Leading is tough…

On January 2nd a well fed version of me plopped down at my desk full of good intentions. And before I got to answering emails and walking about wishing people New Year I took some time out to think about accountability, collaboration and trust.

Before Christmas I’d queried someone’s decison on something and I wasn’t really content with their response. It just wasn’t the one I’d want them to make… That happens a lot, but I guess I it was one of the last things I did before shutting down. Before Christmas. It wasn’t a big decison, but it’s one where I can’t see something working out… And if I’d gone back and queried again that would have sent a clear messages. As it was they probably didn’t even notice.

So here is what I’ve been thinking

i) I get paid more than most people in the organisation – and that pay should be commensurate with me taking more accountability. If something goes wrong in my area I expect to be held accountable.

ii) But I want the people in my area to feel trusted and backed to make decisions

iii) But sometimes I can see problems coming down the line and in fact, I’m more experienced that most in spotting that (as I’ve made more mistakes than most), which is part of the reason why I get paid more than most.

iv) I’m also accountable for setting standards for my area – which can arguably conflict with ii)

So I’m sitting here waiting for things to progress and either me to be proved wrong (it happens) or to see how the person reacts if I turn out to be right. What I’m not doing is using a hierarchy to ensure what I think should happen happens. But maybe I should because I’m still accountable.

So I’m probably in this instance accountable for allowing some risk to help ensure continuity of trust. And then I have to ask if that’s the right thing to do for the people the organisation serves.

I guess I’m writing this because it’s about such a tiny, tiny thing. But most days are made up of similar choices but over much bigger things.

  • How much are things decided by a group vs me being paid to apply my judgement?
  • What do I let go vs what do I make a clear statement on?
  • What do I find time for vs how do I protect time to think?
  • How much is too much oversight vs how much of not having oversight is negligence

And it’s similar for anyone who leads a group of people. But I don’t think that complexity is always reflected by the experts commentating on the roles we do. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching the football pundits that you know failed to make it in management or never even attempted that role. You can speak with easily adopted authority if you’ve never had to make the same mistakes that we face (and make) each day.

‘What the modern leader needs to do is just…‘.

‘Yeah. But I’d like to see you try…’

You don’t give someone a four/nine box model and away they go… You don’t just say ‘Embrace your autonomy’ and everything turns out fine. You wrestle with this stuff every single day. And if you are me you go home and replay each day in your head second guessing each decison you made and then still come in the next day trying to give people confidence that you know what you are doing. A constant balance of unpicking and stepping forward. Because I’m paid to be good at stuff for people and I’m accountable for that.

So this is just a mini plea to the people writing/talking about leadership. Unless you do this stuff (and I mean you lead teams now – not have a rose tinted recollection of doing it half a decade ago) if you could mix some humility and understanding in with the insight that would be awesome. Because most of us know we aren’t perfect already.

And if you read this and think it is about you, but isn’t fair, then it wasn’t about you so it’s all good here.

Final thought – since I drafted this blog it turns out that my initial instinct was correct. However I’m not stupid enough to think there are countless examples every single day where the opposite is true. But on this one… Well, if you have made the same mistake multiple times you spot it when someone else is going to make it.

7 thoughts on “Leading is tough…

  1. Yep, Leading is tough (a lot of the time), to which could be added “Leading is boring” (most of the time), “leading is frustrating” (some of the time) and “leading is under-appreciated” (all of the time).

    There’s three book titles that will never make the Amazon top 100 for Leadership, but could hit the Useful 100 for honesty and authenticity.


  2. David

    I no longer lead but have done so over many years. How people make an industry out of it though is beyond me. It really is quite simple: shut up, be kind, say “thank you” or better still “what do you think?” and the rest (as they say) will look after itself. If that seems simplistic, then I make no apology; but seriously, nowadays very people want to be lead (see “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You” by Goffee and Jones https://hbr.org/2000/09/why-should-anyone-be-led-by-you). Instead, they want to work in a company with a soul (which means it’s not all about the money!) and save where they need some information on a project, would much prefer to be left alone to organise themselves. In other words, they’re not a hierarchy sympathiser and need to be treated like an adult.

    You say:

    “So this is just a mini plea to the people writing/talking about leadership. Unless you do this stuff (and I mean you lead teams now – not have a rose tinted recollection of doing it half a decade ago) if you could mix some humility and understanding in with the insight that would be awesome. Because most of us know we aren’t perfect already.”

    …and I agree with you. But the problem with any consultant or expert qua leadership, they can say all these things but it’s very unlikely any putative leader will change their approach. Why? Because people rarely change. If they did, then we’d have sorted out many more of the issues that afflict business including employee engagement and the proliferation of bullshit jobs — see David Graeber’s book by the same name and his article in Strike http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/.

    Sorry this response is so long and on reading it through again I’m not sure I’m adding anything to the conversation but, nevertheless, I felt inspired to post a comment.

    Best wishes


  3. Lovely picture. So, I’ve done a lot of leading and talked to hundreds of leaders. This is a central dilemma. In the interests of cutting through the BS – it’s a lot like parenting; indeed leaders tend to borrow their leadership style from their parents’ parenting style. Almost certainly you are doing that. Maybe it’s a bit clearer in that light: as a parent you feel responsible, but you need nonetheless to give people the space to make mistakes and to do things their way. The most important thing is a healthy relationship where they know you care, and you talk often. Sometimes they will listen to you and chose not to follow your advice, and sometimes they will be right and sometimes they will be wrong – and you take the fall. But either way you are doing your job, which is to help them develop (which in turn leads to engagement, performance and talent).

    Liked by 1 person

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