Lately I’ve been bothered more than usual by those trite “leadership” memes that attempt to distill leadership into something as simple as “hire the right people and then get out of their way” advice.
There are weeks when I would welcome this as the definition of leadership, even though it’s a little boring for my style, and here’s why: leadership – REAL LEADERSHIP is hard. It’s rough and tumble, down, dirty and often painful. Try putting that on a cute little graphic and sharing it all over the internet. It won’t work because no one would willingly sign up for some of the more painful aspects of leadership reality, no matter how much it paid.
Yes, leadership means hiring the right people, and listening to them and not micromanaging them (what I interpret the “get out of their way” to mean). It also means having hard conversations, like when two or three of your “right people” can’t stand each other and are threatening to walk away (or worse) because of their mutual dislike. Real leadership is listening to accusations that you know are not true – on either side of an issue – and supporting each person to express their frustration without taking sides or fanning the flames of dissent. It means finding the right words to defuse anger, while hearing real issues and acknowledging the pain that underlies that anger, all while seeing that somewhere in there, these are all decent people who want to do their work.
Leadership is listening to people verbally assail you; sometimes angrily to your face and more often subversively behind your back, for decisions they disagree with, and keeping your cool because you know this is not really about you. Real leadership is rising above the personal and recognizing that this is an opportunity to heal a situation and maybe even some people; understanding that it’s not a time to defend or prove anything about yourself – that it’s bigger than you.
Leadership is being willing to be wrong, and to be able to say so, authentically and with an honesty that allows others to see that you, too are human. It’s also being willing to acknowledge that others may have been right where you were wrong. Leadership is sometimes having to tell your superstars that they must do it your way, even though you really like the creativity they put into something, because at the end of the day it has to work (whatever “it” is), and their way isn’t working. And it’s doing so in a way that enables them to maintain their dignity and self-respect so they can get up the next day and still want to come back and do it all over again.
Leadership is about advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, even when you are struggling not to judge the circumstance or the person. Leadership is making hard decisions because it’s the right thing to do for business reasons and living with your status as the pariah in the elevator and the hallways for a few days, a few weeks or more.
Leadership is helping to support some of those “right people” when life is kicking their backsides and they’re struggling just to show up, let alone to be your superstar; and protecting their privacy by supporting them without telling anyone else.
Being a leader is hard work, and very often thankless. It is not glamorous most days (even on payday); and at times your best intentions are met with hostility, suspicion and outright resistance. Other times you get a smile and happy talk in the meeting and then hear the misery and dissent when no one thinks you’re around.
However, if you can hang in there, take the heat, believe in your people – the right ones and the not-so-right ones – it’s’ all worth it, but not for the reasons you may think.
Real leadership is about being the best person you can be when you’re in a position of power. It’s about lifting people up because you can – not because you have to; it’s being an advocate for all of your people – not just the ones that agree with you or make you look like a rock star – and being able to see the good that exists in everyone (it’s in there no matter how hard some of them try to hide it).
Real leaders not only see that good; they have the guts, the perseverance, the humility, the heart and the skills to coax it out.
Try putting that on a meme.
(( originally posted on the author’s LinkedIn page ))