There is no doubt that the complexity of the challenges we face is outpacing our abilities to deal with them. In our first post of this series, we identified four ways to increase your leverage as a leader:
- Energize Through Meaningful Direction
- Embrace Reality However Difficult
- Think Long-Term/Act Short-Term
- Learn Continuously
The purpose of this post is to help you tap these four strategies to find greater leverage in yourself. We will follow the stories of two leaders – Bill, a high school principal, and Alice, a marketing manager for a major pharmaceutical company – as they develop these capacities in themselves.
Energize Through Meaningful Direction
Bill is a visionary, charismatic leader. People feel inspired to build on his energy to create a highly innovative high school. It’s exciting to work for him, and it can also be overwhelming and confusing. The scope of his aspirations exceeds his team’s ability to implement all his ideas. Alice by contrast is very operational. She works hard but tends to miss the big picture as she juggles all the details of her job. She also works long hours and still can’t get everything done. She is tired and overloaded.
You energize yourself and others through meaningful direction: an inspiring vision, mission, and/or strong set of values. An energizing direction gives you the necessary motivation, strength, and perseverance to embrace reality however difficult, take short-term actions while keeping the long-term in mind, and learn continuously in the face of change and uncertainty. It helps you manage the uncomfortable feelings of fear and anger that tend to come up when you try new things.
In order to manage the discomfort, it also helps to aspire to develop certain character traits. These include:
- Humility and curiosity to be open to life’s possibilities
- Vision and courage to step out of what is into what could be
- Respect and compassion to collaborate with others, and
- Focus, self-care, patience, and persistence to follow through
Bill needed to channel his capacity to create inspiring possibilities by developing focus, patience, and persistence. Alice needed to expand her vision to include self-care as a prerequisite for effective work.
Embrace Reality However Difficult
Bill’s challenge was to accept that his people, much as he loved and respected them, were not able to implement all the possibilities he could imagine. Alice’s challenge was to recognize that her efforts to do everything that was asked of her were not working. She would miss deadlines with her boss despite bringing work home nights and weekends. She was also hurting her relationship with her teenage son by focusing on work rather than leaving time for him when she was home.
Embracing reality however difficult takes the courage to accept that what you are doing, however well-intentioned, is not working. You need the strength to ask what you are missing. As Adam Kahane points out in Power and Love, “People will change their behavior only when they believe that what they are doing can’t work anymore… the problem has to be felt strongly and closely enough so that it cannot be ignored.” (p. 44) Your blind spots are key to learning and growing. Acknowledging and confronting difficulties enable you to go beyond where you are.
One way you can challenge yourself is to examine your beliefs and assumptions to see if they still serve you. Bill questioned if his capacities to create possibilities and inspire others could be matched by the abilities of his staff to implement everything he envisioned. Alice asked if trying to squeeze every requested deliverable into the workday and then taking more work home at night was leading to a better relationship with her boss or her son.
When you examine your beliefs and assumptions, you can uncover the unintended consequences of your well-intended actions. Bill recognized, with difficulty, that his marvelous enthusiasm was also running his team into the ground. He had to see the limits inherent in his ability to inspire people. Alice had to accept that, as committed and dogged as she was, the long-term consequences of her workstyle were resulting in both low quality work and an unhealthy distance from her son.
Once you uncover the negative unintended consequences of your beliefs and actions, you can take responsibility for your problems instead of blame others. Not easy! When you see how you contribute to being stuck, you empower yourself to assert the real control you have – over your own intentions, thinking, and behavior. Rather than privately blame his staff for being incompetent, Bill was able to scale back what he could envision to what he and his team could actually implement. Rather than blame her boss or son for being difficult, Alice learned to set priorities at work so that she could be more reliable in the office and a better mother at home.
Think Long-Term/Act Short-Term
Bill did not let go of his long-term vision. Instead, he considered how he wanted to sequence a series of innovations that would result over time in creating the ideal high school he believed in. He also shared his full thinking with his team. He got their input on what stretch goals the organization could accomplish by when. Moreover, he committed to his team not to add new work to their plates without determining with them what other projects to postpone. Bill and his team developed the ability to negotiate SMART agreements (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Limited) so they would not let each other down. [i]
Alice worked with her boss to establish a clear set of priorities and to hand off or postpone what she could not accomplish in a reasonable timeframe. She hated telling her boss “I can’t do it all.” But it was true, and resulted in their making some hard choices together. This enabled her to both improve her relationship with her boss and ensure quality time at home with her teenager. Thinking long-term and acting short-term often requires us to do one of two things we are not accustomed to:
- Do less of what has worked in the past but is no longer working, and invest in opening a new path to success. For example, Bill did this when he stopped introducing one exciting new idea after the other, developed a long-term strategy, and worked with his team to refine and make it manageable.
- Reduce your dependence on quick fixes that relieve problem symptoms temporarily, and invest in more fundamental lasting solutions. Alice did this when she stopped trying to work nights and weekends, and negotiated more manageable agreements with her boss that both of them could rely on her meeting.
Bill worked with Bridgeway Partners to help him build the new habit of introducing a manageable set of new initiatives. Bridgeway Partners also facilitated management team meetings to help the team learn to establish and follow through on SMART agreements. Alice also engaged Bridgeway Partners so that she could continue to make reliable commitments to her boss while rebuilding her relationship with her son at home.
Learning continuously means developing new skills and habits over time. The trick is to celebrate successes without falling into complacency, and work with failures without falling into despair. Both Bill and Alice recognize that they are on long-term journey – and that the journey is worth it!