Who grew up saying to their mommy. I want to be a leader one day! Personally, I wanted to be a dancer. All right. I wanted to be Madonna. Ok, really I just wanted to be a hula hoop queen or to be precise, The Hula Hoop Queen. Eventually, during my first job at JC Penney’s I met some really cool HR people and I thought I wanted to be them, but maybe at Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom.
But, honestly, have you thought about what it means to be a leader and what leadership requires?
I’m going to be real here.
You know all those bad managers out there. You could be one. I’m not saying you are a bad manager, but you could be. The fact of the matter is, people, leave companies because of their managers. We don’t have the leaders that inspire us and that we can trust. Many companies lack leaders that will invest in their people.
Let's face the facts, most leaders become managers because they did well as individual contributors. Management looks interesting for the hopes of more impact or more money. At some companies, it’s the only path available to you to progress in your career. For some cultures it is the status needed to show progression in their career. For example, while in India on a business trip, I had a male engineer confide in me that in order to propose to the woman he desired to marry he must have the title of manager or her family wouldn’t consider him a viable suitor.
There is no “school” for leadership. You may learn geometry to be an architect and biology to be a doctor; however, there isn’t leadership 101. We aren’t given the building blocks and taught what leadership is. New parents aren't given a guide on how to care for their new baby. Baby arrives and they learn as they go. Sort of like leadership. We look at the leaders around us, read some books, maybe get inspired by a movie; and away we go.
All of this sets us up with a lot of “bad” leaders. All types of “bad”. Rarely is someone just really bad. Yet, it’s easy for us to talk about all the “bad” leaders we’ve seen, worked for, or left. Or to talk about the “ bad" leaders that are successful, yet leave a trail of bodies in their wake.
So let's look at the Cinderella story. The fairy tale we expect. We each are kicking ass in our job and want more challenges, responsibility and pay. We are doing great and people look up to us. Some may even come to you for mentoring and advice. Your leader sees this and thinks wow you are a natural leader. You get promoted to leader/manager and lead a small team of people who also do great work. Your team is happy, your manager is happy, and you are happy. You are on your way to your next promotion!
Ok. I’m being extreme to make a point. Leadership isn't happily ever after. It's a lot of hard, yet rewarding work... I'll save that for another post.
Now, let’s look at the reality. Leaders are tasked with getting shit done and doing it in a way that grows people, maximizes resources, balances the budget, and delivers to customers. The larger their organization, the more managers and the more complexity of different functions; amounts to more they have to deal with. As you progress in leadership, there is a sliding scale from getting shit done on a daily basis to strategically thinking about the future. Let’s take you and multiply your stress double for every level, that’s your CEO. We hope that when he was at your level he was the Cinderella story. Honestly, he started out like you did.
Let’s look at some truths of leadership. The stuff people don’t talk about.
Leadership can be lonely.
A lot is expected of leaders. Just read all the leadership articles on the skills you are supposed to have, the emotional intelligence and mood you are supposed to set, and best practices for managing towards goals. What happens if you make a mistake or have a problem? Do you feel safe going to your own manager? We have it in our heads that we have to do it alone. Bring me solutions, not problems. You’ve heard that line right? The higher up you go, the more people are looking to you and at you. If you don’t have a team you trust and are willing to be vulnerable and real with, leadership is lonely. In this case, hopefully, you have mentors and coaches outside of your organization and company to rely on.
Leadership is political.
Leadership is about people, it’s also about setting a vision with a plan and hitting goals. It’s both. It’s not either or. A company is responsible for its customers and shareholders for turning a profit or achieving a goal. Along with this, the company needs to think longterm about its survival and thriving. In order to do that, the management team is constantly looking at a macrocosm of factors. You, people and culture is just one tool in their toolbox. In the end, the company will do what it needs to survive. Even if that is keeping a “bad” manager for a bit too long because they have a set of skills the company needs.
Measuring success by level and title is a recipe for burnout, bitterness, and disaster.
Let's take a trip down memory lane. Back, back, back to elementary school. We do our homework, take tests, and at the end of the term we get a grade. This grade indicated to us how well we were doing. If you went to a school like I did, you would receive a GPA and could even arrange yourself on a ladder to see who is the best. In my world, GPA was the golden ticket for scholarships, entry into college, and more. Ok, let's come back to today and your career. You set goals, talk expectations with your manager (hopefully? you do right? if not go do that), do your work and every period you get written feedback, maybe a 360, and a rating. Once a year; maybe you get a bonus, a raise, or some stock. This all feels good! It’s like getting that gold star in school. Let’s be honest; after a while what you really want is a promotion, the next title, or access to the next big project. Recognize the GPA system from school? Than the promotion doesn’t come. You think hey, I’ve been working hard! You start to count all the hours you worked, the things you gave up, and whatever else we start to tally when something doesn't go right. Or, the comparison mode. Why did so and so get one and I didn’t? What happens next? Do you start do doubt your success? Get disgruntled with your company? Probably. If I can give you some advice. Do Not, I repeat Do Not make your level, title, how many people you manage, or how quickly you get these things your measurement of success. The level and title game, at some point is a bunch of numbers, a negotiation of scope, responsibility, and more numbers. Outside of this, when you go home at the end of the day, look at the whole of your life. Create your own quest and gold star.
You can’t make everyone happy.
Leadership is hard work and a lot of responsibility. It’s not always rewarded and you won’t always be happy. Leadership can sometime be a juggling act. You juggle your needs and values, that of the company, and that of your team. Does the project come first, your people, your manager, your client, and what about you? If you are a people pleaser, face it now-- You won't keep everyone happy. Not everyone will like you. There will be days you’ll have to make hard decisions. What's most important is that you can sleep with those decisions at night and they align with your values.
If you are still reading, by now you are thinking, thanks for being a Debbie Downer! For the those of you who don’t know who Debbie Downer is. I didn't. So I decided to look it up. She is a fictional character of the tv show Saturday Night Live. In skits, Debbie was always the person who voiced the bad news and shared negative feelings bringing down the mood of everyone around them.
I’ll ask again. Do you want to be a leader?
I hope that everyone says yes to this question. I hope you say yes with an intent, a passion, a purpose that resonates with who you are and want to be. If not, please please at least study up on the skills a leader needs and be considerate of the people you are leading. At least understand that you are taking on responsibility and impact for others lives and career. Leadership isn't just about you. If you choose to be a leader because of the money or status, then please don’t complain about being a leader. You choose this path.
Leadership starts with you.
Your values, your strengths, and your passions define how you show up as a leader. If you want to lead, to have people follow you, motivate, influence, etc... it all starts with you. Be honest about the work it’s going to take, the questions that will remain unsolved, the political predicaments you will be put into. Above all, remember why you are choosing to be a leader. What is that gold star that will keep you going?
Who do you want to be known as? Choose and be that.
As I said earlier, you can’t keep everyone happy. You can try and piecemeal together a bunch of skills, practice awareness exercises to wazoo and observe your posture in every interaction. You can try and be like the leaders you admire and vow to not be anything like the ones you don’t. This won’t work. Not in the long run. What makes a leader influential, impactful and have presence is being who they are authentically and leading from that. Leaders who lead from and because of their passion, in a way that resonates with who they are, are the ones that we want to follow. We crave authenticity. Do you want to be the leader that is inspirational and charismatic, or the one that is effective and productive, or the one that is innovative and wicked smart, or the one that people really want to work for? Our world needs all types of leaders. Our world needs you. Think about it. You are the only of you who will ever be, ever! You are the only one with your way of thinking, looking at the world, and creating. If you block it, it will never exist. Poof! You are here to live your life to the fullest, fully inhabiting your days. Once you begin to lead from your wholeness and unique gifts, defining your own success, and creating critical habits for yourself you can lead through anything. Wow! Where did that soapbox come from?
Define your own success.
At the end of the day, through the thick and thin of endless meetings, hundreds of emails, an unhappy employee, a lack of good resumes… Why are you doing this? Know what’s important to you, not just in your work but in your life. What's most important to you? Be, do that!
You work in a system. You live in a system. A system has rules, processes, and numbers. Some days it will work and some days it won’t. The best we can do is learn to be comfortable in discomfort and ambiguity, do our best and trust our selves like a cat thrown off a roof to land on our feet. You may be a bit frazzled but you will land on your feet, lick your wounds and try again. All the time remembering why you are a leader, and the passion that your soul calls you to.
Another reality. Somewhere there is an expectation that creeps in— that you know everything and do everything on your own. Especially in the West. We must prove ourselves and our independence. Admiral and crippling at the same time. Honestly, you won’t and you don't know it all. It’s ok! It's human. Look around and chunk it down. What do you know? You know that you don't know. This is the best place to start from. Do you know someone who does know? Can you be vulnerable and powerful, asking for support? Do you take a risk to learn? How do you want to show up at this moment? I challenge you to change the reality that you are alone.
And what if, leadership is a process, a becoming, a realization? And your role as a leader is to show up powerfully; as you, motivating yourself to face fears, take a risk, break boundaries and inspire others.
And what if, leadership isn’t about you? Either that will be freeing or terrifying. Indulge me for a moment. Think of some of the great leaders. Really look at them. Warts and all. These leaders were passionate about something, and in that passion leadership and direction arose. Yes, we come to admire the person, but it’s usually because of what they stood for.
So, do you really want to be a leader? I hope yes. Warts and all. The reality is better than the fairy tale. It's real, raw, and rewarding.
About the Author
Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.