If you want to be popular, leadership is probably not for you. At least, not if you want to do it right.
Leading is all about challenging the way things are. If nothing needs changing, if everything is alright the way it is, then fine, enjoy it while it lasts. Of course, people will instinctively resist suggestions that things need to change. Any attempt to challenge the things that people hold dear, such as habits, routines and traditions will be met with strong feelings, opposition, and possibly even aggression. Yes, leading can be dangerous.
But, taking popular decisions to appease those feelings, keeping people sweet, and avoiding the tough messages is not leadership. Leading involves disturbing people, putting provocative ideas out there, and challenging people to face up to tough realities.
Of course, good leaders do not do these things for kicks. They risk upsetting people and being unpopular in order to get people to take responsibility for solving their own problems, taking tough decisions, and facing up to the adaptive work that is always required in any change process.
Leaders who get seduced by people’s appeals to do the fixing for them, to come up with
the answers for them, and to take all the tough decisions, are doing both themselves and the people a major disservice. Themselves, because ultimately they will be blamed when things do not work out, and the people, because they will have been robbed of a chance to grow, learn and adapt.
Every day, people in all walks of life, have the opportunity to lead and they choose not to. When you sit in a meeting room and watch and hear people dance around the real issue, you could be the one who calls attention to it. By doing so, you could lead the meeting in a more constructive and adaptive direction. But, you choose not to. It could prove unpopular. You might upset people. Meanwhile, the issue will stay unresolved,and remain the ‘elephant in the room’ for months. More than likely, others are going through the same thought process as you, and everyone loses.
The dangers of leading are well researched and documented in Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky.
So, what does it take to be a ‘brave’ Leader – one prepared to take risks and not buy into the popularity game?
1. Go beyond your Authority – When people are elected to office or hired into post, it is seldom part of the job description to make life difficult for everyone. The expectation is that they will come up with good answers and not confront people with difficult choices. So, one of the first challenges they face is ‘going beyond their authority’ to do just that – to get people to face up to and tackle the problems they face.
2. Get on the Balcony – Leaders need to get and maintain perspective. In the midst of the action, when people are milling about ‘doing’, leaders benefit from observing the big picture from the balcony, allowing them to make and suggest adjustments to strategy or tactics. This is discussed in greater detail in a previous post – see Step off the dance floor once in a while
3. Orchestrate the Conflict – All major change, or tackling of substantial and complex issues, will involve varying levels of conflict. There are four key reminders set of by Heifetz & Linsky on this important topic.
a. Create a Holding Environment – A space (virtual or physical) within which tough, divisive issues can be tackled. It may be a space with rules and a common language that allow concerns to be aired without threat.
b. Control the Temperature – Heat is inevitably generated when significant change is proposed. Indeed, part of a leader’s job is to ensure there is enough heat, as, without a certain level of distress, people are unlikely to feel compelled to take any action. But the leader also needs to gauge when the heat is too high, and find ways to ‘temporarily’ cool things down. Methods can include temporarily taking some more of the responsibility, or using humour, or arrange a time-out or social gathering.
c. Pace the Work – Recognising the rate at which people can absorb change is an important skill of leadership. It is also a very ‘risky’ aspect of leadership in its own right. For every person who agrees that the pace needs to be relaxed slightly, there will be someone who wants to push on at a faster rate. It is important that progress is not ‘stopped’ completely, but rather adjustments to the agenda of change are made clear, so that everyone can see that progress is still being made, and people are being mentally prepared for some of the harder tasks that lie ahead.
d. Show them the Future – Regular reminders of the positive vision of the future are necessary to help people through tough periods of change. If it is possible to demonstrate small steps that are being taken toward the destination then do so, as it helps make tangible the reality of the vision.
4. Finally – Give the Work Back – Fixing problems for other people, will, at best, provide short-term relief. Issues will surface again, perhaps in another guise, and people will be no better equipped than before to deal with them. In fact, “Fixing may reinforce negative behaviors – The person who gets what they want after throwing a fit learns to throw more fits. Enable people to address their own concerns. Avoid solving for people.” (quote taken from Leadership Freak blog)
If you want to maximise your effectiveness as a leader or develop the leadership skills of your people, then please do get in touch. Simply send your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you how we can work together.