Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them. —John C. Maxwell
By Jennifer Bezoza
Recently, I have been thinking about the delicate balance that leaders need to weigh in being both authentic to their voice and disposition, while also cognizant about what is useful and motivating to share with their team members. It’s easy to understand at an intellectual level that leaders’ words and behaviors paint a huge horizon (if positive) or alternatively, a dark shadow (when negative). Gallup conducted open-ended research from 10,000 people about what we most value from our leaders, and they discovered that people most value leaders for their ability to convey hope, stability, trust and compassion. We want our leaders to paint a brighter tomorrow and give us hope that things will be better, that we will reach our goals and reach our potential. We want leaders to cheer us and our organizations to the finish line.
But let’s be real. We’re all human beings who experience a range of emotions on a daily, if not hourly basis. It is hard for leaders to maintain an inspiring and calm demeanor for colleagues and direct reports in the face of complex business challenges, big workloads, high stress, and typical organizational and business constraints. It actually seems more unnatural for leaders to always feel upbeat and optimistic. Yet that’s generally what we want and need from leaders. So how can leaders walk that tight rope of real while also inspiring? Read below about two different client case studies that explore this delicate “tightrope” of leadership.
I recently completed an engagement with a leader who initially felt that “editing” herself from justified emotional outbursts, loose talking at the water cooler or frank disagreement with leadership decisions was akin to being fake and in conflict with who she was.
It took time and also substantive qualitative data from the 360 review to see how “letting it all hang out” was hurting her credibility, demotivating her employees and also making her desired promotion out of reach. On a positive note, she also saw that her words and behaviors had a huge impact on others; she grew in her desire to be an inspiring leader to others, and wanted to use her voice in positive ways. This fundamental shift to focusing more on positively developing and inspiring others and less on speaking candidly at any moment was a game changer.
She was then able to slow herself down and reflect on her intentions before speaking, whether in meetings with senior leaders, on a conference call or merely reading her emails in an open workspace. She now would ask herself the following questions: Will this be useful and productive? Or just entertaining, at the expense of other more substantive business and professional conversations and comments?
Since the goal for her was to be an inspiring manager and leader, we needed to translate that to her behavior in every day moments and conversations. Holding her tongue from a dramatic expletive became easier when it conflicted with her genuine desire to positively inspire others, even if that outburst was completely justified and a form of comic relief at times.
As is natural with behavior change, it doesn’t happen over night and there are inherent relapse moments and errors; the distinction of change is recognizing the lapse, and getting back on track with the goal. Often, I ask clients to reflect on how they will confront this type of situation going forward to reinforce the desired change.
For another client, leading an early start up organization, the challenge was not regulating his emotions and negative comments, but rather how much information to share with junior team members early on in a decision process. As a collaborative, inclusive leader of a lean team, his initial instinct was to share preliminary thinking on various issues, with hopes of gaining further clarity. What he quickly realized, however, was this type of openness created anxiety for team members and seemingly reduced his credibility.
To help him to avoid this pattern of “processing out loud,” and appearing uncertain, he needed alternative approaches for brainstorming and thinking throughout the day. We explored how he had generated his best thinking on decisions in the past, which led him back to an old-fashioned notebook and pen for preliminary processing and playing with ideas. Not only did this introverted leader appreciate the quiet space for thinking privately, but also felt a lot better about showing up to the team with more developed options and thinking.
At the end of the day, leaders are imperfect humans just doing the best they can in every moment. Yet with clear intention and practice, leaders choose to bring their best selves so that others can do the same. In my mind, this does not conflict with authenticity or realism. The art of leadership is how to interweave the positive vision and encouragement with the dose of reality and candor.