Scary Stories – Leadership Edition

It’s hard to gain perspective on your own leadership when you’re in the midst of leading. So one promise I made myself when I headed into my recent sabbatical was to spend time in candid reflection on my experiences.

There are many kinds of leadership – from stepping up to spearhead neighborhood efforts to serving on volunteer boards to being responsible for teams of people. It’s that last one I want to get real about. It’s the hardest. The damn scariest. The one where good intentions count the least in the face of bad results.

Based on my totally scientific and completely thorough research, this is the point at which most blog posts on leadership get really shallow. Where the leadership lessons read like the phony answers you’ve been coached to give to the world’s worst interview question: What’s your professional weakness?

“Gee, my worst trait is that I just work too darn hard.”

You’ve seen this useless blather masquerading as leadership advice:

“My biggest leadership lesson was taking too long to realize what an amazing leader I am.”

I’m not going to give you any of that. Instead, I’m going to my darkest places of shame and confessing some of the ways I can see now that I have let people down. Why open this particular crypt? Maybe by coming clean, by owning them, by saying them out loud, I can bury them in the past where they belong, and get on with the business of being a better and better badass every day. Join me?

Light a fire. Grab a cup of something warm. Here’s some cold truth . . .

#1 – I did not insulate my team from the crazy. Every organization has its crazy. Usually it’s at the top. An egomaniacal chief. A board run amuck. An executive team in disarray. When your job is to lead people inside an organization, you’re top priority is to keep them as far from that mess as possible. Your staff do not deserve the burden of worrying about sheer lunacy they have no power to fix, and you should never allow them to be plucked from the ranks to answer to someone above, or crazier than, you. I’ve been guilty of both.

#2 – I was the crazy. This one is hard to say out loud. I. Was. The. Crazy. I have gotten so wrapped up in my own [insecurity, panic, ego, frustration, idealism, opportunism] that I’ve burdened people by sharing too much about my emotional state, or worse, created totally unnecessary chaos for them. “I see that you’re nailing your goals this year. How about we toss them out and make up some new ones? You see, I have this idea! Let’s start over.”

#3 – I expected too much without providing enough direction. Sometimes an idea or assignment or task has been so clear in my own mind that I have completely, utterly, failed to bother to check to see if I had clearly articulated it to the poor people I later held accountable for making it happen, let alone sought their input or buy-in before simply expecting them to get ‘er done.

#4 – I talked more than I listened. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, and frankly too often ignored, was this: You have two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally. As a leader of people, it is imperative you learn where people are when they come to you for help. Are they working something out, and need a sounding board while they solve it on their own? Are they out beyond their experience and in need of plain direction? You’ve got to figure out if this is a coaching opportunity, a plea for direction, or simply a chance to listen while the person in front of you opens up and reaches some new level of awesomeness. As I look back, I shudder to think of all the times I jumped right into sharing what I would do, how I would fix it, or what I recommend.

#5 – I was overly invested in my own vision of success. I am stubborn. I mean really, really stubborn. Sometimes you get to call this tenacity and it’s a good thing. Like when you’re at the back of the pack in a race but you keep plugging along anyway. But professionally, the boss’s stubbornness is a morale killer. A murderer of hope. See how I shifted there from me, to you, to an ambiguous boss? That’s how hard it is to own up to this. But in my heart of hearts, I know I have done this. I have been so certain that my idea was the best, so convinced that I needed to be the author or the architect that I failed to see the better ideas around me, or the better collective vision, and I crushed the optimism and creativity of my team. After all, why bother bringing new ideas to a boss who already has all the answers?

This by no means is an exhaustive list. But these are the big five failures that haunt me. Sure, I’ve got some strengths. But it was time to exorcise these ghosts so I can move forward, without ever forgetting the cost of getting it wrong when people are counting on me.

How about you?