Of all the lessons we emphasize in our leadership development work, none is more important than the shift in the leader’s mindset: the understanding that your primary role, as a leader, is the support and development of your team. A failure to grasp this understanding dooms all other leadership learnings. If you never come to embrace this, no amount of leadership training will ever take root or create an impact. How could it? It’s like watching videos on how to play the guitar, but never actually picking up the instrument and learning to play. Air guitar may be a thing, but “air leading” is just sad.
This is because leading isn’t an academic exercise; leading is an activity—it’s all verb and no noun! By extension then, leading is not designated by title, however much some of us would like to believe that to be true, but is carried only through the activity itself of supporting and developing your people. If this motivation is absent, leading is absent. You might be managing, but you’re certainly not leading.
I don’t want to imply that supporting and developing people is all that leaders do. But disproportionately, this support and development is the most significant part of a leader’s role. Even strategic responsibilities, which often comprise part of a leader’s contribution, should be viewed through the lens of that support and development commitment. A good leader would consider his or her team and their capabilities, including gaps in those capabilities, as part of the strategic plan and the conversion of that plan into the day-to-day tactics necessary for execution.
Creating this “people plan” is the natural evolution of a strategic plan: your people must be capable of carrying out the strategic objectives for those objectives to be worth anything. A “people plan” simply defines the necessary roles, and related skills or competencies in those roles (including training needs to grow and develop those skills), required for execution of the business strategy. Linking a “people plan” to the strategic plan is therefore a critical step in the overall strategic process. The daily execution of that “people plan”, in order to accomplish those goals, is the actual practice of leading! These are the hiring decisions, and the work of developing your employees, that must occur for your people to meet the company’s goals.
Like many things in life—a West Coast offense, or rational civic discourse—these concepts are easy to understand, but quite difficult to execute. Proposing that leaders spend time ensuring their people are successful and working to increase their employees’ knowledge and their execution power in their roles is likely not a contentious claim. But actually taking on this work and creating the necessary outcomes is one of the most difficult tasks you are likely to ever undertake. There are no “soft skills” in leading, despite what you may have heard. That rumor is up there with “you can’t get pregnant your first time”. Truly effective leading is really hard to do!
In fact, leading effectively is so difficult that I would argue there should be a real sense of anxiety that comes with understanding your role as a leader. Consider that an effective leader is responsible for:
- Decisions around the key hiring of his or her employees
- For the on-going development of those hires, including their focus of activities, the prioritization of those activities and the accountability for their outcomes
- For the delegation of appropriate work to build knowledge and competency appropriate to the level of his or her employees
- The coaching of those employees to support their day-to-day success and the capacity for their future advancement
And these are just the hors d’oeuvres! Beyond this, at elevated levels of leadership, come responsibilities for leading across the organization, including managing silos effectively; promoting efficiencies and innovation; creating operations plans and driving productivity; responsibility for resource allocation, and for strategic planning and the translation of that plan into executable tactics! Not to mention an overall responsibility for, and commitment to, the acquisition and development of talent throughout the organization.
If this doesn’t cause you to pause, you either haven’t thought about it hard enough; or you have the steely nerves of a cage fighter. A little anxiety would be the natural response to this level of responsibility. This anxiety keeps us honest. This anxiety reminds us of the significance of this work. And, ultimately, the issue is not the anxiety, but how we choose to respond to it.
In simplistic terms, we tend to either work to overcome anxiety, or we flee from it: the well-known fight or flight response. The energy associated with that anxiety, when harnessed to “fight” can be very powerful. We often discover the very best of ourselves when we are deeply challenged. The energy and focus that anxiety brings can become a catalyst, not only for the accomplishment of the task at hand, but for significant and lasting personal growth. When you really challenge yourself, that encounter transforms you: you become something more than you were before.
I would argue all true knowledge contains this experiential component. In contrast “book learning” is anemic by comparison, precisely because nothing is truly risked. In the absence of the risk of failure, real growth can’t occur. Nearly every hero myth and every fairy tale contains this truth: transforming into winners requires we risk failure, whether that’s fighting a dragon, outmaneuvering an evil stepmom or working to develop a group of difficult employees!
Similarly, when we elect to flee from people or situations that create anxiety for us, we miss an opportunity to expand ourselves. Not only do we fail to grow, we may actually contract! And the challenges don’t get easier as we move up the leadership ladder. The dragon just gets bigger and scarier. When we fail to press ourselves at earlier junctions in our career, we end up unprepared for future challenges. But once we’re willing to take that leap, every challenge thereafter becomes a little bit easier.
Note too that when we lead effectively, we become the catalyst for the transformation of our employees. When we embrace the idea that their support and development is our job, then we create opportunities for their personal growth. In effect, we share the anxiety of leading by putting developmental pressure on our direct reports to help foster their growth. The anxiety that accompanies our understanding of the heavy burden placed on us as leaders is the same anxiety harnessed to create meaningful challenges for our team to spur their own development. Most of us remember that one teacher we were fortunate to have in our lives, who made our lives a living hell, but, in so doing, helped us to grow in ways that were necessary and long-lasting for our development.
We are offered this opportunity every day to create an impact for our employees. And this same opportunity becomes the chance for us to either continue to grow or to retreat from our role as a leader. Every instance of growth prepares the leader for the next challenge; every retreat makes the next challenge more daunting. Learning to appreciate the anxiety of leadership, and to harness that anxiety for growth, is the path of a good leader. Good leaders have the opportunity to create unique impact, not only for their organizations, but for the employees they serve to support and develop. No work you will undertake is more difficult; and no work you undertake will be as rewarding once you learn to accept the difficulty of the job and harness that challenge for the growth of both you and your team.