3 Worries That Can Sabotage Your Leadership

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There are times when I am laser-focused on my mission. And boy do I get things done. Everything moves smoothly, without muss or fuss. When I get stuck, I reach out for help and find a way to keep moving.

And then, there are all those other times…

  • When I don't seem to eye-to-eye with anyone

  • When I get stuck and stay stuck, without telling anyone

  • When my motivation and productivity take a nose dive

And there really is a special magic that happens in organizations helmed by leaders and managers who model a commitment to purpose. The good news is that it’s not actually magic. 

Because what’s really going on is this: A compelling sense of purpose keeps us from focusing too much on ourselves, by locking us on to something larger than we are.

Here’s how Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote -- which works to get eligible voters the IDs they need to vote -- put it in on our recent conversation on the Dialogue Lab podcast:

“I think it comes from, how much you actually care about your mission. I actually really do just want to get as many people IDs as possible, so I know I need help to do that. Because I can’t do it alone. So if I actually really care about the damn turtles or whatever else. Then I’m going to do whatever it takes to fulfill my goal. 

“Anyone who has been in this startup or nonprofit world knows plenty of people who only started something because it seemed glamorous, and they wanted to be on podcasts or in the press or whatever. And so they wanted to start things by themselves, and not have any partners or co-founders, because they wanted all of the credit, and never really actually cared about the product they were building or the mission or whatever. 

“And they inevitably fail.”

Spread the Vote is doing incredibly crucial work as we near the midterm elections in November. So please do check out our conversation, and consider supporting their work.

As Kat was saying, so often the thing standing between us and our goals is ourselves. Or rather, our worries about ourselves. And all of us get derailed sometimes. That’s just human. 

The question is, how quickly can we as managers get ourselves back on track? 

So here 3 of the biggest management derailers I know, and how to bounce back.  

They are all concerns about identity. In other words, concerns about “who I am” as a leader and a person -- that run straight to the core of how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us. I came across a version of these 3 concerns in the book, Difficult Conversations (by Stone, Patton, and Heen), and I’ve expanded on them here.

They are concerns about:

  • Being competent

  • Being good

  • Being loveable

And when triggered, they have the power to knock us flat. But if we peel back the layers just a bit, they can also be a rich source of learning, and a chance to practice resilience. 

Here’s a deeper dive on how each concern shows up. After that, I’ll share steps you can take to rise above all of them. 

1. Being a competent person.

Any leader who has not run headlong into the limits of their competence has likely been playing things very safe. Or, they are a God. 

So the question is not whether a leader will ever encounter a sense of incompetence. The question is, “how do you respond when you DO experience a sense of incompetence?” 

You might reflect on these questions to get a sense of your concerns about competence:

  • Think of the last time you engaged in an activity you are not particularly good at. For instance: playing soccer, painting, writing, dancing, splitting the bill at a restaurant. 

  • How hard was it for you to fully engage with the activity? Were there certain emotions -- like embarrassment or frustration -- that made it difficult to engage? 

  • Did you try and hide those feelings, or your lack of competence? Was it hard to ask for help? 

  • Do you usually avoid doing things that trigger those feelings in you? To the extent that it was hard to answer the first question?

  • How do you judge yourself when you feel incompetent? 

  • How do you judge others when it seems they are out of their zone of competence? 

2. Being a good person.

It was probably your values that drew you in to social impact work. What’s hard is that there are times when our values seem to come into conflict with each other in a way that may trigger this concern.

Here are a few ways it can come up:

  • When bad things happen to good people. You have a volunteer who is a lovely human being, but she keeps showing up late, and she has made a number of costly mistakes. You know it’s time to let her go, but the idea of having that conversation makes you feel like some kind of monster. 

  • When saying yes is terrible for you, but saying no seems terrible for someone else. You have a colleague who has been struggling with some pretty serious personal stuff, and he's been leaning heavily on you for help. You have been stressed out for months about the extra work, and you don’t think you can go on. But you can’t bring yourself to say anything because you feel too guilty at the idea of not helping a friend in need. 

  • When you meant well, but they got upset anyway. A member of your staff is mad at you over an offhand remark you made about them in a meeting. And while looking back, you can see what they mean, but you didn’t intend to offend them, and are pretty upset because you feel your character is under attack. 

Does anything here sound familiar to you?  

3. Being a loveable person. 

We all want to be liked, respected, and to feel we belong. And this can be an especially tricky concern to manage when you are the boss. 

Because being the boss means doing all kinds of things that might make you unpopular: like holding people accountable, or making a controversial decision. 

Being the boss also means you have the authority to make decisions that affect people’s lives: like hiring, promoting, and firing. And that power can feel particularly uncomfortable to exercise -- or even hint at -- in many progressive organizations with an anti-authoritarian streak. 

This concern is particularly likely to surface for new supervisors, but often I see it come up for experienced bosses as well. 

What to do when one of these concerns is triggered:

1. Practice mindful self-awareness. If you are feeling off in some way, ask yourself if one of these concerns is triggered. Quite often, bringing some kind and caring attention to what’s really up will clear a lot of the fog, and help you take the next step forward. Remember to be kind to yourself. You can't help what triggers you, but you can help how you respond. 

2. Reframe. Get out of black and white thinking, which boxes us into rigid beliefs about ourselves.

For instance, instead of looking through the lens of competence, which values only what you know and don’t know, adopt a growth mindset, which values your ability to learn and adapt to what’s needed in the moment. 

3. Empathy for others. I have often found that the best way to stop worrying about what others think of me is to put my focus on them. What are they feeling? What are they worried about? What are they trying to achieve? And how might I be able to support and help them achieve their goals? 

4. Get back to your purpose. What action would you take, if you were not concerned about being or appearing competent, good, or likeable? And how would it feel to take that action? 

So that's this week's Antidote to Burnout.

I’d love to hear from you: Have you ever been sabotaged by one of these concerns?   

If you found this helpful, please feel free to share this email with a friend.

And If you want more one-on-one support in becoming an awesome social impact boss, click here to schedule a no pressure, free consult. 

(P.S. Check out this post, "Can you change the system while being part of it?" It's from Equality Hive, and it breaks down my conversation with Melanie Dewberry in episode 11.)