By Angela Noel Lawson
January 14, 2019
Leading people is hard. Anyone that says differently may never done it, or might be terrible at it. Why is leading hard? Because people aren’t spreadsheets. They don’t respond particularly well to commands, and you can’t just save your work and pick up where you left off. People are messy and complicated, weird and wonderful. Add to that the power dynamic of leaders and employees and the soup of difficulty thickens. But, finding out what brings out the best and the worst in ourselves and in the people we lead changes everything.
Pitfalls of the Power Dynamic
First, abuses of power take many forms and vary significantly in severity. I remember a particularly poignant example from my personal life.
One day, when my son was four, I was late for work. He had dawdled a little, as kids do. But the real fault for the lateness was my poor time management. Regardless, I wanted someone to blame–someone that wasn’t me. So Jackson suffered my bad mood and my admonishments about not dawdling because he had made mommy late. Only when I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw his tears well up did I realize what I had done. I’d taken out my faults and frustrations on someone with less power than myself.
A leader with positional power over employees will be tempted to do the same. I don’t remember ever doing this with the intention to wound, but I am certain I have done it. An unintentional wound is still a wound.
Occasionally, I forgot to see an employee as a person. In stressful moments or when I felt threatened by forces outside of my control, a team member was a means to an end, a butt in a seat, a box I needed to check. And that was wrong, though not particularly surprising.
Research published in a 2013 Science Brief by the American Psychological Association confirms how leaders who feel insecure about their position act in ways contradictory to the well-being of the team.
We all know we’re cogs in the company wheel. As such, no matter what position we hold, unless we own the company, we serve the larger mission rather than our own interests. It makes sense, therefore, that a leader might see an employee as a tool towards getting a job done. As a tool though, a person loses agency. They no longer have the fullness of personhood, they are now objects for all intents and purposes. Once this happens, it’s easy to forget all kinds of things.
Lack of Empathy
For example, a boss who has successfully objectified his or her workforce doesn’t understand or care about the experience of his or her employees. A leader in this situation has enough positional power to discount the feelings of everyone but him or herself and get away with it. A lack of empathy for others can result in tyrannical behavior.
My own tyranny was triggered when I felt insecure, afraid, or just plain overwhelmed. One of my team members once offered me this feedback, “You know, you can say ‘hello’ before you start telling us what to do.” She was absolutely right. A leader, unless it’s a life or death situation, must invest in relationships first, foremost, and again and again.
Recognizing the triggers of tyranny aren’t easy. Cultivating empathy such that it, and gratitude for the contributions of others, become normal operating procedure takes both courage and self-awareness. I have more of both these days, though I won’t promise never to fail again. I surely will. But I can promise to see my error, admit it, correct it, and try for a better tomorrow.
A Better Tomorrow
We are human beings, leaders and the led. When we assume a leader isn’t subject to normal human fallibility we put that leader on a pedestal he or she will surely fall off of. I’ve fallen off. I’ve also put others in the position to disappoint me by assuming they are somehow more evolved than I simply because he or she held a position of power.
Excellent leaders earn the respect of those they lead. These same leaders often know or intuit that power flows through them. They are the agent of it, rather than the point of origin. This idea may seem odd. So let me explain–or let a guy with a really challenging name explain it for me. He named this experience “being in flow.”
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience defines flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” “The ego,” he says, “falls away.”
I experience flow when I write sometimes. Readers feel the fluidity and lack of self-consciousness in my words. It’s as if I am not writing them, they are being written through me. Despite sounding like a somewhat mystical experience, it’s really not. Being in flow is simply living and acting in connection with a deeper awareness. This awareness tells a leader to offer words of praise and to express gratitude for contribution. It also enables the delivery of challenging feedback with both open heart and clear intention.
A leader, just like a writer, must first learn to recognize when he or she is in a state of flow. Then he or she must actively cultivate it. Being in flow is the balance point between heart and head. Athletes feel it frequently: skiers in perfect balance shooshing down a mountain, or football kickers who know the minute foot connects to ball they’ve scored the extra point. Bowlers, same thing: Flow feels like the perfect moment when a bowler knows she’s thrown a strike even before the first pin falls. The outcome, in other words, is the natural result of both the spirit and the preparation leading up to it.
Leadership in any Role
I led teams of people in various jobs for over a decade prior to accepting an individual contributor role. I loved leading and loved the people I led. But, I’ve also loved not having direct reports. In fact, it was only by stepping away from leadership that I gained perspective on what I’d done well and what I’d truly sucked at as a boss.
Without direct people-leadership responsibilities, I focus on how it felt to be led. I watch others, gaining perspective on key qualities of leaders I admire and wish to emulate. With no positional power, I cannot fall back on “because I said so.” Instead, as an individual contributor, I exercise relationship, communication, and emotional muscles I might otherwise have neglected.
Remember, leadership is hard. Being a good leader means recognizing the difficulty inherent in individualizing to each and every person on the team. It means finding the unique key to unlocking the potential of every employee, and in ourselves, while balancing the inherent other of power dynamics. A leader that seeks to do these things will find him or herself in flow more often than not. I’ve felt it often over the past five or six years. I know it’s real. Leadership is hard, but few things are as rewarding. By minimizing the problems of power and finding leadership flow, success, for both the people and the companies we work for, follows.
Your Turn: What do you admire in leaders? What do you find most challenging in leadership? What have been your greatest successes or failures?