Leaders: Is It Lonely at the Top?

At the pinnacle of your success when you’ve climbed to the top, do you plan to be alone? Popular sayings about leaders suggest that it’s lonely at the top and that you’ll be isolated in an ivory tower.

This is one of the most dangerous myths about leadership. Those who believe it and allow it to become true handicap themselves. They cut off the single most important attribute of a leader: the followers.

LonelyAtTopDone well, leadership should never be lonely. The most effective leaders, research tells us, are those who are highly engaged with their constituents.

What research demonstrates is that leaders behave in certain ways that hardly add up to being lonely. The Leadership Challenge, a book and body of work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is based on research with over 5 million people who have provided information about the behaviors of leaders. From this work, we know precisely which behaviors make some leaders more effective than others. We have a behavior-based blueprint for leadership.

That blueprint includes behaviors like actively listening to diverse points of view, treating others with dignity and respect, developing cooperative relationships, building consensus, celebrating others’ accomplishments and more. There is not a single one of the 30 behaviors that even slightly suggests that a leader operates alone.

So why do some people in senior management roles isolate themselves and feel lonely at the top? Perhaps it’s a misunderstanding. All those reports and analyses and strategies… all those pressures to make really big decisions with widespread impact… all those expectations of so many people who are counting on them… Maybe it’s all these distractions that prevent them from doing the work of leaders.

It’s a funny thing about leadership. The more you work behind closed doors, the harder it is to do the work. Leaders who are not engaged lose their credibility, their prestige and their support. They struggle to get things done because their followers don’t see the point. When followers are not engaged, they are not really following. They’re just doing the bare minimum requirements of a job.

Exemplary leaders understand that the paperwork, processes, plans and pressures are all secondary to people. They put people first and step fully into leadership behaviors, proven ones that build relationships and ennoble others. Somehow, the work gets done faster and with better outcomes when leaders engage others in these ways.

If you find yourself in an ivory tower or behind a closed door, it’s time to take a closer look at what you’re doing. It isn’t leadership if you’re doing it alone.

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Leaders: Submissive, Subservient and Selfless?

The concept of servant leadership is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Leaders who buy into the myth that they are supposed to be submissive, subservient and selfless often miss the point entirely.

The point of servant leadership is to serve others by thinking of their needs, recognizing their needs and supporting efforts to meet their needs. Doing that requires strength, clear vision, and an undeterred Deferentialdrive. It’s not about taking a backseat and deferring to the whims and wishes of others.

When leaders abdicate their lead, they are no longer leaders. They are followers. You can’t be both at the same time.

Servant leadership, as originally conceived, is about sharing power. The servant leader isn’t command-and-control in style but is a leader nonetheless. The servant leader does not demand hierarchal reporting relationships and doesn’t get consumed by the prestige of a position.

Rather, the servant leader invites others to participate. Asking questions, seeking diverse points of view, actively listening, enabling others to develop and make decisions and see their own goals attained… these are all the aims of a true servant leader.

Ultimately, highly effective leaders are more interested in creating more leaders not in gathering more followers. They see themselves as equals to others. They adopt an other-orientation so they are able to be more effective in reaching their own goals, too.

Research demonstrates that effective leaders behave in certain ways. The Leadership Challenge, a book and body of work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is based on research with over 5 million people who have provided information about the behaviors of leaders. From this work, we know exactly what behaviors make some leaders more effective than others. We have a behavior-based blueprint for leadership. It includes many of the behaviors that some would use to describe a servant leadership model.

That’s because followers trust leaders who engage and ennoble them. It’s because followers won’t follow leaders who isolate themselves or hoard information and power.

Regardless of the leadership philosophy or model you choose, it always boils down to this essence. Leaders — the ones who others will eagerly and willingly follow — frequently demonstrate 30 specific behaviors. If you would like to lead and to be effective when do, these behaviors are the place to start. They will prevent you from buying into the myths about leadership that can derail or misguide you. When you truly lead, you will be tremendous service to your followers and to others who rely on you.

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Leaders: Command & Control or Heart & Soul?

In order to lead, you must be authoritative and absolutely in charge at all times. That’s a dangerous myth that derails would-be leaders and prevents them from becoming the type of leader that others willingly and eagerly follow.

Images abound of the classic command-and-control leader. Think Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessep in the movie, A Few Good Men (“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”). Think dictators throughout history. The Godfather. Leona Helmsley (nicknamed the “Queen of Mean” for her tyrannical behaviors).

Despite these negative perceptions about despotic leaders, many continue to associate the word “leader” with this type of behavior. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

CommandControlTo be a leader, you must behave in ways that cause others to follow you. Your title or position of authority may compel others to do what you say (when you’re looking). But fear, intimidation, micro-managing and “because I say so” directives will never earn you loyal followers who will back you up when the going gets tough.

Real leaders — the ones who have willing followers — rely on a different approach. They don’t need command-and-control tactics or coercion to get results. Instead, they choose behaviors that are proven to make leaders more effective, behaviors that result in higher levels of employee engagement and, in turn, result in much stronger business outcomes.

Research provides a clear and irrefutable case for these behaviors. The Leadership Challenge, a book and body of work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is based on research with over 5 million people who have provided information about the behaviors of leaders. From this work, we know exactly how exemplary leaders conduct themselves. We have a behavior-based blueprint for leadership.

Some might describe the 30 behaviors of exemplary leaders as “soft skills.” Since leadership behaviors are all about relationships and connecting with followers, this might be an apt description. But don’t let a term like “soft skills” deceive you — the impact of these behaviors is solid: improved retention, improved customer satisfaction, improved profit margins…

Many are skeptical that a heart-and-soul approach can drive a business forward. That’s because the command-and-control behaviors yield obvious and observable results in the moment. She sternly said it, and he quickly did it. Cause and effect.

But at what cost? Is merely getting stuff done the hallmark of a leader? The determinant of company success?

Not likely. For people to stay engaged and commit themselves to the long-term, more is needed. No paycheck is big enough to continually be treated like a cog in the wheel. Long-term success requires leadership that causes people to “want to struggle for shared aspirations” (Kouzes/Posner).

To lead with a heart-and-soul approach, you have to give up command-and-control. They can’t co-exist. Counterintuitive though it may be, you will become more effective as a leader when you give up that authority that comes from position or title.

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Leaders: Natural-Born or Self-Made?

Leaders are born, not made.

It’s a dangerous myth that derails leaders even before they have an opportunity to see themselves as the leaders they are already and the leaders they could be.

When people describe a Natural-Born Leader, they generally fall back on personality characteristics like being charismatic, confident and courageous. But there is a flaw in this argument. If these are the traits that adNaturalBornLeaderd up to being a leader, then why are there people who have these traits but are not seen as leaders?

And what if an individual who doesn’t currently have those characteristics wants to be a leader?  (Note: this is about being a leader, not about being a manager. There is a difference.) but does not naturally display these characterIt would be inaccurate to say that someone cannot lead unless they are inherently charismatic, confident and courageous. Many of our most-esteemed leaders throughout history have disproven that conjecture.

Research doesn’t back up the notion that you must be born into leadership and that the rest of us are just out of luck.

What research demonstrates is that leaders behave in certain ways. The Leadership Challenge, a book and body of work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is based on research with over 5 million people who have provided information about the behaviors of leaders. From this work, we know exactly what behaviors make some leaders more effective than others. We have a behavior-based blueprint for leadership.

No one is born with the innate abilities to frequently demonstrate the 30 behaviors that define exemplary leadership.

But, any one could learn to behave in these ways and could set out intentionally to increase the frequency of these behaviors. That is why leaders are self-made.

Leadership is a choice. It is a choice to behave as a leader. It is a choice to learn what those 30 behaviors are and how to effectively demonstrate them. It is a choice to become an effective leader, one that others would willingly choose to follow.

Fostering the belief that leaders are born, not made, is a disservice. It discredits those leaders who have worked to develop themselves and behave as leaders. It provides an avoidance tactic for those who don’t want to do the work of understanding and modifying their own behavior so they can lead. Most unfortunate of all, it prevents capable people from stepping into their own potential. It deprives the rest of us of their leadership when they are told or signaled that they are not and cannot be leaders.

There’s a corollary benefit to behaving as a leader. Charisma, confidence and  courage come to those who more frequently demonstrate the 30 behaviors identified through 30 years of research, conducted worldwide, by Kouzes and Posner.

So it’s up to you. You can be a leader, no matter what you were born with and no matter what your job title, status, experience or station may be. If you want to become a self-made leader, all you have to do is make the choice to behave like one.

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Are You Feeling Or Are You Thinking?

Much has been written about the way we make decisions and the way we are wired to first respond emotionally and then to evaluate logically.

Leaders need to understand the difference between their own emotional responses and their logical thinking. Developing self-awareness and mindfulness to discern between the two is essential for solid decision-making.

There are many, many thinking traps that interfere with rational, logical and methodical thought processes. Many of these, especially in the heat of the moment, aren’t even recognized. Sometimes we recognize the emotional thinking traps but dismiss or justify them.

Societally, all sorts of messages encourage us to prioritize emotion over logical thought. YOLO… The heart wants what the heart wants… Follow your heart… These are just a few examples of popular sentiments that encourage emotional rationalizations for doing whatever we feel like doing.

Sometimes, these responses may be appropriate. However, responsible leaders ought to have the ability to recognize when they are putting emotion into the driver’s seat.

When emotions override logic without being checked first, these thinking traps can derail leaders.

Emotional Reasoning: You’ll know you’re caught in this trap if you are interpreting reality based on the way you feel. We’ve all done this. When we are in an upbeat mood, we take small incidents in stride. We handle them effortlessly and don’t invest too much energy in them. But on a day when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, those identical incidents can loom large and seem to require Herculean effort to tackle. The only difference is our own emotional state. An objective interpretation of reality would likely show these incidents to be somewhere in the middle. If we could start there, viewing the situation for what it is and without being led by our emotions, we would be more effective every time (not just when our mood is favorable).

Biased Filtering: Emotional responses also trap most of us at times. When this happens, we filter information in accordance with our bias. We ignore positive information about that political candidate we disagree with and, conversely, we justify negative information about the candidate we back. In the workplace, we have to be careful not to allow emotional overrides to lead to biased filtering that comes through in performance reviews or interactions with our colleagues.

Personalizing: This thinking trap turns your emotional responses against you. If you are taking constructive feedback as a personal attack, for example, you may be allowing emotional triggers to kick in when logical evaluation would serve you better.

Blaming and Shaming: These are dangerous emotional responses that can sound like they are driven by logic but are almost always driven by negative emotions. Whether self-directed or outwardly projected, blame and shame are usually useless. Diagnostically, determining what can be done differently the next time will take you farther faster than assigning blame and causing shame. People who get caught in this thinking trap are often unable to contribute positively.

Understanding your emotions and the impact they can have on your decisions will enable you to avoid these thinking traps. Don’t ignore your feelings and attempt to replace them with clinical logic. Rather, embrace your emotions and handle them in a proportion that is appropriate to the situation at hand. Balance reason and emotion to avoid being caught in these thinking traps.

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Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda — 3 Nonsense Words that Are Holding You Back

In a perfect world…

STOP!

There is no such thing as a perfect world… So what’s the point of thinking that way?

Here and now. What is. Reality. You have an obligation to start here.

Now don’t misunderstand. Leaders can and do strive to improve the status quo. They are not satisfied with leaving things as they are. They would like to see progress toward perfection, so they drive incremental change.

What stalls some leaders out, though, are three nagging little words. Instead of thinking about what’s been changed, incrementally, a little bit at a time, these leaders get caught up in the thinking traps of Shoulda, Coulda and Woulda.

Remember Schindler’s List? It was the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner who is credited with saving the lives of more than 1200 Jewish people during the holocaust by employing them as workers in his factories. In the movie, Schindler breaks down and asks “why didn’t I do more? I should of… I could have… I would have been able to save more if….”

It’s a noble but futile thought process for leaders. We can’t go backwards. If we could, we’d probably find legitimate reasons why Schindler shouldn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t. We’d certainly find evidence that he did so much, as measured by the 1,200 lives he saved. We’d likely conclude that he needed to give himself a little credit for what he accomplished rather than agonizing over what he was unable to do.

We owe ourselves the same. When we beat ourselves up with shoulda, coulda, woulda rhetoric, we hold ourselves back.

Here’s a different way of thinking about the work you’ve done.

First, give yourself credit for the work you’ve done and the accomplishments you’ve made. No matter how small, they are victories that count.

Second, if you can’t help but wonder what more there may have been to do, redirect that thinking. Turn shoulda into shall, coulda into can and woulda into will. Focus forward on what’s next and how your next efforts will build on the successes you’ve already had.

Finally, extend this same grace and forward focus to others. Don’t judge what’s already been done for what it may be lacking. Recognize what has been done and encourage others to build from that point forward.

By liberating yourself and others from some unattainable ideal, you and your team will be able to continually move forward. Don’t let this thinking trap hold you back.

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Watch Your Language? Or Change Your Mind?

Most of us are susceptible to thinking traps. We catastrophize, label, filter, personalize and get emotional without intending to do so. Our thinking traps diminish our effectiveness if left unchecked. Take a look back at these previous blog posts to learn more about common thinking traps.

One leader I recently coached acknowledged that he was mired in thinking traps that prevented him from trusting others. He felt certain, though, that his thoughts were private. He had no idea that others were fully aware that he did not trust them. In fact, he’d worked very hard to attempt to mask his mistrust. A 360-degree assessment revealed that absolutely no one was fooled.

What gave him away? It was his language, both verbal and non-verbal, that revealed his thoughts. He hesitated and sucked in his breath just before delegating even the smallest of tasks. He checked in a little too often and asked micro-managing questions. He seemed surprised and skeptical when others succeeded.

In other words, he couldn’t hide what he was really thinking. He’d been coached before and performance-reviewed to trust others and delegate more. So he went through the motions without changing his way of thinking.

Once this was called to his attention, he asked for help in appearing to trust people more. I declined to coach him in working toward this goal. A few weeks later he called back, desperate to figure out what his next move should be. He knew that his acting wasn’t up to par, his motives weren’t pure, and his heart wasn’t in it.

He was deeply enmeshed in a thinking trap. He was certain that most people could never be trusted. He was stuck in dichotomous thinking, viewing people in absolute terms.

This all-or-nothing way of looking at the world holds many people back. You will be frozen in place if you can’t see beyond absolutes.

The language you use is often the first indicator that you are dealing in absolutes. Listen to yourself and notice how often you choose words like “always,” “never” “totally,” and superlatives like “best,” “worst” and “most.” The more frequently you express yourself this way, the greater the likelihood that you are thinking in these terms, too.

People notice. So, like my coaching client, you could simply try to modify your language. Or you could work on escaping from this thinking trap. Push yourself to see “sometimes” and “average” and exceptions. Give others the benefit of the doubt instead of doubting what is unclear.

There are few absolutes in leadership. Stretch yourself to see beyond this kind of thinking and to enjoy the exploration of everything in between the extremes.

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What’s Your Problem?

You can’t craft good solutions until you completely and correctly pinpoint your problem. Solving something (anything!) is a thinking trap that makes us feel productive when, in fact, we are choosing counterproductive activities that dodge the real problem and make things worse.

In our hurry-up world, we often make hasty decisions and move on without even realizing that the real problem hasn’t really been addressed. Unresolved issues and lurking problems have a nasty way of getting worse. So taking time to assess the situation and find the root cause of a problem is time well spent.

Here’s a personal example. Last summer, I realized that most of my clothes were getting a little too tight. I solved the problem by going out and buying some new clothes. Problem solved, right?

But it wasn’t the real problem, the root cause, that I addressed. Until I acknowledged the real problem and dealt with it, the real problem continued to grow (and so did I!).

Consider the tragic example that came out of the Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Numerous people were involved in trying to solve a problem, but it was the wrong problem. They focused on keeping the school’s image and sports program looking good, ignoring the real problem that grew to include many children being abused. Had the first person who witnessed this or heard about it focused on the real need – protecting children – many victims would have been spared.

All “Band-aid solutions” focus on symptoms rather than on core issues. Superficial fixes may be expedient and momentarily satisfying, but they only delay the inevitable. Someday, the real problem will have to handled. The best solutions are not necessarily the fastest. They are the ones that make the problem disappear – not just the inconvenient reminders of the problem, but the actual problem itself.

Tackling a tough situation is never easy. That may be one reason why we opt instead for the easy outs. We fool ourselves into believing that the Band-aid will adequately substitute for the tourniquet that’s really needed. At least, we say to ourselves, we did something.

To truly handle a problem, you have to first identify it. Name it. Two questions will slow you down and help you get clarity. Ask yourself:

  • Will solving THIS problem have an impact or result worthy of my time & effort?
  • If I solve THIS problem, what will the domino effect be? Will I cause other problems?

There is absolutely no value in being an expedient problem solver if the problems you are solving only deal with surface-level issues. But you may have been recognized, rewarded, lauded, promoted, or complimented for your quickness in the past. If you have, that may cause you to think you can always operate in this mode – jumping in to offer unsolicited solutions, for instance. Trading in that superhero cape for one that is not initially viewed with as much esteem may be a challenge.

The real value comes when someone pauses just long enough to peel back all the layers and declare the real problem. What a relief that is! Declaring the real problem enables you to cast off the albatross around your neck, take the 800-pound gorilla out of the room, and slay the sacred cows. When we dance around those problems that need to be addressed but get set aside over and over again, we diminish our own value to the people who rely on us for real solutions. Every time we slap a Band-aid on, we offer a false sense of hope. Eventually, that can compromise your credibility and your effectiveness.

Instead of quick fixes and solutions that amount to “sweeping it under the rug,” press yourself to work a little harder. Ask yourself those questions above and then ask others the same questions. If you are dealing with a recurring problem, this is particularly important. You need to stop wasting your time on stop gap solutions and get directly to the underlying problem.

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Five Practices that Ignite Emerging Leaders

Who is an emerging leader? When should leadership development begin? Why are 83% of companies seriously worried about their leadership pipelines? What are your options?

Join us for this free webinar sponsored by Sonoma Leadership Systems with Deb Calvert, author of the CONNECT2Lead Blog.

During our time together, we’ll tackle those questions and describe how The Leadership Challenge® can help organizations support their current leadership pipeline and pave the way for retaining aspiring leaders . Sign up today and join us on March 26.

http://bit.ly/igniteleaders

There May Be a Crack in Your Crystal Ball

Leaders do not need to be psychics, mediums or fortune tellers.

Leading does not require you to know the future or to predict what others will say or do.

While leaders may be future-focused and working toward a better tomorrow, they are not imbued with special powers to foretell precisely what the future holds.

But there is a certain way you may be overlooking these limitations. In your thinking about a situation and your processing of messages received, you may be operating as if you had a crystal ball or the ability to read people’s minds.

In behavioral therapies, these are known as cognitive distortions. For applying this in our everyday lives and leadership, we can think of these as simple and common thinking traps.

Mind Reading: This thinking trap ensnares people who are quick-minded and intuitive. You may be accustomed to being one step ahead of others in most conversations. You often can anticipate what others are going to say or do. Because you are correct (or close enough) so often, you begin to fill in the blanks even more frequently and more quickly. Soon, you are doing this even without conversational cues. You assume you know exactly how people will respond. You no longer feel a need for checking in or confirming what you believe. You have, without realizing it, elevated yourself to the position of Mind Reader.

Fortune Telling: Perhaps you’ve experienced this thinking trap during a high-stress situation. Or maybe you’ve been in meetings with others who tend to adopt the role of Fortune Teller, always making predictions about what will happen next. When you begin to view the future as a foregone conclusion, you limit yourselves and others. Ideas and brainstorming are stymied by Fortune Tellers who seem to have all the answers. Fortune Tellers also abdicate their power, acting as if they (and others) have no power to influence future outcomes.

Catastrophizing: Once burned, twice shy? Your fears may be causing you to succumb to this thinking trap which exaggerates risks and focuses your predictions on the worst possible outcomes. Reason is set aside as you imagine the negative possibilities and convince yourself of imminent doom. As you look into the future, your fears and failures are overshadowing reality and the potential of positive results.

Each of these thinking traps over-relies on assumptions. You are extrapolating from insufficient evidence to draw conclusions that are not foundationally sound.

As an executive coach, I often hear leaders rationalizing these kinds of thinking. Some say it is efficient and expedient to use their experience and wisdom this way, steering others with these predictions. Others claim that this is a survival mechanism to eliminate risk and avert danger.

Occasionally, a leader tells me that this kind of thinking is actually self-indulgent and unproductive. That awareness is extraordinary, a huge leap forward and away from these thinking traps. Mind reading is arrogant. Fortune telling is obnoxious. Catastrophizing is just silly. Leaders who get stuck in these thinking traps aren’t helping others or themselves. They aren’t even leading when they are stuck here.

To get out of these kinds of thinking traps, focus on what’s real and in the moment. Don’t assume. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you already have all the answers. Instead, take a deep breath and open your mind up to new possibilities. Listen instead of talking.  Evaluate your runaway thoughts and seize control of them.

Once you are back in control, notice the cracks in that crystal ball you’ve been relying on and trapped by. Consider getting rid of it once and for all.

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