Why leadership is hard

Nowadays there have never been more courses, publications, and studies on leadership as a discipline. We know more than ever about the different leadership styles. We know which qualities are necessary for people to become good leaders. We finally seem to have more help available via coaching and mentoring than ever before. However, the World seems to suffer from a scarcity of good leaders in all fields.

There’s a reason why this paradox exists … Leadership is hard!

leadership can be a sisyphean task sometimes

Let’s find out why!

The hidden part of leadership

We think of leaders are individuals who told titles, authority and wow crowds towards a common goal or objective. However, this is only the visible part of the leadership iceberg.

What’s not visible are the countless hours of work going on behind the scenes. Hours spent doing situational analysis in order to become aware of what is and isn’t possible in order to craft a compelling vision. Very often, limited information is available to do said analysis, which just creates more work and breeds frustration. Hours spent away from home travelling to events and meetings in all corners of the country or even the world. Countless days that don’t go according to plan as a crisis emerges and something urgent must be taken care of. The higher you’ll rise in leadership, the likelier it is that you may wave goodbye to a few things such as weekend lie-ins or even having a fixed schedule. It, therefore, goes without saying that time-management is a critical skill to master by any aspiring leader!

Leadership is costly

Besides the time commitment, leadership requires a significant emotional commitment too. Moreover, the bigger the responsibilities, the more significant the emotional commitment will be.

This commitment can take various forms. One of them is working with friends and close associates who might be directly affected and potentially disagree with the decisions we take as leaders. Another is the fact some decisions have a human cost and that in extreme situations, a leader may find itself having to pick a winner or a loser. Finally, all leaders have to work with others to implement change, drive a group forward or fulfill a vision. This last aspect inevitably means that sometimes, tough discussions will need to happen with peers or subordinates that aren’t up to speed or haven’t performed as expected.

In some situations, trying to please everybody may lead to leadership paralysis as decisions aren’t made. It can also lead to favouring short-term fixes over solutions who will generate short-term pain for long-term gain. As harsh as it may sound, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received from one of my mentors is “Never be afraid of calling out somebody for poor performance. Otherwise, the consequences will ripple down the line for years to come!”

From strained relationships to decision-making fatigue, the emotional costs of leadership are real!

Leaders are jugglers

While working at an executive leadership level for an International organisation over the past few years. I’ve been lucky to work on a variety of tasks and projects, the diversity of which was quite unexpected in some respects.

A key challenge that I still sometimes struggle with, is to juggle time and attention between “short-range” item and “long-range” items. Short-range items are day-to-day tasks, such as weekly progress meeting, monitoring key success metrics, delivering planned training and communication with others. Long-range items are strategic tasks that demand a lot of focused attention, they could be strategic planning, brainstorming new initiatives or building new systems and processes that will save the organisation time and act as force-multipliers down the line. If one isn’t careful, it is very easy to get bogged down in the former category and to forget about the later completely. Additionally, both sets of tasks require completely different skill sets. A typical short-range task of resolving conflict requires tact, listening skills, and emotional engagement. High-level strategic planning, however, requires a willingness to think about all possibilities and some degree emotional detachment.

Another difficulty is that multiple projects running simultaneously may require our attention as leaders. Leaders must, therefore, become jugglers and be able to shift focus between projects and tasks as necessary. Needless to say, that is much easier said than done.