This article was originally published on Forbes.com on August 26, 2018.
This one is for the up-and-comers. The go-getters. The high achievers. I hear you think you’re ready for leadership. From what I understand, you’re frustrated that you haven’t been given more management responsibility yet. You work hard. You consistently get results. And most importantly, you’re smart. Leadership should already be yours. What gives?
You’re right that leaders need to be smart, work hard and get results. But I’ve seen many leaders demonstrate those characteristics and still stumble. The irony is sometimes they stumble for the same reason they’ve been successful – because they are smart. Let me share a short story to help explain.
Our organization runs leadership development programs which attract some of the brightest minds in the country. One of the case studies we teach is about a talented CEO who tried to turn around an organization and struggled throughout his tenure. Year after year, we teach this case to rooms full of smart people. Each time, the CEO’s mistakes are immediately clear to them. The discussion is full of confident critiques of his leadership as well as the results of his decisions.
Then we begin to put questions back to the room, “Why do you think the CEO made the decisions he made?” The question of “why” is important because it puts the participants in the moment when the decision was made. The case continues with more opportunities to put themselves in his shoes. The same people who were quick to rip apart the CEO, are now far less certain when facing tough decisions head on themselves. This reversal highlights three lessons to help you successfully take on leadership.
Don’t look for answers.
During the case, everyone has answers for what they would have done when they’re able to look backward at how things turned out. The problem is you don’t lead backwards. You lead forward. And things aren’t always clear looking forward.
As you move up in leadership, you’ll find that there are less and less answers. Instead, there are more and more decisions based on incomplete information. That can make you uncomfortable because you’re used to having the right answer. So, you’ll look for answers when you should be looking for decisions that will lead to answers. You need to get comfortable with that ambiguity. In other words, you need to get comfortable knowing you might be wrong.
You need to stop believing there is an answer and start weighing multiple paths you can take. You need to know that things won’t go as planned, at which point even more paths will need to be considered. When that happens, you need to stand in the middle of that mistake, be humbled and fight your way out. When you are able to not have answers and still successfully make decisions, then you are ready for leadership.
Don’t over-value logic.
As part of the case, we ask the participants to role-play a conversation with the CEO. Their goal is to get him to change his mind about a key lever in his strategy. One after another, they attempt to persuade him with great arguments about the budget, politics, sustainability, alternate strategies, organizational culture, and risk containment.
Their arguments are smart and well-thought out. What they overlook though, is that the CEO is a former minister and is driven by mission and values. None of the participants appeal to this aspect of his identity. They ignore his heart and his beliefs, and one after another, they fail to change his mind.
For smart people, logic and sound arguments tend to be the default for making a point. Leaders need the ability to make sound arguments, but it takes more than that to influence others. As your leadership develops you’ll realize that you aren’t just managing people, you are managing people’s emotions. You aren’t just managing their work, you’re managing how they feel about their work. Sometimes you can use logic, sometimes you can’t. If your default stays at logic, you will stumble at least half the time.
Do walk in your leader’s shoes.
During the case, it stands out how easily the participants critique the CEO’s decisions and how little they empathize with him. We teach case studies because empathizing is an important mechanism for learning. When you actively try to understand another person’s thought processes, vision, range of inputs and beliefs, you learn from it. You learn because you are mentally doing what they did. It is a type of practicing.
Ask yourself, when your boss makes a decision that you don’t agree with, do you critique or get curious? Critical thinkers often start from a place of being critical. But critiquing is easy. Understanding is not. Critiquing scratches the surface and then moves on. Curiosity goes deeper and that is where the understanding is. When you put yourself in your leader’s shoes – not to critique, but to understand – you are role-playing leadership. You are mentally doing what they did. You are practicing.
Up-and-comers. Go-getters. High achievers. Remember that there isn’t always an answer but there is always a decision. Know that emotion is just as powerful as logic. Recognize it is easy to criticize after the hard work of leading is done. Instead, be curious and put yourself in your leader’s shoes. If you do that, before you know it, you’ll be in their shoes. I’m looking forward to that day. Why? Because you are smart, hard-working and get results. And we need leaders like that.