Lower your expectations
I was recently advised by someone that I trust implicitly that I need to lower my expectations of leaders in the organisations I work. But this didn’t make sense to me, because leadership for me is about fantastic things like vision, courage, integrity, inspiring others. Who wouldn’t want those attributes in the leaders they work for? I had always assumed that when people took a leadership role in organisations that they aspired to all of these (and hopefully more).
As I struggled to reconcile this advice, I dug through some of the memories of leaders I had worked for or engaged with and found I could not equate almost any of my characteristics of a leader. In fact, for some of them they were so underwhelming, I had actually logged them in my memory under ‘how not to lead’.
One of the most disappointing interactions I had with leaders, was when I was in a room full of nearly 30 of the most senior people in our office, including a wide range of senior managers. We had been called together as the CEO was visiting our office and wanted to address us as a group. Part way through the discussion, from the mouth of the CEO came something like this. ‘If I believed in capital punishment, I would march every one of the leaders in this organisation who didn’t make decisions to the top of this building, and push them off, one by one’. And whilst saying this, he signalled with his fingers a flicking motion, like removing a bug from his shirt. The room went awkwardly silent and the poor HR representative in the room was looking to the floor, desperately trying to mask their alarm.
A few years later in another management meeting, this time full of technology directors, we received an instruction which had been passed down from another very senior leader, this time the CIO. It was the repeat of an instruction he had been giving repeatedly which was for us to post something about our teams’ deliverables on the internal company site. What was unusual was that it had not been done by anyone in the room even though the request had come from the CIO not only once, but multiple times. This was untested waters for most in the room, a request to make themselves not only visible to the whole organisation comprising tens of thousands of people, but to do so in the highly risky social media style, for which many had publicly stumbled.
But at this management meeting, the instruction came with a penalty. If we didn’t post, our bonuses would be cut. A very direct and personal financial penalty is always a sobering message to receive. What was disappointing about this leadership approach was that the CIO was now resorting to threats. He wasn’t influencing or persuading, and any trust and respect that he had built with this group of directors vanished almost in an instant.
So mulling over these and other equally disappointing memories of leaders in my past, I realised that the advice I had received was in fact correct, but just needed a slight tweak. Lowering my expectations of leaders wasn’t what I should do. Instead, I needed to lower my expectations of the managers with whom I had been working. The defining difference for me, is that managing is controlling people to get something done. Leading is far harder to achieve,
requiring influence, building intrinsic value, inspiring others to contribute and join you in achieving a goal.
I do have memories of engaging with what I define as true leaders.
One I recognised as really exceptional I only worked with very briefly and didn’t recognise his leadership skills until much later. He was the head of a trading desk, and as with stereotypical traders, I was expecting him to be dismissive, aggressive and in a permanent state of high stress. And whilst he certainly had some of those traits, what was unique about him was that he seemed to give endless time & focus on connecting with the trading support staff in areas like technology and operations, who were usually looked down. He went to lengths to support and secure approvals and funding to achieve joint goals with these teams, which in turn made his trading desk work efficiently and with great technology, and ultimately very profitable. His
success overtook his peers in dollar terms, even when the markets weren’t moving in his favour. It was only looking back that I realised that it was his exceptional leadership skills which underpinned this success.
Even if I didn’t realise it at the time I think I do now. There is no need to lower my expectations, I just need to separate the managers from the leaders.