What Does It Take For a Leader to Get to Awesome?

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There are managers, there are leaders, there is that rare breed who are effectively both.

With that in mind let’s take a moment and be honest – being a leader isn’t always easy.

Effective leadership is rife with challenges ranging from the apparent: lack of resources, people, time, and money – each of which can make every day a new adventure. Then there are the challenges that come out of nowhere like a Kansas tornado ready to wipe you out before you even know to rush for the basement.

Most of the time as a leader, one can prepare and strategize and create contingency plans. Sometimes, not so much.

Getting across the river

So consider this:

You find yourself standing in a lush green meadow. Everything is quaint and pleasant, you certainly wouldn’t describe the situation as bad. But maybe you wouldn’t necessarily describe it as ideal either.

Now think about your current role or organization; how do you feel about them? Does the vision of you standing in the meadow strike a chord? It works, but it isn’t what you really want?

© petert2 - Fotolia.com
© petert2 – Fotolia.com

Back to the meadow … In front of you is a river. The water is rushing by and in that water is a nasty swarm of challenges – business piranha if you will. It’s full of budget deficits, talent shortages, stakeholder demands, lack of opportunities, and clocks chock full of not enough hours in the day. The river is a dangerous place.

On the other side of the river though is something that can only be described as awesome. What that awesome is, is up to you.

Perhaps it’s a promotion you’ve been eyeing, or a bonus that’s within reach, or maybe it’s a seat at the proverbial table. It could even be a new position with a new organization, or simply the opportunity to take a more substantial role in your current one.

Tools you can bring to bear

Each of us has things, that, when we look at the course of our career, we define as a big deal, the thing(s) that make all the hard work and effort worth it. And that thing is sitting on the other side of the river staring back at you waiting for you to stake your claim. So the question becomes this: how do you get to awesome?

Do you act rashly and dive in? You could, but you’ll probably find yourself picked to the bones by those nasty challenges.

So what do you do? How do you do it? What are your choices?

Well, the answer to that is both simple and complicated at the same time.

As a leader, you have a whole toolbox of options. You have your colleagues and/or your employees, you have technology and possibly even more at your disposal that could help you make your way across the river.

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The most apparent option might be to assemble a team to review the challenges, design a plan, and build a bridge across the expanse.

A few things leaders recognize

You’d get to awesome … eventually, after you’ve spent a significant amount of time and resources. And once you touch land on the other side it’s entirely possible you’d have to opportunity to take all that awesome you’ve been building toward and run with it. Or, maybe not.

As the workplace changes and the makeup of the workforce follows, it’s easy to get lost in process and flow charts and meetings and our own personal microcosms. As a leader, one needs to be able to identify what tool to use in a given situation and make the right decision to get the job done and that set of tools is a lot more expansive than just people-power and technology.

Effective leaders are able to recognize a few key ideas:

  • Not everything is a widget. In this age of metrics designed to measure metrics, sometimes it’s good to take a moment to look at the bigger picture as opposed to the smaller one. A strong leader can operate at both the macro and micro levels when necessary and knows when it’s appropriate to do so.
  • Be a better listener. It’s easy to get caught up in short term goals we can control to the degree that we’re not soliciting feedback or ideas, because frankly, they aren’t our own. A smart leader not only brings their own ideas to the problem, but they actively work to consider the thoughts of others.
  • No, really, don’t talk so much. Take the time to recognize that no matter how experienced you are, there’s always more to learn. The best leaders are humble and open and approachable. It’s a lot easier to give genuine consideration to the perspectives of others if they’re willing to bring their ideas to you instead of your always having to solicit them.
  • Use your eyes. Leaders are leaders not just because of their title or place in an organization but because they have followers. Employees are watching you, perhaps they’re using you as an example for their own careers. It’s likely if you’ve achieved any modicum of professional success that you were watched and groomed and presented with opportunities because you did the work and you created value when the opportunity presented itself. Guess what? It’s your turn now. The best leaders observe others, reward performance, recognize competency, and do their best to help the organization develop and retain top talent.

Using what you have at your disposal

So, take a moment and consider the full range of tools at your disposal. Maybe it makes complete sense to build that bridge, and if you’re lucky, that cache of awesome will still be waiting for you by the time you get across the river.

Or maybe you need to take a step back and realize that while, yes, all that awesome is enticing maybe there’s something even more awesome (or at least a better way to get to the awesome you know about) around the bend if you’d only bother to look around, listen, and think big picture.

Use the tools you have at your disposal and tell me what you find. Maybe you notice an employee – one who isn’t feeling particularly challenged by your bridge building exercise — tossing rocks into the river and hopscotching back and forth shore to shore.

Or maybe you hear a couple of your bridge building employees grumbling about the nonsense of it all because there’s a strip of land just up the shore a few hundred yards. Or it’s possible that the bridge you’re building is the smartest strategy, but at least be sure you’ve attacked the problem from a strategic perspective.

If you don’t, you won’t be making it to the other side of all those challenges waiting to swallow you up, and there isn’t anything awesome about being stagnant. Just ask the river.

Erik Smetana is an HR strategist and talent leader with extensive experience working in and fostering teams and innovation for an eclectic mix of organizations including Fortune 500 companies, international not-for-profits, and institutions of higher education and research. His thoughts and opinions related to all things "employee experience" (and occasionally other topics) can be found online at www.thehrfieldguide.com.

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