What nobody will tell you about leadership

When people ask me if I enjoy being a senior leader in my organisation, my answer is a consistently ‘Yes I do.’ Leadership is an amazing experience as it allows you to shape and influence an organisation and perhaps more nobly to turn a vision and a dream into reality. Nevertheless, I’ve said before that leadership is hard and I often meet people who have unrealistic expectations to what leadership is. Do you aspire to be a leader and to become a great leader that makes a difference in the world? If you do, read on …

Leadership will stretch and test you

Nobody comes to leadership completely unprepared. We all bring some skills and knowledge to the table. All of the skills and knowledge you’ll bring to the table can be useful in some shape or form. If you’re good with numbers, this will help you when it comes to making decisions. If you’re great with people, it will help bond with your peers and your team better. Finally, being good at communication, your ideas will gain traction faster than would otherwise be the case. However, you may not have all the skills that your role requires. Perhaps this will provide you with an opportunity to leverage your strengths into super strengths to allay your weaknesses. It is very likely though that you will need to step-up into doing new tasks and learning new skills pretty quickly.

Leadership can be lonely
Leadership can be a lonely pursuit.

Personally, my area for development as a leader is my communication and interaction with others. I can at times be rather abrupt and I readily admit that adjusting the high expectations I place on others is a challenge for me. My biggest discovery during my leadership journey was that I wasn’t as organised or structured as I thought I was. Structure and organisation matter a lot in leadership, especially when it comes to execution and I’ll touch upon this later in this article.

Your attitude will matter more than your aptitude

You might be great at communicating with others. Perhaps you’re a very creative person that’s brimming with ideas. Alternatively, you can perhaps create detailed strategies from scratch by analysing information. Well, I’ve got bad news for you, you will be judged against your attitude towards your role and what you have to do. Very often a comment I hear from others involved in leadership is “I don’t have the time to do this. I’m too tired. I’m busy …” Most of us are juggling leadership roles with other areas of our life and time is often at a premium. Alternatively, unpredictable challenges will arise and there’ll be times when you’ll feel like quitting.   

Attitude is everything in leadership

Attitude is the way you tackle these challenges and constraints. Additionally, it is the way you approach your role and take on its responsibilities. If you’re somebody that likes to take things easy and finds it hard to be very responsive when communicating. You’ll need to become more proactive in everything you do quickly. The impact that not responding to a message, missing a deadline or delaying a decision can have can be immense. One possible consequence can be a lack of trust in your abilities to deliver as a leader. If repeated this can lead to disillusion and disengagement from peers and followers. You will be surprised at how quickly people will notice that you haven’t done something when it should have been, or that a request to you went unanswered.

Jumping both feet forward into a new role or situation will help you, regardless of your abilities. Nowadays, mountains of information on any subject are readily available. Use this information early on to plug any knowledge gap and to find out more about your role. Waiting a few months and saying “I am just getting started” won’t make a great impression and may impact the quality of your leadership. If you chose to lead, make some commitments to yourself and accept the weight of expectations placed upon you.

Leadership is all about detail

The visible part of leadership is grand visions, speeches in front of large audiences and strategic masterplans delivered on neatly formatted documents. There can additionally be meetings with colleagues and peers from all over the world. There, sparks fly and magic always happens. All of this can is very attractive and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing one’s vision realised and recognised. Behind this picture lie hundred if not thousands of work hours, spent discussing tiny details that may not seem important to a casual observer.

Mona Lisa can teach you a few things about leadership.
Just like this famous painting, leadership is all about detail.

In my corporate strategy days, I often spent a lot of time looking for first-hand sources of information and double-checking it afterwards. What’s more, a colleague would check my work once I was done and edits and reworks almost always followed. The process took time and wasn’t always rewarding. However, it was a means to an end and the end was producing fantastic documents that our senior leadership team used to drive the business forward. Something similar may happen in any leadership situation. Number-crunching and information gathering is a big part of strategic leadership. Small details like how something is worded can be of great importance when developing organisation-wide policy and protocols.

Recently during a team meeting, the team I lead spent over an hour discussing how our Dropbox folders should be structured. It was a much-needed discussion, whose outcomes will enable us to do a better job for our five thousand members. Curiosity will help any aspiring leader in making sense of things and move forward. But beyond this, some tedious work might be needed to turn that vision into reality or to track your organisation’s performance against a set of targets. There a fine balance to strike between too much detail and not focusing on detail at all. I also strongly advise anyone against reinventing the wheel and not trying to understand what was done before and why. However, just like a fine painting, successful leadership requires attention to points of detail.

Leading can be costly physically and emotionally

What I enjoy the most as a leader, is travelling to meet people in all corners of the country. These visits are a unique opportunity to make a great impression, to inspire others and to pass on key messages. They’re an amazing opportunity for me to lead from the front and get a feel for how we’re doing. An observer might also say “I bet you get to see a bit of the country that way too!” Unfortunately, I don’t have this opportunity. Very often, I hop on a train, make a beeline for a free table seat and work on the train. Once arrived I’ll be working in my hotel room and then head off to a meeting. Besides travel time, there are the nights spent burning the midnight oil preparing an event or a key document.

Sometimes you'll be just like a rope about to break.
Sometimes you’ll feel just like this.

While the physical cost of leadership can be mitigated with strong personal discipline and good time management. The emotional costs are however more difficult to predict and can kick-in when you least expect them. Maybe you have a conflict with someone, perhaps somebody let you down and you picked up extra work as a result. Decision-making fatigue is another key problem as you’ll be asked to make decisions daily. Making numerous small decisions can limit your impact when you need to make larger ones. Getting sucked into decision making at lower levels can happen. It has happened to me a few times, and I always have mixed feelings when I am asked to make decisions that someone else should have made. The good news is that some techniques exist to mitigate decision-making fatigue, try them out and see which one works for you.

Finally, the biggest price to pay emotionally is doing things you don’t like doing and strained relationships. I realise that staying strong when this happens is easier said than done. Human relations can be the hardest part of leadership, from disappointing friends to giving difficult feedback to someone. Strong people skills and high emotional intelligence will help but even this can only do so much.

Should you choose leadership?

Only you know the answer to this question. I don’t regret the decision I made years ago to become a leader in my organisation. The journey was an eventful one and isn’t even over yet. I’ve grown along the way and won some major victories for myself. What powers me is a conviction that I can make a difference and make the world a better place. Or rather, that I can put one stone atop another and build something that will last the test of time!

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