When Good Leaders Have Bad Days

As a leader in your organization, you set the tone. Your mood, your energy, your clarity of direction and your long-term optimism (or lack thereof) are all contagious. People notice when there is a spring in your step or when you are knocked back on your heels. We know that, and yet we are all human and there are days — or even seasons — when we are in a bit of a funk. Maybe for good reasons, maybe . . . we just are. Sure, you can “fake it til you make it,” but lots of people will see through that, causing even more uneasiness among your team. What is a good leader to do on a bad day?

Name it.

There is nothing wrong with pre-emptively telling people, “I’m sorry, but I’m in a crabby mood today. Please bear with me.” Owning your mood, rather than allowing others to assume they are responsible for it, tends to lessen its negative impact on your people as well as yourself. If possible, try to postpone interactions that are likely to be conflictual and limit interactions with people who are prone to pushing your buttons. Managing your moods, rather than allowing them to manage you, will likely shorten the duration and minimize the damage of your negative frame of mind.

Claim it.

Your aggravation may have nothing at all to do with the person standing in front of you, however we all tend to personalize it when someone has a negative reaction to something we have said or done. When you realize you have spoken harshly or had a less than supportive response to someone, apologize if needed and then let them know the actual source of your frustration and that it is not them (assuming it’s not). This also forces you to take the time to identify the real cause of your sour mood, which allows you to target how you respond rather than just randomly spewing negativity on everyone. 

Reframe it.

Bad moods happen. It is not a character flaw to have a (to quote Alexander) terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Anger, frustration, or disappointment may all be appropriate responses to particular situations. As a leader, however, you have a responsibility to respond to difficult days and situations thoughtfully, and not reactively let them ooze over everyone in your path. When you feel your mood oozing onto others (or a trusted ally points the fact out to you), stop. Take a deep breath. And ask yourself what you can do about the situation. You always have a choice. No, you may not be able to change someone else’s behavior, but you can choose your own. And when you make a choice, you reframe the situation and take control of your mood rather than allowing someone else to control it for you.

Good leaders have bad days. When they happen, name it, claim it, reframe it, and move on. You always have a choice.

Breaking the 10-Way Tie

I was on a webinar this morning and heard a phrase/description that I hadn’t heard before but that immediately resonated with me — the 10-way tie. That’s when a leader looks at his or her to-do list to try to prioritize tasks . . . and it’s a 10-way tie. Everything is critical. Everything is urgent. And there is no way all 10 things can take priority. Not only that, but if you try to do all 10, you won’t do any of them well. What’s a leader to do? A few things to consider:

1. Whose priority is it?

People will often try to make their priority your priority. That is not to say the project is not important, however ask yourself who is driving your sense of urgency? If someone didn’t get you a document until the 11th hour and then expects you to drop everything to meet a deadline, that is unrealistic. What you have is a crisis of someone else’s making, based on someone else’s priorities. In such cases, it is absolutely appropriate to push back and communicate the amount of time it will reasonably take to complete the project. You might be surprised at how often the person 1) didn’t think about the impact on your schedule and 2) actually could allow you a bit more time. When the timeline is firm, ask about what other projects could be de-prioritized, or what additional resources are available to support completion of the project. 

2. Which items align most closely with your strategic goals?

Prioritizing based on strategic goals doesn’t mean that, on the surface, other items on the list may not appear more urgent in the moment. The urgent vs. important dilemma is real, and occasionally the urgent has to take precedent. Notice I said occasionally. Addressing the urgent first can also become a habit. Let’s face it. It can feel good to resolve an urgent matter (which screams louder). We can also usually check those things off the list, which feels productive when so many strategic efforts don’t have easily check-offable tasks. Prioritize those things tied to your strategic goals.

3. Is it a priority, or do you just really like to do it?

We all have a tendency to weigh more heavily in importance those things we really like to do. We excel at them. They tend to energize us and make our day go better. All of which are good things . . . unless they get in the way of what is objectively a higher priority. Often these are recurring tasks, but they remain on the list because it is so easy for us to extol their virtues. A good way to combat this is to ask someone, who is aware of the organization’s strategic goals, how they would prioritize your list. If the same item sinks to the bottom of how someone else would prioritize your list . . . especially if this happens more than once . . . chances are it is something you like to do. Again, not bad, just maybe not the top priority.

If everything is a priority, nothing is. You’re the leader. It is up to you to break the 10-way tie.

Finding Control Amid the Uncontrollable

I have (accurately) been accused of having control issues. While I don’t think I am controlling of others, I do like to think that I can have an impact — some level of control — on whatever situation I may be faced with on a given day. For me, feeling like I can influence the circumstances before me brings a measure of calm amid the storm. It allows me to take thoughtful action to move through the challenges I need to face. With the many uncontrollable, unexpected situations that a leader may encounter, how can you gain a sense of control? Here are a few tips to consider:

Proactively control what you can.

Unexpecteds are a given. However, when you can be planful on the details you can anticipate, you have more bandwidth to respond to the things that you can’t. Create a schedule. Make a list. Delegate details. Embed prompts or reminders – either in human or electronic form. Doing these things allows you to empty the details from your mind. When you are using up space in your brain thinking, “I can’t forget to . . .” you have less capacity to respond the crisis du jour. When you instead leave room for the unexpected, you are much more likely to have a calm and effective response. And if the unexpected doesn’t happen, you have simply built in a bit of breathing room to enjoy the moment.

Slow down the pace.

When things seem to be falling apart around you . . . stop. Take a deep breath. Count backwards from 10 (or a higher number depending on the chaos of the situation). Stand up and stretch. Whatever you need to do to change the pace enough to get out of back brain — that fight/flight/freeze survival response hardwired into our bodies. When you are in back brain, you are not able to access the thinking part of your brain. As a leader, your people are looking to you for a thoughtful response. Slow down enough that you can access your wisest self where you can intentionally consider the next best step.

There are always things you can control. 

We tend to focus on all the things we can’t control instead of what we can. When people around you (or the voice in your head) are saying “there is nothing we can do about this,” intentionally ask yourself what you CAN do. There is always something. It might be as simple as to taking one step forward. It might be focusing on what you will achieve when (not if) you emerge on the other side of the current storm. It might be focusing on the strengths you and your organization possess to bring to the challenge before you, and the blessings that will sustain you even in the most difficult situations. There is always something.

Even in the midst of what seems like an uncontrollable situation, you always have a choice. Take control.

Avoiding the Drift

“I rarely drift toward where I want to go.” 

When I saw that sentence in an email from Keith Webb at Creative Resources Management, the truth of the statement immediately resonated with me. I rarely drift toward where I want to go . . . and yet somehow, we convince ourselves that it is okay to take our eye off our intended destination. To look around, maybe get distracted by a shiny object, a fun diversion. We’re basically moving in the right direction, why not just let the current take us for a bit. Coast. Before we know it, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a sense of contentment . . . until we look up and realize that we are totally off course. It happens so easy, mission drift, almost without us realizing it, until we end up somewhere we don’t recognize.

Drift is defined as “a continuous slow movement from one place to another.” That’s why we often miss it. It’s slow, gradual, hard to notice from one moment to the next. If it happened more quickly, we would likely respond right away. Sure, we all need to occasionally take time to catch our breath, to coast a bit while we recharge. So how do you make sure those moments of regrouping don’t become a drift that carries you away from your end goal?

Look up, at least weekly.

Sometimes the drift is so gradual that you won’t notice it at the end of the day. You keep your head down, consumed by the activities before you and trying to figure out how you are going to tackle the new things that have been added to your list . . . often without asking if something should be added to your list. At a regularly scheduled time, pause and consider whether your progress during the week has moved you closer to your intended destination.

Detour, don’t derail

Things rarely go exactly as you anticipate at the start of an effort. Detours happen, and they may momentarily appear to be taking you off course. As long as you are intentionally taking an alternate route, for a specific reason, it is unlikely to deter you from your ultimate destination. It may actually help you get there faster, stronger, better. It’s when you haven’t made an intentional decision regarding the detour, you just sort of followed the path of least resistance, that you are likely to get derailed.

You can’t just go with the flow

Others will want you to. Call it peer pressure, people telling you that you “have to” take a certain path. You don’t. Chances are, you are heading to a different place than they are. Sure, it might be in the same general direction, but your destination is specific to you, so the route to get there should be too. Chart your own course, even if the current tries to pull you in a different direction.

You have chosen your destination for a specific reason. Don’t let the current pull you off course. It is up to you to avoid the drift.

The Best Year Yet

In this last week before the close of 2022, if your inbox looks anything like mine it probably includes a number of emails that either challenge you to reflect on your accomplishments from 2022, and/or set goals for what you will accomplish in 2023. Both are worthy endeavors. I also think there is no one best approach for being reflective or planful — in spite of what the many emails promoting “proven systems” may promise. The possibilities are as varied as the personalities doing the reflecting/planning. And yet, there are a few core concepts to consider as you look to the year ahead:

  • Reflection takes time. Please don’t block out 30 minutes for reflection and expect to make some profound discovery. Many leaders can’t even quiet their mind down in that amount of time, much less get to the point where they can access their deep inner wisdom. Take an afternoon — more if you can. Get out into nature, drive, and let your mind wander. Insight rarely appears on command. It works its way to the surface when we are quiet enough to allow our mind to make unique points of connection.
  • No “shoulds” allowed. If you are really going to accomplish a big, hairy audacious goal, it has to be because you want to, not because someone else thinks you need to. Shoulds suck the energy out of any effort, and heap the guilt on to it, making them a double loss. Big goals take sustained energy . . . the kind that is internally generated . . . and that only happens when you are choosing to stretch for reasons that are authentic to you.
  • Less is more. Yes, I know you are a high achiever who has accomplished a lot of things, but chances are that you were not doing five of them at once. Set fewer, more specific goals. When you have accomplished one (or at least are confident it has become an engrained habit), feel free to add another. At the very least, if you choose to ignore this advice and set too many goals, prioritize them and tackle them one at a time. You will feel better fully accomplishing one goal than you will by somewhat accomplishing five.

Then . . . write your goals down, or hold them in your mind. Review your progress weekly or quarterly . . . in private or with the input of friends and colleagues. Use someone’s system or develop your own. You know yourself best. Do what works for you. No apologies, no excuses. Regardless of what external variables impact your life in 2023 (and there are sure to be a lot), what you accomplish will largely be a result of your ability to reflect and set goals.

Want 2023 to be your best year yet? Start with one thoughtful goal and make it happen.

The Gift of Grace

This week’s blog usually takes me longer to write than others throughout the year. It is the last blog before Christmas, and because of that somehow I feel like it should be more profound and really make you think (you know how we leaders love self-imposed pressure!) Over the years I have written about Lessons From a Manger (2014)Gift Wrapping (2015)Making Room (2017)Giving Beyond the Season (2018)The Star That Guides (2019), and Ugly Christmas Sweaters (2020)

For those of you keeping score and noticing a couple missing years, in 2016 and 2021 I offered “an encore posting” of 2014’s and 2017’s Christmas blogs — probably because both of those blogs continued to speak to me . . . and because I wasn’t coming up with anything else that did! Chances are I felt pretty guilty at the time about repeating a post. If that were to happen today, I would hope that rather than piling on the guilt, I would offer myself the gift of grace. 

In my experience, leaders tend to be much better at extending grace to others than accepting it themselves. We expect ourselves to run faster and accomplish more year after year. Eventually, however, we reach the point of diminishing returns, and until we replenish our reserves, more effort is only going to make us more exhausted. It has been a challenging few years for leaders, and when you add all the extra festivities that the holidays bring — wonderful as they are — it can just feel like too much. That’s where grace comes in. 

It is okay not to make every business open house or holiday party. Give yourself permission to wait until the first of the year to schedule that meeting. Don’t feel bad about taking a long lunch to catch up with friends who are in town. Do make time for those traditions that are important to you — even if they seem silly or unimportant to someone else. Take an afternoon to sit in front of the fireplace and read a book . . . or take a hike . . . or call a friend . . . or reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. Refill your tank, whatever that looks like for you.

After all the time you spend trying to choose just the right gift for everyone else, maybe you should take a moment to add yourself to the list. Want something that is always the right color and size? Maybe this holiday season, you should offer yourself the gift of grace.

Making this a Season of Good Will

In this season of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” I challenge each of you to take a few minutes to reflect on that sentiment . . . Are you offering good will toward those with whom you interact? In the last few years, it seems we as a society have been careening down the slippery slope of tolerating incivility, becoming numb to behavior we would have previously considered inappropriate. How can you as a leader model good will within your organization and community?

Acknowledge that a different perspective is not a character flaw. 

A growing body of research has shown that diverse perspectives result in better decisions, enhanced innovation, and better financial performance. And yet, it has become commonplace for people who see things differently to be attacked personally and/or identified as either “for us” or “against us” (whoever “us” might be). There is immense pressure to “pick a side” and yet, if you are to be a leader, it is your job to influence a full continuum of people — which you can’t do if you are drawing a circle that leaves a significant portion of people on the outside. Good people can see things differently, and leaders can disagree without being disagreeable.

View a willingness to change one’s opinion as a strength, not a weakness.

New information and experiences may prompt an individual to course correct and/or change their position on a particular topic. It is interesting that we think it is a good thing if we can persuade others to take up our perspective, and yet we can be especially critical of someone who, upon considering additional factors, switches to a position that differs from our own. Too often, we find it easier to question their credibility and motives than to try to understand their new-found perspective. Maybe the person isn’t a “flip-flopper” but rather someone who has enough humility to know that wisdom evolves over time and thus is willing to adapt their thinking. As a leader, are you confident enough to 1) change your perspective when the situation warrants and 2) remain curious rather than condemning when someone else changes theirs? 

Recognize that kindness is a reflection of the person offering it, not a response to be earned by the recipient.

This is really at the heart of “good will toward man.” Kindness is about you, not them. Are you considerate, even when you don’t have to be? Do you behave in a respectful manner, even if the person you are interacting with is rude or angry? Yes, set limits. Absolutely make the hard decisions . . . and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying them out. Kindness is contagious. So is behaving like an unruly 12-year-old. Most people will step up or down to the bar you set for them. Where is your bar?

Are you contributing to, or detracting from, a season of good will?

The Tricky Balance Between Data and Decisions

I confess that I am a bit of a data geek. I am also a strong believer in gut instinct, but I think it is important to have data to confirm or challenge the direction my inner wisdom is steering me. The dilemma lies in the fact that there is so much data out there, and constantly seeking more can become a barrier . . . a delay tactic . . . in making decisions you know need to be made. How much is data is enough when it comes to making a decision? It depends.

1. How big is the risk if your gut is wrong?

Is this a “bet the farm” decision where it feels like you could be wiped out if you choose the wrong path? If such is the case, gathering data is probably wise, however gathering enough to make you 100% confident in your decision is probably never going to happen. (Is there really a decision to be made if it’s a sure thing?) Gather just enough data to directly, or sometimes indirectly, validate the direction you are going and then make a decision. You can always tweak your plan as you go.

2. Can you shrink a “big bet” into a number of “little bets”?

A big bet can feel paralyzing. There are so many unknown variables that it is easy to convince ourselves we need to wait until we have more data. But what if you instead focused on getting just enough information to take the next best step? Yes, keep the ultimate goal clearly in mind, but focus on one chunk at a time. Not only does that require less data, it positions you to know more of the variables that you need to take into consideration for the next step.

3. Remember, new paths may not have hard data.

If you are truly venturing in a new direction, there may not be directly relevant data to support the path you are proposing. In such cases, you may have to look at data differently. What are the costs to your organization if you don’t choose a new path? What information from other industries or sectors can you extrapolate to inform your decision? And remember, qualitative data is still data. Can you connect the dots, creating a compelling and logical path from A — J, even if there are not “hard numbers” to guarantee your success (spoiler alert: there is no such thing as hard numbers to guarantee your success).

Data is important. It can also bury you in minutia and paralyze you from making a decision. Leaders make decisions. And you get to decide . . . will you use data to help you or hinder you in moving your organization forward?

Are You The Reason Someone is Thankful?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US, and many of us will pause to reflect on our blessings . . . the people, places and things for which we are most thankful. That is a good thing. At least for one day, and hopefully far beyond, we are encouraged to put our petty grievances and frustrations in context as we consider the abundance we enjoy in our lives.

If you are a leader whose role it is to influence others, I challenge you to extend that reflection a bit further and ask yourself whether you give your people a reason to be thankful? Granted, this question really isn’t about you per se, but rather about whether you help create an environment where your people can thrive. How can you influence such an environment? There are an endless number of ways, but here are a few good places to start:

Recognize your people’s gifts and graces.

Do you know what makes each individual a valuable member of your team? What unique experiences, perspectives and talents they bring to the table that contribute to your organization’s overall success? Tell them. Specifically. Doing so helps them feel seen and people who are seen are more likely to feel valued.

Challenge your people to stretch and accomplish more.

Set ambitious goals for people, which play to their strengths, and let them know you have confidence in their ability to figure it out . . . then let them! Sure, give them “guard rails” and offer input if they ask, but let them grapple with the discomfort of growth. The confidence and experience that comes from letting someone find a way forward — even if it is different from the path you would have chosen — benefits both the individual and the organization.

Ask and listen.

When you seek the input of others, and truly listen to their thoughts, they become more engaged and invested in the overall success of the initiative. Even better, when your people see their feedback incorporated into the considerations going forward, the project moves from “yours” to “ours” . . . and “our” projects build an energy and excitement that “yours” rarely will.

Appreciate their contribution.

Thank you. It’s really not that hard, but how often do we neglect to offer our thanks because “it’s part of their job,” or we have already moved on to the next task on our to-do list? Letting someone know how much you appreciate their specific contribution toward the success of an effort helps them recognize and take pride in role they play in your organization’s success.

For better or worse, a leader influences the environment in which their people work to accomplish worthy goals. Are you the reason someone is thankful?

Whispers or Screams?

If you listen to the whispers, you won’t have to hear the screams.

Regardless of who first expressed this thought (I’ve seen it attributed as a Cherokee proverb, a Sioux Indian saying and credited to Plato – take your pick), it is a good reminder in our “screaming age” that we have options other than out-shouting someone in response to different perspectives. What, exactly, do those options look like? Here are a few you might consider:

Walk into the FOG.

It is easy to ignore the FOG — Frequently Overheard Grumblings — because it is dispersed, here and there. When we try to grab ahold of it, to pin someone down about the grumbling, it often seems to fade away . . . until we pop over a hill and there it is again, lurking in the valley. The best way to deal with the FOG is to walk into it and publicly acknowledge its presence. “I’ve heard some people are . . . struggling to understand X . . . frustrated about Y . . . If you have more details about the concerns, I would appreciate you sharing them with me.” No one gets individually called out, but you get the information you need to respond appropriately . . . while it’s still a fine enough mist for you to move through.

First time is the best time.

Anyone who has raised a child knows that when a toddler makes a request, regardless of the inconvenience of the timing, if you choose to ignore them or brush off their plea they can quickly escalate from whispers to screams, tears and tantrums. All of us still have a bit of toddler impatience inside us, regardless of how grown up we may look on the outside. When someone makes a request/shares a concern and feels like they have been ignored, depending on the day and how their patience has already been tested, things can escalate pretty quickly. Even when you don’t think you have time to respond, addressing feedback the first time is the best time. Each time a plea has to be repeated, it gets louder and harder to find a satisfactory resolution.

Don’t join the screaming.

It is human nature to respond to intensity with intensity, but trying to out-scream someone is futile in terms of finding a solution. No one wins in a game of tit for tat. Instead, try diffusing the situation by lowering the volume, calmly acknowledging you heard them, and asking what they would see as a workable path forward. Don’t offer your opinion. Ask for theirs. Inviting someone to join you in problem-solving shifts their energy from working against you to walking alongside you.

It is a safe bet that if you are making leadership decisions, there is going to be someone who views the situation differently than you. Will you listen and respond to their whispers today, or prepare to deal with their screams tomorrow? The choice is yours.