Taming the Leadership Beast

By Cathy McCullough


dateTue, Sep 27, 2016 @ 09:00 AM

This “thing” we call leadership isn’t as easy as we thought. At least, that’s what I’ve repeatedly heard fromTaming the Leadership Beast executives I’ve worked with over the years. Many of them simply never really thought about it; it was merely the next step up on the ladder—exciting for sure. After all, each rung of the ladder just took them to higher level challenges, more decision-making opportunities, a seat at a different table, the opportunity to lead different groups of people, and more.

But for many leaders, there’s a defining moment when they realize that truly effective leadership certainly is not what they thought it would be. A rung on the ladder cracks; sometimes it just breaks altogether. As one leader recently said to me, “I way underestimated what leadership really is. Leading is a lot of hard work piled on top of everything else there is to do. I never really expected that.”

What we end up doing, then, is going back to what we know and to what’s been successful for us in the past, which means: We focus on our work.

Trying to tame the beast of leadership, then, becomes a monumental effort. So let’s take a quick look at three areas you might recognize as ways of taming the leadership beast so that what you do as a leader gets higher-level business results.

1. Simplify.

Growing a company is a complex endeavor, to say the least. When no one is really sure about what the company is all about relative to its strategic intent, then everyone’s walking through the forest just doing whatever they think they should be doing, and these efforts are usually very well intended. But there’s limited strategic impact for the company. Everyone’s busy—but why? For what? The result: Confusion, assumptions, repetition, duplication of effort, competing priorities, lack of alignment, and more. All of this is the equivalent of what I call “hidden complexities.” Things appear to be moving along as they normally do, but buried within the highways and byways of your company’s halls are levels and levels of complexities that you just don’t need. And when complexity meets complexity, it’s rarely a pretty site. The solution: Embrace simplicity.

  • Take time for a strategic conversation. Set aside two days each year for Annual Planning with your team so you can garner the richness of the discussion.

  • Hire an outside facilitator so everyone, including you, can participate. In addition, the conversation is just different when there’s a facilitator in the room. Finally, should you really be spending your time preparing for a two-day planning session? Don’t be a control freak; let go!

  • Have a stated Vision about where the company wants to go—the hopes, dreams, and aspirations (which is not a dollar figure; the dollar figure is the result, not the Vision).

  • Outline, in writing, your company’s Annual Key Initiatives (no more than five of them).

  • From there, clarify what the company’s Key Priorities are for the upcoming Quarter, as well as who’s accountable for what.

2. Understand that Human Emotions are a Conduit to Business Results.

Mature and effective leaders recognize that human emotions truly do have a place when it comes to getting business results. The best way to ascertain your level of understanding this key point is by doing a bit of reflective (and honest) thinking.

  • Is my absolute passion for people seen by those around me? How?

  • Is my passion for this company visible to others? And: Is it the right kind of passion? How might others describe my passion? How might they describe me?

  • Am I seen as fair, but tough?

  • Is our Vision inspiring? Do we talk about it (with enthusiasm) every single day? Is there excitement in my voice?

  • What baggage am I hanging on to? Instead of focusing on this baggage, what did I learn from the situations that caused this baggage? Have I let my past successes become the main driver of my ego? (Remember: Success, failure, and/or mediocre outcomes are mere moments in time. They shouldn’t define you.) 

3. Challenge Yourself to Think Differently.

Create an Annual Plan that highlights your Top 5 Key Initiatives for the year and the Quarterly Priorities linked to these Annual Initiatives. Recognize, though, that real life rarely follows a stated script. Therefore, great leaders truly do have to think a bit differently. For instance:

  • They have to value discussing (and coming up with) novel ideas.

  • They have to be willing to gather just enough data and then take the leap.

  • Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess, notes that effective leaders need to be willing to dive into creating a masterpiece from something that’s currently a mess.

  • Leaders have to be willing to unlearn—and then relearn, which is much easier said than done. Barrett says it best: “Organizations must take an inventive approach to crisis management, economic volatility, and all the rapidly evolving realities of our globally connected world. Leaders today need to be expert improvisers.” Getting comfortable with this mode of operation, while keeping things simple, orderly, and aligned is a rare art form indeed. But it can be done. 

As Walter Isaacson notes in his book, Steve Jobs, we might not want to celebrate Jobs’ approach to leadership; however, there’s a lot to gain from recognizing how masterful he was at challenging assumptions, building something much bigger than himself, and changing the world. 

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Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images