Important Insights into Rising to the Challenge of Leadership in 21st Century
Leadership seems easy – until it gets hard.
It is a struggle. As executive coaches, we see this struggle played out all too often as smart, caring, well-intentioned executives strain furiously to keep up with the world around them. It is a world that insists that leaders – managers, business owners, CxOs – possess the ability to stuff a staggering amount of activity into their day, stamina to push back against a tidal wave of complexity and conflict, and the sheer force of personality or position to get things done and make decisions. Used judiciously, these are all admirable qualities. Applied too often, however, they lead many to an early exit.
The facts speak for themselves. A decade ago, the typical CEO stayed in the role for 9 and ½ years. Today? Only 3 and ½ years. The peril is not just for executives but also for their organizations – for 86% of CEOs today, this is their first time in the corner office. They know they are struggling – when asked in a recent survey to describe their feelings about their job, executives used words like anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, and more. While this tension is most acute at the CEO level, it is not hard to imagine how the sentiments pervade the rest of the leadership team, or the ranks of people who aspire to these positions.
These are smart people; they are industrious, agile, and clearly ambitious. Most of them come to us for coaching not as a remedial exercise but because they are voracious learners and explorers; they want to understand what is ahead and adopt the positive mindset and behaviors that will shape their lives and work for years to come. Still, they admit that something is ‘off’ between their sense of what they thought executive leadership would be and what is turning out to be. The notion of having time to reflect, to savor the moments of genuine conversation and interaction, or to pause to explore ideas seems quaint and distant.
- Forcing Too Many Decisions.
Most executives pride themselves on quickly narrowing down choices, as if that discipline alone eliminates distractions and focuses management’s attention and energy in the right direction. The tendency to jam decisions is founded on a mindset of sanity – resulting in a fear that we have to grab for every advantage. Options are brushed aside, and the executive finds himself or herself clawing for that edge. Leaders face many decisions that they are reduced to binary status: beat their adversaries to the top or retreat to fight another day; exert a heavy hand in their collaborator’s choices or risk seeing them fail; demand an immediate vote by the board or watch the opportunity fade away. In each of these situations, they waste energy and goodwill in that effort.
- Fighting Too Much.
As coaches, we see executives exhaust themselves (and often their organizations) fighting formidable realities or entrenched interests in their business world, as if yielding or volleying with equal force is a sign of failure. Whether it was straining to step up to the corporate ladder when they knew their natural talents were not a match, imagining that they could just acquire the skills or trying to marshal enough support from their peers to overcome what they feel was a lost cause, executives spend too much time and energy denying current realities.
- Going Too Fast.
Ignorance is not a label that sits easily with any of us, but that is in fact what results when we go too fast, relying too heavily on what we know rather than slowing down and becoming genuinely curious about what we don’t know. Executives first make a decision with the assumption that their past knowledge still applies; they finalize the plans to operationalize the processes without first recognizing their real needs; and they take for granted that their teams are of the same mind on the strategy from the start.
We too easily repeat these behaviors over and over again with greater and greater determination – and unintentionally augur ourselves into the ground. Further effort only digs us deeper and makes escape or reversal that much harder to imagine, never mind achieve.
Is there a remedy to the downward spiral caused by going too fast, fighting too many decisions? Yes. Our experience with our clients tells us that there is. The remedy we pose to leaders in this new era is in some ways radical, because it asks executives to do nearly the opposite of what their prior experiences and successes might dictate. Yet, at a deeper level, they also know what they need to do, and why it works.
There are 3 steps that reverse the decline and mark a radical new path toward a more sustainable and effective model of leadership and growth in today’s world.
1. More Abundance
By creating an abundance of choices, we open ourselves up to better choices. We understand this intellectually, but it takes a different kind of leader to keep many paths open prior to reaching that ultimate point of decision. Anyone who has ever had the luxury of sleeping on a decision and having a new option emerge in the morning knows this to be innately correct. Discovering that new choices exist; allowing ideas to emerge over time; and recognizing that the diverse opinions and participation of their teams could lead to better decisions for their organizations – the evidence is all around the executives that it is possible to embrace this notion of creating an abundance of options to yield better outcomes.
2. More Acceptance
It is human nature to overlook obstacles that stand in our path (or pretend they don’t exist) – or to fight like mad to overwhelm them. We hate to give in, especially when we think we are right. As executives learn in their personal lives at home, and in their professional lives at work, acceptance is the mature and reasoned embrace of their current realities. The forces we tend to fight may actually help us, or at least be turned, to achieve some greater accomplishment. It is the notion of not lowering ourselves to the fight. When we reach this point of acceptance – leaning in – we are in a much better position to direct our energy away from wasteful battles and toward the next step in the leader’s climb, Awareness.
3. More Awareness
Awareness is more than knowing that you have blind spots; it is having the patience, discipline, and plain old inquisitive nature to slow down and open yourself up to what you do not know or have not yet experienced. There is a huge difference between thinking and sensing. Thinking is a matter of processing what you already know – filtering, sorting, and weighing. Sensing, on the other hand, is taking in new information, perspectives, and conditions without the inclination to first judge them. Executives must learn to slow down, step back, and take a fresh look at their situation from a range of perspectives. This may appear obvious to some leaders, but most will admit they fail to do it well. This step is perhaps the most crucial one toward personal, professional, and organizational growth because it renews the mind and helps inoculates you from getting stuck when you apply old methods to new challenges.
When you consider these 3 steps – abundance, acceptance, and awareness – they seem easy, almost self-evident. Yet, time after time we see executives elbow these principles aside in the cauldron of their day, or even think they are abiding by them when they are not. And to many, they are simply methods to be used when convenient rather than core elements of leadership to be applied at what may feel like the most inconvenient of times.
Yes, change is painfully difficult. There is absolutely nothing out there in your market or sphere of business influence that will make this change easy. It really must come from within – you must summon an internal, almost visceral, resolve to go against the flow. It has to be fortified with a fierce belief that slowing down will help you get there faster, that leaning in to the opposition often provides one with more power than fighting it out, and that creating options almost invariably leads to better decisions.
This approach is not for everyone – as it is – contrarian leadership. You must choose it. It won’t be handed to you. But true leadership demands the courage and stamina to go against the flow. If you don’t think it can be done, it will not – and the struggle will remain. If you don’t feel you can influence the world around you that much, you won’t. But some do, and some must. Those are the ones who will.