The burden of leadership

Leadership.  The brass ring.  The golden ticket.  What we all aspire to, right?   It does have its privileges.  But who was it that said that with great power comes great responsibility?  Boy, were they right. 

One of the most interesting lessons I see developing leaders learn is that leadership is not all about getting what you want.   In fact, they are astonished to realize how often they must focus on what others want.  Or, rather, what they need.   A leader’s challenge, gift and burden is to give others what they need in order to be effective, even when it’s not what the leader wants or needs. 

And, to take it a step further, to give people what they need even when it’s in conflict with what they want.  And that’s not easy.  Why squelch your own needs to meet others’ needs, when they don’t even appreciate it?!  Because sometimes that’s what it takes to get the job done and, perhaps more importantly, to help people become more than they are today. 

Don’t like “socializing”?  Too bad.  If sitting down with an employee to chit-chat for five minutes a day is what develops the relationship that allows that person to tell you what’s really going on with the project, or that they are interested in a promotion, it’s worth it.  If delegating some pieces of your own responsibility to a team member (even though you’d rather keep those) in order to develop their skills doesn’t sound like something you can do, you need to ask if you can be an effective leader.  If you won’t tell someone their performance is lagging, because it makes you too uncomfortable, leadership might not be for you. 

There’s a lot of good to be said about the benefits of leadership.  However, never forget the burden, and never shy away from it.

The calculus of power

When I was in college, I took Calculus for the first time.  Math was never my strongest subject and in Calculus I was completely lost. Now, I realize I just didn’t have the context I needed to understand what it really meant.

Recently, I was reading a book on women and power.  It included advice on behaviors women should incorporate more into their own modus operandi in order to appear more powerful — behaviors which send unconscious messages about relative power.  One such behavior is interrupting.  Once you start looking for it, it’s easy to see: people who come across as powerful often do interrupt others, and no one seems to mind (even though we were all taught as children not to interrupt.)  So, one can generalize that if you interrupt more, you will be perceived as more powerful.   As specific advice, though, this is tricky isn’t it?

Which brings us back to Calculus. 

As I was considering this advice about interrupting and how that would translate for one of the young business leaders I coach, I realized the complexity of the equation. You cannot simply tell someone to interrupt more. So many factors play into the situation that can completely change the output — the difference in organizational level between the two parties, the setting, the organizational culture, and more.  Imagine an intern interrupting the company president in a board meeting within a stiffly hierarchical organization.  Career suicide, right?  Okay, I know that is an extreme example.  But the point is, this is a very careful science, the wielding of power. 

In Calculus, a derivative is the measure of how a function changes as the inputs change.  In wielding power also, the function, i.e. the behavior, must change as the inputs change.  These changes may be so minute it is hard to put into words.  This is why the best teacher is experience.  Through experience, one can detect and adjust to changes so small they can’t even be articulated well.  However, there is a certain amount of benefit in providing some construct, some theory, some advice as a foundation.  For those of us who guide others, we can at least describe some limits.  In Calculus, limits capture and describe small scale change.  As coaches, we can describe certain small changes and their likely effect.  After that, the individual must rely on experience to learn the balance. 

Boy, who knew 20 years later, that subject would finally start making sense!