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Sometimes you have to step back to exercise leadership

If you ask my wife, my default is always to double down. When things are difficult, my natural reaction is to try harder, work harder, and do more. While I'd like to believe that this approach is laudable, albeit slightly crazy at times, I'm also learning that it may hold you back as much as it can help you progress. This is especially true if you are in a leadership position, and I'm learning that it may cause as much harm as it can produce and generate momentum for change. Unfortunately, we tend to reward this behaviour: those who 'double down' are thought to do more, be more committed to their jobs, and advance faster. The problem is that, while those character traits are valuable in an individual (to some extent), they are not always beneficial in a team or someone leading a team.

What's going on here?

First and foremost, leadership is about problem-solving and creating momentum towards an end goal. This is not due to making your argument louder, stronger, or more persistent. It occurs when you enable individuals to sit with their thoughts and an understanding of the path to the solution. Most people require time to process what is happening and what is likely to happen to them. This processing period is crucial for them to accept and contribute to the change. Attempting to short circuit this process, as I have frequently tried to do in the past, results in pain and frustration. People do not feel heard or listened to, and perhaps most crucially, the chance for new and improved ideas to arise is limited. The approach is to consciously prolong your timetable, doubling or even tripling the time you anticipate taking action. We all have a foundation for our thoughts, and if we can see the solution, so can everyone else. That is just incorrect! So intentionally add time to the journey you're taking your team on.

In his outstanding book "What Got You Here, Won't Get You There," Marshall Goldsmith addresses this dilemma. Goldsmith investigates the behaviours that generate individual achievement while leading small teams or working alone but become irreversibly harmful when in a leadership role. The need to lean in, generate value, and discover solutions instantly, according to Goldsmith, is the most fundamental issue that new executives face. The notion is that they must win and demonstrate their worth in all situations. As a result, the team is disempowered and disengaged.

Second, if you continue pushing, you will be too close to the problem to understand. Take a step back, take a break, and watch things unfold. This gives you an idea of what the solution might or might not be. I believe this is a serious challenge when you are in a leadership position. The notion is that instead of doing anything, you should think, reflect, and observe. It's an entirely different skill set than we're taught starting in our careers. Instead, we are praised for solving issues, making progress, and getting things done. If you're like me, you try to lead by example, but you lose perspective by getting into the weeds.

This is a point that Grashow, Linsky, and Heifetz have beautifully captured in their book "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership", where they encourage leaders to move between the balcony and the dance floor. The key is that when exercising leadership, you need to get your hands dirty, but you also need to step back and see what is happening in other places on the dancefloor to view the whole room. To make a decent decision and perceive all the puzzle parts, you need space and distance from what is going on. The greater your team and the larger your organisation, the more you should reflect and the less you should do. Someone must be in charge of understanding and seeing trends, sources of friction and struggle and assisting others in noticing them. Going for a walk, getting away from your desk, and simply having 'thinking' time are all essential for efficiency. Make a plan for it, mark it on your calendar, and make sure you take that step back.

Third, if you don't take a step back, you'll miss out on the opportunity to be curious. Curiosity is at the heart of all innovation and change. If you can't take a step back, you'll become a project management or Gantt chart machine. More concerned with achieving results than learning what works and doesn't. Stop and have a look around; it is curiosity that allows you to interact with your colleagues and team members, as well as find fascinating ideas and solve difficulties. While there is no magic formula for cultivating curiosity, you can surely practise noticing and asking questions. Consider how many of your recent management discussions were directive, including closed questions (yes/no). How many were about the individual or the person?

This is difficult for me. I'm a process person who has to remind myself to focus on the individual, the human side of things. Only this week, I was having a conversation with a coworker about their fantastic summer vacation when I caught myself not being curious but drawing the subject back to the project we were working on, specifically the deadlines and timelines for delivery. Yes, admirably on schedule, but uninteresting for my coworker. Create the space and time for curiosity by stepping back and being curious about what is going on and how it can improve.

Leadership is about comprehending what is happening around you, not only solving the next challenge or problem. It took me a long time to realise that I needed to take a step back to exercise leadership, and I still battle with it. The drive to deliver, do, and solve problems for others is frequently easier to follow - faster reward - and more rewarding because I can see the progress. To be effective, we must do the opposite: make more time for inquiry, make space for introspection, and regularly check in with our expectations.


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