Many of us are excited to see 2020 in the rear view mirror. It certainly has been a year like no other. But how do we approach the upcoming year as an individual and as a leader? The truth is that the world may not change simply because the calendar reflects a new year. What does it mean to look forward with optimism in the midst of difficulty?
It is important to make the distinction between positivity and optimism. Choosing positivity sounds positively wonderful. However, positivity is not the same as optimism, and the difference can impact your ability to lead – especially in times of crisis or change. According to Simon Sinek, positivity is telling ourselves (and others) that everything is good, even if it isn’t. Optimism, on the other hand, accepts reality as it is and looks forward to a brighter future” (Chio, 2020). This is a subtle difference, but an important one.
Ignoring the negative in the name of positivity does not allow you to appropriately address the needs of a situation. Dismissing the feelings that accompany a trying situation to focus on a “positive only” outlook can be disconcerting to those holding these concerns.
Rather than turning a blind eye to the difficulties of a situation, optimism examines the tough realities and chooses to move forward with the belief that you have the power to make change.
So, as we say goodbye to 2020 and look forward to 2021, let us explore all the good and the bad that was 2020. Let us clearly understand the difficult year it has been – both professionally and personally. Then, and only then, let us also move forward to achieve our goals and dreams in spite those difficulties.
Chio. (2020). Simon sinek on the difference between optimism and positivity. Throwingclay.org
Calvin and Hobbes were speaking more truth than they realized. Research has shown that many leaders arrive at their positions as a result of organizational need, rather than a planned, career trajectory (Garza & Eddy, 2008; Inman, 2007; Klein & Salk, 2013). My own experience agrees with the research, and I know a myriad of people who are given leadership roles or provided with leadership opportunities for which they had no desire or plan. Often, this results in a leader who lacks leadership preparation and is left to figure it out on the job. Research and evidence are great, but …
You’re the leader – Now What?
It’s not too late. You can plan your own leadership development. While you may find yourself in this position randomly, leadership is learned through the day-to-day practice of leading. With intentional focus on your own development, you can grow your leadership skills every day. With a few specific and intentional practices, you will be able to focus on leading today while growing your leadership skills for tomorrow.
ASSESS Your Skill Set – Take an honest look at what you know … and what you don’t know. Leaders must know themselves before they can lead others. Spend time assessing your strengths and areas needing growth. Seek help from a coach or someone who can help you identify what skills should still be developed to propel your leadership.
REFLECT on Your Leadership Style – Reflect on who you want to be as a leader and what authentic leadership looks like on you. Write your thoughts down in a journal or a blog or just scraps of paper, but put them down somewhere. Getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper makes them more real which is the first step toward achieving your leadership goals.
MOVE into Your Leadership Role – Lean in and embrace the position you’ve been given. Crawling, walking, and running are all movement. You will not grow as a leader until you fully take on the role and move within it. You are gifted or you wouldn’t be there, so reach for it and move into this leadership opportunity with all you have.
Growth is one of the best things about being human. We are built to learn and develop. You may not have planned this part of your leadership journey, but you have arrived here and there is so much to discover.
Garza, R. & Eddy, P. (2008). In the middle: Career pathways of midlevel community college leaders. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 32, 793-811.
Inman, M. (2007). The journey to leadership: A study of how leader-academics in higher education learn to lead. University of Birmingham.
Klein, M. F., & Salk, R. J. (2013). Presidential succession planning: A qualitative study in private higher education. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20(3), 335-345.
The great leadership expert Bruce Lee was absolutely right – you must not stay in the plateau places. The greatest danger of the plateau is that it simply feels so comfortable. In fact, it feels so comfortable you may not even realize you have plateaued. Leadership plateaus let us move into autopilot and relax into familiar patterns. Moving from one situation to another, one decision to another, one person to another without the need to think about the next step. Comfort isn’t wrong, and every leader needs a chance to rest into their leadership on occasion. But remaining on a leadership plateau will never move you forward in leadership; nor does it provide the engaged leadership needed by those being led.
There are four things leaders must do when facing a
EXAMINE yourself and your leadership – Recent research revealed that 86% of senior leaders found making time and space for reflection critical to their leadership success. Intentionally setting aside time to reflect on leadership decisions creates better decision makers. Examining important interactions and critical conversations changes the way we lead people. Considering future leadership roles provides direction to leadership growth and development. Personal examination increases understanding of one’s leadership strengths and characteristics, allowing leaders to lean into those strengths while working on areas needing growth.
network of professional relationships – Successful leaders maintain a broad
network of professional relationships to enhance their leadership skills. By intentionally building relationships with
a variety of people, leaders gather experience and learning that is
strategically designed to benefit their leadership growth. By sharing information and experiences,
individuals learn from each other and develop personally and
professionally. If you find yourself
regularly seeking leadership advice and coaching from the same person or group,
you may want to expand your professional network. Developing strategic relationships is
important to continued leadership growth and prevents stagnation.
EXPLORE new opportunities to stretch your leadership – Complacency is the enemy of growth. When we settle for what we know, we fail to grow. Seeking stretch opportunities requires leaders to leave their comfort zone and risk failure. This is scary as hell. However, accepting these stretch opportunities develops new skills and insights that often cannot be learned in any other context. An added benefit is that stretch assignments spark new excitement and interest in our leadership roles and create leaders who are more engaged.
We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.
EXIT a bad
situation – In some instances, the only way to move off the plateau is to
actually move. This may appear drastic,
but sometimes removing oneself may be the only way to escape a bad situation, a
bad leader, or a bad work culture. Remaining
with an organization that does not value you or your leadership will drag both
down. It’s not always possible to simply
walk away from a position. However, when
the leadership plateau is the result of a toxic environment, every additional
moment should be spent seeking the means to leave that environment.
Leadership should never be boring. Leadership should be moveable, changing, and
exciting. Leaders must take
responsibility for their own leadership growth by intentionally engaging in the
leadership development process. Jumping
off the plateau and heading out on the path of leadership makes you a better
leader, and your leadership growth impacts everyone around you.
Karavedas, J. (2019). Becoming leaders: A
phenomenological study of how mid-level leaders in Christian universities
develop leadership skills.
My best successes came on the heels of failures – Barbara Corcoran
It’s often said that we learn best from our mistakes. This is particularly true in leadership. Leadership situations are unpredictable and
often call for spontaneous decision-making.
While each of us can draw upon wisdom gained from past experiences and
emotional intelligence gained from personal growth, we may still miss the
target on occasion. Reflecting on the
lessons learned from these leadership fails is the best way to make sure to get
it right the next time.
Most leaders understand the organizational impact gained from empowering team members to pick up a project and run with it. However, knowing when to let someone run with the ball and how far to let them go can be tricky to navigate. I remember a situation in which a team member had some pretty good ideas but they appeared too far out of the comfort zone for our organization. In fact, I remember one 20-minute conversation based on “thinking outside the box while remaining in the box.” What does that mean anyway? It turns out, he was right. It was time to push our organization a little further than it was comfortable. Rather than stifling this team member’s creativity, my role should have been to help organizational leaders understand the need to take risk and see the possibilities. I am happy to say that team member is still with the organization and has been doing great things to move it forward.
Another complicated situation is conflict between a team
member and a customer. Team members want your support and customers firmly
believe they are always right. Usually,
neither party is all right or all wrong.
In one instance, I had a team leader who had been given authority over a
particular project. Exercising that
authority, the team leader assigned a large penalty due to the customer’s mistake. Both parties brought the matter to me to
mediate; neither felt they were out of line.
After thorough review, I agreed with the customer believing the infraction
did not warrant the penalty assessed.
This caused significant animosity between the team leader and me, which
was never fully repaired. I believe my decision was the right decision, but I
could have handled the situation better.
First, if there were restrictions on the team leader’s authority, I
should have made that clear from the beginning of the project. Also, once conflict began, it would have been
beneficial to step in earlier before the situation progressed too far (although
there were some challenges in this case that made that impossible). As such, I was brought in to “clean things
up” and had little opportunity to work out a better solution.
The most difficult leadership situations can involve those who lead you. My largest leadership fail falls under this description. Understanding how to address a conflict in leadership is of utmost important to leaders at all levels. In my specific situation, a project had been removed from my oversight without explanation. I had received superior reviews up to that point from within and outside the organization. I had even been promised additional projects based on my handling of the specific project. My direct supervisor could not provide explanation as to why the project was being taken from me and only offered promises of opportunities in other areas. Her responses made it clear she was being directed from someone above her, and I chose to confront that person. I made several mistakes during this confrontation – 1) I allowed my emotions to lead the confrontation; 2) I put my thoughts in writing (email) rather than meeting personally; and 3) I made insinuations that the situation was politically motivated. Each of these was a mistake, but together, they could have spelled disaster. Fortunately, this person is an amazing leader. She was able to model true leadership through a discussion that followed my poor confrontation choice. While I never received a solid explanation for the decision, I gained a significant lesson in managing people in distress and handling leadership conflict.
Zig Ziglar said, “If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” I would add that if you haven’t failed in leadership, you may not be leading. None of us is perfect, and fortunately, perfection is not required of leadership. Leaders who are vulnerable enough to admit their mistakes and learn from them are successful leaders.