President Harry Truman had a famous sign on his desk. It read “The Buck Stops Here.” For all sorts of leaders, the buck not only stops with you but also carries a burden as it travels to you. No other position in an organization carries as much responsibility, burden, triumph, stress or excitement as it’s leader. If you are new to leading a group or company, you have probably already experienced some of the burdens that leadership brings. Some burdens, I’m sure, you handled fine, while others, pushed you to the limits of your experience and resolve to carry on. Fear not. While there are natural leaders, the rest of us need to overcome the burdens of leadership in order to successfully lead our organizations while still keeping our sanity.
The Truth is Out There
As a leader, you are put in an isolation bubble. You may not realize it but it’s there. The size of this isolation bubble entirely depends on how you deal with bad news and constructive criticism. The more you “shoot the messenger” or lash out at critics, the bigger this isolation bubble will get.
The reason this bubble exists is because, as the leader, you wield tremendous power over the future. The future of the organization, employees and stakeholders. This power changes people. They start to listen to your every word. What you say, do, don’t do, react or care about will be noticed and it makes obtaining the truth harder and harder. You should always seek the truth and can do that by applying some of the below techniques:
Don’t shoot the messenger: How you deal with bad news will dictate how bad news is presented to you. If you don’t handle bad news well, then no one will tell you any.
Embrace constructive criticism: Constructive criticism that’s in the best interest of the company or group should be encouraged since that’s really the only way to ensure that decisions are sound.
Communicate your vision: Without a solid vision of the path forward, your organization will flounder and make dangerous assumptions.
Allow others to speak truth to power: This relates to embracing constructive criticism but takes it to the next level by asking for feedback instead of having it come to you.
Create multiple avenues of feedback: Most leaders are surrounded by like minded individuals that will insulate them from the truth. If you foster multiple avenues of feedback, you can get the most accurate picture possible.
Be gracious about failure: Everyone fails and how a leader handles failure will set the tone for how data is presented to you. Be gracious to those who have failed and encourage them to learn and move on.
Live in the now: Too often, people hold grudges about past wrongs. While it’s good to learn from mistakes and be cautious, it’s toxic to dwell on the past. Evaluate situations as they come. This will keep your perspective fresh.
Everyone Has an Agenda
You may think that your trusted advisors are totally aligned with your thoughts and only want what’s best for you. In most cases, I’m sure that’s true but there will be times when even your most trusted people will have a hidden agenda. It’s not that they want to undermine your authority or even your position. It’s just that sometimes, they will have an alternative motive for the advice they give. As an astute leader, you need to pick up on these clues and know when advice is for your benefit or others. Some of the signs that the advice you are getting may not be in your best interest include:
The data does not match: A leader should be data driven. If you are being asked to support something and the data seems odd or contradictory, then beware of an alternative motive.
Everyone agrees: It’s rare for everyone to agree about a controversial issue. So, if the issue is complex and you find that no decent is put forth, go seek it out.
Your gut tells you otherwise: Your gut instincts are more often than not correct. So, if it feels wrong, then you are probably being lead down the wrong path.
The decision will benefit a select few: Personal benefit is a strong motive to push an agenda. Try and look past the decision at hand and figure out who benefits before moving forward.
Only the upside is discussed: All decisions have a downside and not discussing it may be a sly move to hide something. Always look for the downside of your decisions so you can gage what might happen.
People with personal agenda’s will do whatever they can do get you to make decisions for their benefit. In some cases, they will even try to guild you in the wrong direction so that they can discredit you or even take your job. So trust but verify all advice that relates to important decisions.
Decisions are Yours and Yours Alone
It should be no surprise that the job of leaders is to make decisions. These decisions will chart the course of your organization. Make good decisions and success because easier. Make the wrong decisions and you may be looking for a new job.
Ultimately, the decision is yours are yours alone. You can ask for as many inputs as you like but in the end, the organization will look to you to make the call. This burden can really get to some leaders and will rapidly marginalize your leadership ability unless you do something about it. Consider some of the techniques below as starting points for making better decisions:
No decision is still a decision: Not taking action can be just as powerful as taking action. Be sure to weigh the upside and downside of inaction. Even a decision you may later change can sometimes be better than making none at all.
You will never please everyone: Remember that not everyone will like your decision. This is inevitable. Just remember that if you are trying to look out for the best interest of your organization, then that’s the best you can make.
Data will always be lacking: Never delay a decision due to lack of data. Data will always be imperfect, lacking or just nonexistent. Use the data you have to make a decision and move on.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind: It’s perfectly acceptable to change your mind or decision when new data becomes available. What’s not acceptable is to waffle on core beliefs and sway on the winds of change.
Have a rationale as to why the decision was made: Every decision has a rationale and this rationale should be communicated especially if the decision may be controversial or done with lack of data.
It Really is Lonely at the Top
Leaders are lonely people. Actually, they are not “lonely” in the sense that people are not around but in the sense that there are very few people in their position or circumstance. This isolation, which is partly due to the isolation bubble leaders create, can drive some leaders to make bad decisions and seem out of touch.
Reducing this loneliness requires that you strive to interact with other leaders. Other leaders will understand what you are going through and be able to offer advice and consultation that will make you a better leader. Talking with other leaders also gives you different perspectives into how they make decisions and what you may be missing.
No One’s Perfect
The most important thing to realize is that as long as you are looking out for the best interests of your organization, any decision or direction you take, is the one that’s right, given the data and environment you are in. Sure, you might make a mistake (actually, you will make lots), but as long as the direction you want to go is benefiting your organization, the worst they can do is fire you for going in the wrong direction. Failure is inevitable. Great leaders do fail but it’s how they react to failure that makes them great — not the fact that they never failed.
There are many leadership burdens but the biggest burden of all is the self imposed burden that every decision, every initiative or direction has to be successful. If you can get over that, then the rest of the burdens become significantly reduced.