A few years ago, while facilitating a leadership development workshop, I asked the CEO of a multi-billion dollar construction company to share a little known secret with the budding leaders in the room. He scratched his chin, waited a beat, and then said, “Leadership is freak’n hard.” Except he didn’t use the word freak’n.
There certainly is no shortage of leadership advice in the world. Most of it peddled by consultants who have never actually been in a leadership role. Read any leadership blog today and you’re bound to get a bullet-pointed list of “just do this” advice, as if being a leader was as easy as a clicking on plug-and-play app.
The result of all this cheap advice is that leadership, as a concept, becomes attractive. If it’s easy, after all, and if a person can make more money in a leadership role, everyone should aim to be a leader. Were the cheap advice actually true, of course, there would be more actual leaders.
The truth about leadership, as the construction company CEO reminded us, is that being a leader is anything but easy. Here’s why:
- It Takes Experience: You can read all the bullet points you want, but until you actually lead others, you won’t be a leader. Stop reading and start leading.
- Your Job is Discomfort: Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM, put it best, “Growth and comfort don’t coexist.” Your job as a leader is to bring about growth through change. By definition, that requires you to make people uncomfortable.
- Speed and Accuracy Don’t Mix: Decisiveness is a hallmark of leadership. Leaders need to render fast decisions, lest they become bottlenecks. Rarely will you have enough perfect information to make a perfect decision. Translation? Decisions come with risks.
- You’ll Have a Bull’s-eye On Your Back: Oscar Wilde once said, “Whenever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.” Especially in America where independence is a virtue. Leadership requires a certain degree of control over the behavior of others. Yet what self-respecting person likes to be controlled?
- It Takes Humble Confidence: If you get too big for your leadership britches, you’ll lose people’s loyalty in a heartbeat. But if you aren’t confident, you’ll be seen as weak. You’ll need to be simultaneously confident and humble.
Faced with the hard realities about leadership, the first decision an aspiring leader should make is whether they really want to lead. Here are a few questions to help you discern your answer:
- What attracts you to the concept of leadership? Why do you want to lead?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 equating to “very thin” and 10 equating with “very thick,” how thick is your skin? When people second-guess your decisions, how upset are you likely to get?
- How comfortable and fast are you when it comes to taking risks? What is your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?
- What natural skills, talents, and abilities will make you a good leader? What skills, talents, and ability do you still need to develop?
The real attraction of serving in a leadership role isn’t the potential for making more money, or having people be at your beck and call. The real attraction should be the positive difference you may be able to make through your leadership influence. Whenever I ask seasoned leaders what they are most grateful for about being a leader, the most common answer is the chance to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s the leadership reward for all that freak’n hard work.