The Leadership Tightrope

A confident businessman with briefcase walking ahead on a tightrLeadership is a balancing act, and like even the most experienced tightrope walkers, leaders must always be aware of maintaining their center of gravity between confidence and being convinced.

What exactly do I mean by that?

Confidence is recognizing that one is responding in the best way possible given the information available at the time. Some people just naturally have confidence in their actions. For many others, it develops over time, with experience. Confidence is about trusting one’s instincts, believing that you have the ability to weigh out the options and make a decision that serves your organization well.

Being convinced, on the other hand, means that you are sure you have the answers. That may seem like splitting hairs, but in reality, there is a major distinction between these two characteristics. People who are convinced quit seeking new information. After all, if you have the answers, why waste your time listening to additional input. Confident people, on the other hand, continuously seek out new information. They see it as critical to making the best decision in the moment.

The tricky part is, people who are convinced actually may have had the answer . . . at one point in time, for one specific situation. It worked. They figured it out. They built the model, identified the missing link, accurately predicted the situation. The flaw in this way of thinking is that variables are changing all the time. However, when people are lauded for identifying the right answer one time . . . well . . . when you are recognized for selling hammers, it is easy for every situation to start looking like a nail.

This balancing is a part of what Collins refers to as Level 5 Leadership – someone who displays both fierce resolve and personal humility. Put another way, the increase in ego that comes from being convinced that you have THE answer may blind you to the new information that could yield the best result. So how does one successfully walk the tightrope between confidence and being convinced?

  1. Recognize that most solutions are situational. Sure, there are some universal truths…but unless you are dealing with gravity or chemical reactions, let’s just assume you haven’t stumbled on to one.
  2. Develop a framework for thinking rather than automatic responses. It can be very helpful to run your consideration through a set of values, a vision for the outcome, that helps guide your thinking without dictating specific actions.
  3. Always look for the unique variables that could impact your decision. Consciously looking for differences keeps you from relying on a solution that was ideally suited to an entirely different situation.

Hoping for more specific answers on how to traverse this tightrope? Sorry, that would require me being convinced I have the answers. Rather, I will remain confident you can figure it out…one step at a time.


The Hard Truth

Hard Truth GrSome days, leadership is just plain hard. And as much as we might like it to be different in those moments when we have to make a decision with no clear path forward, I think it is supposed to be hard. Struggling through the hard stuff is how we learn and grow and gain greater clarity . . . and yes, at times stumble, but ultimately chart a better course. It is shouldering the pushback, the skepticism, the lack of understanding of well-intended people, (including yourself!) while you strive toward the larger vision.

True, this is not the picture of leadership that you typically see highlighted in feature stories that talk about the confident, charismatic stuff of which great leaders are made. The piece that gets left out of the story is that the confidence comes on the other side, once you have worked your way through the tough stuff. So what is a leader to do when firmly wedged between what feels like a rock and a hard place?

  • Walk all the way around the issue. If you think there is only one option, one choice, you just aren’t looking closely enough. Gather input from a cross-section of people. The more clearly you can identify what is going on “underneath” different perspectives, the better you can put things in context.
  • Make the case yourself, out loud, for both perspectives. Things sometimes sound different when you say them out loud than they do in your head, and making both arguments yourself helps minimize the impact of personalities on your consideration.
  • Recognize that “grappling” is part of the process. This is the hard part . . . the lonely inner wrestling about the best decision. It does not make you indecisive or weak or somehow deficit in your capabilities. It means you care enough to put yourself through the wringer as you search for the right choice.
  • Sleep on it. Once you have found a place to land, let it sit. Sleep on it. Yes, I know that you are down to the wire and it feels like you have to come up with an answer right now. Sleep on it. The extra measure of clarity that can come with the light of a new day is well worth a short delay in the final call.

Does knowing these steps make the process of leadership easier? Not really. There will still be plenty of situations where your heart and your head, your trusted advisors, and your short and long-term perspectives will be in conflict. It will be draining and frustrating, and just plain hard. But . . . somehow it helps to know that it is part of the process. That this is how it works. And the potential gain is worth the pain that a leader will endure getting there.

That, my friends, is the hard truth of leadership.

Abandon Ship

Boat Wreck

“Abandon all hope of a better past.”

I have not been able to identify who first uttered those words, but he or she was obviously a wise soul. Think about it . . . how much time and energy have you spent re-playing a decision/scenario/encounter in your mind, perfecting what you (or someone else) should have said or done? How many times have the “what ifs” changed the reality of the situation?

One of the tough things about leadership is that sometimes you need to know when to abandon ship. Especially when that ship is so firmly anchored that you will never be able to move forward by clinging to it. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve are all in the past and don’t change anything — except the energy you have to devote to improving the present and future.

Yes, things happen that we wish hadn’t. Sometimes tragic, terrible, life-changing things. And no matter how much you hope it, focus on it, or re-play it, the past doesn’t change. So as a leader, you have to choose whether you are going to cling to that sinking ship or, in the words of a dear friend, ask yourself, “what did we learn from this?” and move forward.

In some ways, it’s easier to hang out in the past. We know the players and the story line. We can spend hours editing the script until we are happy with the result. But the question remains, to what end . . . what does the energy expended gain us? A happy ending that will never be written?

Far better to take a deep breath, and boldly abandon all hope of a better past. Rather than leaving you defeated, such a decision can actually provide a boost of confidence and energy to propel you into a better future. As cliché as it may sound, in most cases you really do end up stronger for having walked through the fire. While perhaps not a journey you would choose, when you consciously decide to put one foot in front of the other, you demonstrate to all of those watching (and believe me, your people are watching) that it’s okay to walk away from what was and move toward what can be.

Creating a better past . . . that’s a futile effort. Creating a better future . . . that’s the calling of a true leader. Maybe it’s time to abandon ship.

Leadership Quicksand


There are many potential obstacles as you forge a path through the leadership jungle, but perhaps the one most likely to grab hold of you and suck you under — truly the quicksand of good leadership — is ego.

I’m not talking about confidence here. Confidence and ego, while often seen as one in the same, are really quite different. Confidence is inwardly focused . . . you have faith in your ability to come up with the best solution. Ego is externally focused . . . you want others to believe you have it all figured out. Confidence is calm, quiet even. Ego is brash and always trying to be in the limelight.

How do you know if you are approaching leadership quicksand, or if you’re already there, how do you keep from being swallowed alive? Here are a few tips for how to know if you are no longer standing on solid ground.

  • You are so sure you know the “best way” that you stop listening to the ideas and input of others.

 Pull your self out of the quagmire by asking others to contribute their best thinking to the issue. If you really have the best idea, it will stand up to different perspectives. And if others’ thinking makes your original ideal even better, then everyone is a winner!

  • You consistently take credit for the good work of your team.

If you’re stuck in quicksand, it is helpful to have someone there to help you out. If you’ve been pushing your team into the shadows . . . well, good luck. A confident leader knows his or her team will be there when things get tough, because they’ve been walking along side the leader the entire time.

  • You blame others when things don’t go the way you intended.

After all, as noted in #1 above, you knew the best way, right? So it must be someone else’s fault. Except while you are sputtering around, sinking deeper and pointing the finger at others, the confident leader is finding a path up and out of the current situation.

  • You think you are entitled to, or have earned, certain privileges.

It’s okay to ask for things to make your jungle journey easier. To expect them every time, or to get snarky when they don’t happen . . . feel yourself sinking? Sincere appreciation for the efforts of others will go a long way toward keeping you on solid ground.

You get the idea. It’s not about you. Which is not to say you aren’t a critical part of the equation. It’s when you start to think you’re the only part of the equation that really matters that you get sucked under.

It is a jungle out there. Don’t make the journey harder than it needs to be. Check your ego, and walk around the leadership quicksand.

Giving Up Your Security Blanket

There comes a time in every toddler’s life when it’s time to give up the security blanket, or the binky, or whatever it is that calms the child in stressful situations.

There comes a time in a leader’s life, too.

Okay, so maybe I haven’t witnessed too many leaders literally dragging around a tattered, faded scrap of fabric, but figuratively . . . oh my! How many times do we clutch on to systems, or programs, or markets that are worn and full of holes simply because of the predictability and comfort of knowing what to expect, and the warm memory of past glory. Security blanket, indeed.

A recent issue of the magazine Fast Company (, February 2015) included an interview with Katie Couric who, when asked about her decision to become Yahoo’s global news anchor, said, “When you’re a part of an established entity, there’s so much incentive to maintain the status quo. A lot of times, the people who are leading are at the end of their careers, so they don’t want to throw everything up and see where it lands.”

Giving up the security blanket — throwing everything up to see where it lands — can leave you vulnerable . . . no doubt about it. When you forfeit the comfort of what you know, those first few steps might feel a bit shaky. What if you trip and fall? In most cases, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, I’ve found there’s a confidence in those who have “given up the blanket” that usually results in pulling themselves up, brushing off their back side, and stepping forward in a new direction . . . toward a new market, or solution, or opportunity.

I’m not suggesting you have to take crazy risks. I’m merely challenging you to consider if perhaps you have outgrown some of the approaches or perspectives being used within your organization. There’s nothing wrong with comfortable, per se . . . as long as it doesn’t hold you back from an opportunity that could extend your mission reach or market share. Unfortunately, the more you are snugged in with your blanket, the less likely you are to notice those opportunities.

When you as the leader hold tight to “what has always worked”, chances are your staff will too. The new ideas, the “what ifs,” will quickly get smothered by blanket-toting lieutenants who are following your lead, thinking you’re guiding them along a safe route . . . right up to the point they discover it is actually a dead end.

Look around. Be brave. Take the first step. Lead. Before you know it, you’ll find out you really didn’t need that old blanket after all.