As William Shakespeare is famous for saying, ‘Some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” If you are in a position of leadership in your organization, chances are it occurred due to a combination of the three. During my twenty years as HR Director, and subsequent years after that as a leadership and executive coach, I’ve had countless people tell me their goal was to advance to some kind of leadership or management position. When I hear this, my first question is always ‘why?’ People think it’s a trick question, but it’s really not. Answers typically range from wanting to make more of an impact, to wanting a greater scope of authority, to wanting more money, to wanting to make a difference in people’s lives. I’m not here to make a value judgment on anyone’s motives, but some of the challenges of management are hard enough that I like to let people know that if their motivation is solely money, there’s probably an easier way. Here are the three toughest situations you’ll face in your leadership journey. We all go through them, and it’s these experiences that grow you and also leave you changed forever in both positive and negative ways.
Letting good people go
It’s never easy to fire people, but at least when it’s because someone has committed some egregious act it’s a little easier to call it quits. One of the worst experiences a manager can face is letting people go who did nothing wrong. In financial downturns, it’s not uncommon to have to let go of highly valued, contributing employees; some whom have been with you for years. Anyone who tells you that you can compartmentalize this and leave the personal out of it is either lying, a sociopath, or delusional. Even worse is when you are forced by higher ups to let go of good people for workplace political reasons. If you are in management long enough, this will happen to you.
I’ve found the best way to get through this is not to try to leave feelings out of it, but to lean into your emotions. Whenever possible, leave the person with as much dignity as possible. Remind them (because it’s true), that this is not the only job out there, and that other doors will open. Your employee may not appreciate it, but it may make a difference for them. Sometimes the story ends terribly. There is one situation that I’ll never forget, where a termination was the precipitating point for the employee of a severe mental and emotional breakdown that ended in violence and incarceration. These things can leave scars on your soul.
Having great employees
Weren’t expecting that one, were you? Having bad employees is no walk in the park, but it’s the truly great ones that will ultimately put you through your paces as a leader. One of the ways these people will stretch you is because to develop them, you will at some point need to stop giving them answers and encourage them to do things their own way. This is incredibly tough if you think you already know the answer, and if they make a mistake, or fail it will be very painful for everyone. Another way these folks will challenge you is that if you have gotten into the least little bit of a comfort zone (and let’s be honest, comfortable is not SO bad, is it?) your super stars will always be there pushing at the boundaries.
They’ll want to know, why, how, and what else for just about everything. You’ll want to tell them to just back off a little, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and they don’t need to change the world by Wednesday, but you won’t. Or you shouldn’t. As much as we want people to slow down and earn their promotions, we’re not serving them well by squelching their enthusiasm or stifling innovative ideas. It’s much harder to channel all that energy. It takes a great deal of investment to mentor and grow your people and fulfil the other demands on you, which is why having great employees is one of the hardest things about management.
I know what you’re thinking…duh…but stick with me here. If I were to ask any one of you if it’s okay for someone on your team to try something and fail, all but the jerkiest of you would say of course. But I’ll bet far less of you believe this is true of yourself. It’s one thing for a calculated risk not to work out your way, or for something to happen that’s beyond your control, like a failed economy, but what about real failure? Not acting with integrity, blowing up at a subordinate, cutting corners or making a mistake that has serious financial repercussions are all the kinds of failure that can break your spirit and make you feel like your career is over. Some failures are harder to recover from than others, and it might not be possible to recover at your current company, but its these very things that can be a jumping off point for you. These failed life tests can be what turn us around, sharpen us, and give us a degree of compassion for others that we might never have had (and yes, I speak from experience). Really failing can turn you into a great leader, but only if you let it.
Of course there are other tough things about being a leader. Budgets, meetings, angry customers, and unrealistic deadlines are all par for the course. But if you really want to leverage your impact, change people’s lives, and leave a legacy, this can be a great way to do so.
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Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm providing comprehensive organizational development solutions for companies who are growing and who truly value their people. With certified Executive Coaches, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) practitioners, SPHR-certified HR professionals, and Organizational Development Specialists, Carrie’s team brings a unique perspective and a cross-functional approach to providing workplace solutions that work. Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org