Adapted from an article originally written for Horizons Magazine, a publication of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, Spring 2019.
Effective leadership development begins with understanding who we are as human beings, how we behave in relationship to others and how we operate in the world. This insight informs the choices we make in creating compelling vision, influencing decisions of others and recruiting followers to join us in the journey. Sometimes leaders make new discoveries in this process, revealing unrealized potential or overexerted strengths. While our strengths can be a vast wealth of resource from which we draw, they can also be taken to extreme, which may show up as risk factors, resulting in negative consequences in our relationships.
One example that comes to mind is the visionary executive, who was usually the first one to recognize shifts in the market, identify business challenges faced by clients and anticipate necessary innovations that would advance his company. He was known for being visionary, creative and innovative. However, the risk factor appeared when he would make what his team described as “cognitive leaps of faith” in introducing his recommended solutions without connecting the proverbial dots for others in the room. He simply expected others to see the solution as plainly as he did and criticize the competence and capability of others when they did not draw the same conclusions. This leadership approach cost him the opportunity to continue progressing in his career. Ultimately, he had achieved his plateau much sooner than he expected.
By contrast, a mid-level marketing director had a reputation for being results-oriented with a “get the job done” mentality. She described herself as a “pleaser,” which to her meant she would always take on additional responsibility and find a way to get it across the finish line, so as to please her superiors. Her executive team saw and rewarded her potential for being able to execute efficiently and effectively. The downside of this strength was realized when her team of direct reports may not have shared her ambitious drive and need for recognition. In fact, she drove her team excessively, by overcommitting them and accepting more responsibility than her team’s workload could reasonably support. In effect, she burned them out. As a result, a complaint was filed with human resources and she was put on a mandatory leave. Fortunately for her, this was a reality check.
She began working with a coach to understand her leadership style and to make intentional corrective choices to rebuild relationships, have the crucial conversations when necessary and asked her team for their input on reasonable timelines and deliverables to ensure their health, wellbeing and success. In the end, she returned to work, re-established her credibility and built a new leadership brand for herself as a highly collaborative and execution-oriented leader who cared not only about the work product, but also her people.
Both of these examples illustrate the importance of understanding our strengths and recognizing the consequences when those same strengths are taken too far or over-applied. In both cases, it was how the leader responded to feedback from key stakeholders that determined the outcome. The first leader ignored the feedback, deflected the responsibility and chose not to adjust his behavior. This resulted in the end of his tenure with that company. The second leader accepted the feedback as a wake-up call, reflected and evaluated how she wanted to proceed and then took corrective action. Ultimately, she has been recognized and promoted for her newly discovered leadership capability.
Making a Difference
Leadership is a choice—a series of choices, really. Every day we are faced with choices, trade-offs and decisions, all of which have consequences—good and bad. Further, the work of leadership is often considered to be dual-focused. Leaders must be ever mindful of two realities: the current state of daily affairs and the future vision for the organization. Whether we lead small teams or large corporations or nonprofit organizations, we must keep both realities in balance.
Keeping one eye on the current state, we rely on our teams to keep us apprised of the day-to-day details of what is happening inside our organizations, our markets and our communities. We may have analysts and advisors and we may become embroiled in the operational heavy lifting necessary to keep the organization moving forward. However, it is not unusual for leaders to become overly involved in the daily details. Leaders who spend too much energy on the day-to-day details may lose sight of the long view: where the organization is going. They may miss opportunities to partner or innovate or collaborate for a broader benefit. In short, they may lose focus on the mission.
On the other hand, it is essential for leaders to step back from the details and take another perspective. This allows the necessary time for reflecting on progress, anticipating course corrections, planning deliberately and proactively leading with purpose and intention in the desired direction. Although spending excessive time and energy in this space is necessary, when overextended, it may delay leaders from making critical real-time decisions to keep the organization productive and in some cases, solvent. This dual-focused work of leaders must remain in balance, so that the time and energy expended never strays too far in either direction, as dire consequences may result. The sum total of these everyday choices, in the end, determine the difference we make.
Leaving a Legacy
At a recent networking event, I had the opportunity to share my personal mantra, which is: Learn. Lead. Leave a Legacy. This means we learn new skills, ideas and ways of working and being so that we may become more effective leaders who make a positive impact. Our everyday choices, expressed in our words and actions, including how we spend our time, talents and treasures, leave an indelible imprint on the people and the environment around us. These choices and actions leave an impact, whether positive or not. This impact is our legacy. In “A Leader’s Legacy,” authors Kouzes and Posner (2006) write:
“To realize that we make a difference is both a joyous opportunity and a potential burden. Because we most influence those who are the closest to us, we’re given a great gift. We’re presented with the chance to change a life. We’re granted the option of investing in the growth of others. We’re offered the opportunity to make the world a better place.”
Leadership truly is about recognizing the current state of our world, and making intentional choices to leave it a better place than we found it. These events are an opportunity to reconnect with the community, as well as to shape the future. Together, let’s leave a legacy, make a positive difference and be a catalyst for a vibrant community and world.