This post isn’t necessarily a defense of leadership rather, as the title indicates, demystifying it. It’s easy to get stuck in an “us” vs “them” mentality. Countless articles have laid the blame of why good employees quit. The number one reason tends to be managers, those in authority (aka the leaders). As someone who has, for the better part of her career, tried to avoid leadership positions, I often found myself heading up projects.
It took a couple of years to warm up to the idea of leading. With each successive job, the idea of it doesn’t frighten me anymore. But, as I move up the leadership ladder, I’m starting to see “the other side.” The thing that is rarely talked about and thats the challenge of leadership. When you’re the low man (or woman) on the totem pole, its hard to figure out what those at the top are doing. Below are the challenges as I see them.
I’m writing this in the hope it’ll shed some light on what goes on for those in the middle, or even at the top of the totem pole.
Oy vey, the decisions
That’s the one thing no one tells you about…all the decisions you have to make. I like to think I’m a decisive person but since coming into a leadership position I have to step my decision-making skills up. A LOT. The toughest challenge is how to make the decision on projects that are outside of my area of expertise. In this manner, I have to rely a great deal on the team around me. Rather than couching my decision-making process in my weakness, I have to reframe it in the context of my team’s strengths. Don’t get me wrong, those decisions are still hard to make but they get easier as you establish a relationship with your team and trust them. Your success is their success but…
Failure rests in leadership
If project falls apart, as the leader (or manager or supervisor) you’re the one left holding the bag. Nine times out of ten, you are the first person asked why a project failed or didn’t turn out exactly as those in management thought it would. There’s nothing like being called into the office or receiving that email to discuss what happened. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. I can see why some leaders are quick to do the whole “its not my fault” dance. Note I said I can see why NOT that its okay.
Finesse is the name of the game
Leadership teaches you a great deal about how to “read people.” Fortunately (or unfortunately however you read it), I’m pretty adept at reading people. You quickly learn when is the best time (or not) to approach someone with an idea. Equally important, you learn how to approach them. There have been times when I’ve waited on taking a proposal, which I supported, from my team to those in upper management. It’s not due to a lack of confidence in the project but knowing that the time wasn’t right. Unfortunately, I’ve been blindsided as well. Those are not fun moments. No one likes to be blindsided with an idea that you barely have time to process as you’re heading out the door to another meeting. It’s in those times, I’ve learned to take an extra moment to be thoughtful rather than appear dismissive because, frankly, my mind is elsewhere.
Communication is key
It seems the more you traverse the ladder, with each step up the rung, communication becomes difficult. How does this happen or why? I don’t know. I would theorize that it has to do with perception. Leaders are busy and sometimes we can’t always be fully present in the moment (more on that later). I *think* this creates the perception that leaders are uninterested or unconcerned about the details. Part of this can be attributed to your managerial style and institutional culture. Are you cultivating a style that encourages communication? Or, are you working in a culture that inhibits communication rather than nurtures it? Do employees feel empowered to speak up and put forth ideas. Either way, you’ll have to work that much harder if the above hold true.
Long after the project is over…we’re still working on it
Participating in a project and managing it are two completely different beasts. When you are participating, you have a particular contribution. When you’ve made that contribution your part is over. For a leader, there’s work involved before the project, during the project, and after its over.
Being mindful of all the various timetables
I head exhibits at my current job and that requires me to think in the short-term and long-term. It’s hard juggling all those timetables. Sometimes, I see the forest instead of the trees and vice versa. Why you may ask? Out of necessity in my case. I can be right in the middle of exhibit planning for the spring exhibit and start getting questions about the fall exhibit. As a result, I’ve had to become mindful of the long-term and start planning for it. For example, its January and I can already tell you that installation for the fall exhibit, set to open in October, is going to be tough. There’s a lot going on before its opening so I’m already giving people advanced notice that if I seem crazed during September that is why.
The tried and true employees are hard to come by
One of the main complaints by good employees is feeling overworked. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been known to slip right into this well-worn leadership pattern. In my case, it’s having employees who are proficient in a particular area. It becomes easy, almost too easy, to start relying on that one employee or two to do something. There have been times where I’ve had to consciously pull back from asking the same person to do something. It’s an easy habit to form and it can be tough to break. But which is better: getting the work done OR an overworked, increasingly frustrated person on your team? Nope. My team is important. They help me get things done. Without them, I couldn’t pull off half the things I do. It also helps to have been that overworked employee. It gives me a healthy amount of perspective.
If I could sum up my thoughts on leadership it would be this:
It’s harder than it looks.
But I will say, that the sense of accomplishment is pretty sweet. It’s even better when my team can experience that feeling too.