Think you want that leadership spot? Don’t be too quick to say yes.
It starts with our culture. We’re programmed from our earliest professional experiences to want to ascend to a leadership position.
Becoming a leader, whether a manager of a group or a CEO of a global enterprise, appears from the outside to be a position where we’ll finally be rewarded for our hard work. Of course we know we’ll have to contribute significantly. Yet, somehow there is a sense that hurdles will be surmountable and success will click into place with the right approach. Being the leader seems like it will be easier, somehow, than not being one.
And there are tons of leadership coaches and consultants to show you the easy way to learning the ropes and achieving success. Or so the marketing goes.
This is precisely the bee in my bonnet causing me to write this post today. Yes, I am part of the leadership development industry — which has a bad habit of spitting out platitudes and quick fix models. I believe in many of the universal tenants: leadership can be learned, authenticity is key, and self-awareness is a powerful tool.
But I take offense to the leadership racket that tries to make it look like it’s easy, that a fresh model is a panacea, or a positive outlook overcomes all. The continuous stream of vapid inspirational leadership quotes on Twitter makes my head explode.
Can we all say it together? 1..2..3…”Leadership is hard.”
It’s wearing, taxing, exhausting, confounding, humbling and elusive. (And yes, it’s also stimulating, intellectual, dynamic, and ego-gratifying.) Leadership is a bit like a new dating partner who strings you along — big highs, big lows, — and you give it your all but it never likes you back quite as much.
As someone who has run a company, and coached scores of executives, I see this culture of easy having real ramifications. People slide into leadership positions without much forethought, assuming it’s simply the right fit for them. New CEOs are quickly exhausted when they realize there isn’t going to be a sure-fire strategy that will make the company fall in line behind them. That’s where quixotic advice like “hire great people and get out of the way” does us all a disservice. If you’re Apple, and have your pick of A-players and top salaries, maybe. But if you run an architecture firm in Topeka you will find yourself more often trying to make the best of who you have. Same goes if you inherit a staff, which most leaders do.
It’s important to do the hard work of becoming a more adept leader. There are impressive books, models, and approaches that have changed my perspective and performance forever. But the shift never happens overnight. Leadership is a marathon where everyone has points of struggle. At best you’ll gain perspective overtime, growing more accustomed to the stress so you can survive the endurance test.
Leadership is not for everyone. Stories abound of people who worked hard for the leadership spot only to decide it wasn’t for them. Think of sales managers who miss selling (and the fat commission checks) or CEOs who exit their companies and commit to never managing employees again. Compare this against others who are like moths to the leadership flame and can’t wait to jump back in.
If you’re already a leader, I hope this post helps you see you’re normal for struggling, and you’re not alone. If the job’s not getting easy, it’s because it’s not going to. That doesn’t mean you won’t get better at it.
If you’re considering taking a leadership position, don’t take it by default. Go into it with your eyes wide open.
First, talk to as many people in the same position as you can about the experience. Truly listen to what they have to say and beware of simply looking for data that supports your initial inclination.
Second, ask people who really know you for their opinions. Would you be a good fit for the job? What challenges would they foresee?
Third, determine what’s truly behind your desire for the leadership position. Is it money, status, freedom, ability to set a vision? No judgment — there’s not a bad answer. Just know what’s driving you and check that against the reality.
The more our culture is honest about what leaders face, the better we can decide what we want for ourselves. After all, the best leaders love their jobs.
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