Ghandi once said he had three formidable enemies: the British Empire, the Indian people, and, he said, the most difficult of all: himself. As a leader, Ghandi knew change was difficult to instill in others, but that personal change was the hardest of all to achieve.
Like Ghandi, leaders must be continually willing to change their styles and their behaviour to excel in a business environment that never stands still. That means they must consistently look within, accept feedback about what they need to change about themselves and be vigilant about any of their leadership behaviours that could be holding back others.
Leadership carries particular responsibilities, including focussing on the ever-evolving leader role itself, getting the most from teams and promoting growth and development among subordinates whenever possible.
At some point in a leader’s tenure, these responsibilities will be difficult to carry out. From our observations, we have categorized the difficulties into what we call the four most common leader struggles:
Ignoring troublesome traits
Leaders exercise enormous sway over their organization. Their style sets the tone for the company.
Every leader has character traits that aren’t perfect. These can include tendencies to become impatient or avoid conflict. Some leaders find facing fear difficult, while others grapple with over-confidence. Other leaders find procrastination an issue, yet some leaders suffer from over-enthusiasm causing them to take on too much. Whatever the leadership trait, it is those leaders who work hard to understand themselves and their impact on others who will shape their organization for the better.
For example, the newly appointed president of a small packaging company in Washington had difficulty working with his fear of making mistakes. As he climbed the rungs, he began to encounter this issue more often. While suppressing fear was an adequate way of managing the emotion when he held lower level positions, he soon found that the more responsibility he assumed, the more glaring the inadequacy became. Soon the leader became paralyzed when making decisions. Subordinates complained of a lack of direction, causing the company to miss important business opportunities. The leader’s perfectionism made him afraid of risk which in turn, began to permeate the company.
The leader’s inability to deal with self-doubt constructively, a minor personal issue, was magnified in his role as president and had an impact on the organization’s readiness to move forward on initiatives.
Once he realized that a fear of making mistakes was at the heart of the problem, the leader was able to delve into some of his perfectionist beliefs, such as, if a project didn’t go just right, it would be a complete disaster. He enlisted support from trusted colleagues in combating behaviours that signaled risk aversion to subordinates. The president’s increased awareness of his personal impact on the business helped the company change its self-doubting manner to a more “fear-friendly” tone—fears of making mistakes were discussed openly, self-doubts about decisions were aired freely, stalling, avoiding or procrastinating behaviours were identified and discussed spontaneously.
Here, let me do it
Many leaders forget that while their job is to run the business well, it is really to get other people to run it for them. Concerns about relying on others, being dependent on others, or trusting others often lay at the heart of why some leaders struggle with the “people-developing” aspect of the job. They would rather do it themselves than delegate, due either to a fascination with the business or a need for control. Either way, the behaviour can be self-defeating— subordinates feel distrusted or undermined and the leader works too hard monitoring, managing and worrying about the projects and tasks subordinates should be undertaking.
A longtime vice-president of marketing at a consulting company in Alberta routinely worried about the business by questioning staff judgement. She typically micro-managed, monitored projects too closely, and fretted about whether she hired the right people. In her desire to excel, she abandoned her development responsibilities, turning her role into project manager. Staff became increasingly unsure of themselves and overly reliant on her feedback.
When she realized she had created a self-fulfilling prophecy by questioning staff competency and then undermining it through micro-managing, she instituted developmental meetings designed to focus solely on how subordinates were developing in their roles. By forcing herself each month to discuss how staff were managing their roles and tasks instead of reviewing the tasks themselves, she was able to resist appearing to take over from her staff.
Ignoring the team
The tendency to ignore the team for the individual players is a common leader bind. Many leaders are more comfortable dealing with their team as a series of individuals rather than a unit. If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the team viewed as individual players loses in efficiency, creativity and performance. Leaders who want to use their teams to the fullest extent are advised to develop the ability to nurture between-team member relationships. For example, encouraging team members to speak to each other not just to the leader in a meeting is helpful. Or, inviting team members to discuss, with one another, how a particular decision affects them and their department.
Leaders need to be aware of how things get done, as it differs from what gets done when working with a team. Identify the reactions each team member gets when they speak, note who jumps in to rescue a colleague or who seems tired, bored or impatient and how this affects the conversation. Observe who keeps silent most of the time or what topics get deflected or cause enthusiasm.
Once these observations are made, use them to help in better decision-making, better conversations about important topics or to draw out possible dissent. Noticing how the team is reacting and bringing these observations to the team’s awareness when necessary, increases participation, dialogue and constructive decision-making.
Leaders who invest in their own development set an example for subordinates and help the organization stay focussed on growth, learning and change. When a leader demonstrates curiosity about herself, her style and her impact on others, the organization follows suit. A leader who sees learning something new as a threat to competence or being open about himself as a weakness, shuts down company creativity, stifles honesty and stunts loyalty.
As Ghandi observed, running the company is easy compared to dealing with oneself in an honest way.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.