Both of these micro-managers may be motivated by a desire to demonstrate competency in an area of their expertise (what they did in the past) rather than by focusing on the requirements of broader leadership (what they need to learn for the future.)

Leaders need to recognize that for them, competency is manifested differently than it is for their staff. A leader’s failure to adjust (or personal frustration at having to make an adjustment into new competencies) prevents one from leading fully.

What to Do When You Can't "Do" Anything

Another common leadership inconvenience is the inability to directly “do” things.  Great leaders are directors of action, not necessarily direct actors themselves.  This distinction can be difficult for some leaders to accept and demonstrate. If a leader is particularly attached to displaying personal competencies, he may fall into the trap described above and infringe on someone else’s work to prove his abilities.

Ditch the stereotype that says leaders must always be vigorous, action-oriented personalities with all the answers. Yes, leadership does sometimes require bold, visible action. But what about those situations when it is not appropriate?  What is an aggressive leader to do when direct action is highly inappropriate? 

Often, the answer is simple: Do less. Step back from a challenging circumstance to see the wider view – the people, politics, intentions, emotions, and energies involved. Resist the temptation to dive into problems with solutions.  Press your teams for their best efforts in working through the issues. Direct the action, and help them think of a different way forward if they get stuck.

The Issue of Control

Leaders have direct control only over themselves. Yet many leaders believe they can exert a special kind of influence over others simply by telling them what to do more persuasively, more clearly, or more forcefully.  Or that by sheer force of charisma, vision, or intelligence they can move mountains and control outcomes.

Successful leaders learn to change the way they envision and enact control.  They recognize the need to manage the constant process of ensuring that decisions are made by the people who need to make and own them.

Obviously, a leader often makes the final decision, and rightfully so.  However, in the face of complexity and change leaders should aspire to include multiple (and dissenting) points of view in the pursuit of as much clarity as possible.  This honest participation is made possible only when a leader loosens the grip on control.

Competency, doing, and control encompass many of the necessary, and inconvenient, lessons of leadership.  Fortunately, there is a way for leaders to approach these challenges that is both productive and, ultimately, quite convenient.

Last updated: Jul 5, 2012

BRIAN EVJE helps people and organizations lead change and growth. Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women’s full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master’s program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris / Saїd Business School, University of Oxford.




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