Leading with a Full Head of Hair

Have you ever had one of those weeks (or months) that made you want to pull your hair out? You know, those times when the aggravation of wrestling with a critical issue weighs you down like a wet blanket . . . when you think you’re doing all the right things and yet the solution remains just beyond your grasp. Yep, me too. It’s one of the shadow sides of leadership that rarely gets discussed, but — and here’s the good part — I think is actually an indication of a strong leader rather than an inept one.

For those of you wondering what exactly would lead me to make such a claim, let me offer a few examples.

  • The best leaders not only cast a clear vision, they are also committed to helping their people get there. Aligning a diverse mix of people to move collectively toward a common goal can at times feel a bit like herding cats. It’s never as quick or easy as it looks on paper. You might have to repeat the same thing fourteen times. You respond to what people heard, which is could be quite different from what you said. People may, consciously or not, behave in ways that undermine your efforts. And so you ask, you listen, you respond, you take a deep breath and repeat. The fact that there will be days your hair is at risk does not change the long-term positive impact of taking this approach.
  • The best leaders value diverse perspectives, and are open to looking at challenges from multiple angles. Vigorous, respectful discussion is often critical to arriving at the best decision. If a leader feels strongly about a direction/solution/project, it can be difficult to hear skepticism, or outright opposition, to that path (enter urge for hair-pulling). The willingness to hear such concerns, however, almost always results in greater buy-in from the team, and better results for the organization.
  • The best leaders understand the need to balance urgency and patience. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Spending more time on the front end will often allow you to move more quickly on the back end. Understanding and respecting this concept, however, does not mean there won’t still be days where the scale tilts toward urgency and the leader finds her hand drifting toward her scalp.

No one ever said that leadership would be easy. And somehow, knowing that frustration is part of the process — rather than some failure or character flaw on the part of the leader — makes it easier to move through the tough parts to get to the solution on the other side, full head of hair still intact.

The State of Your Cup

Water Glasses

I’ve seen a variety statistics that indicate somewhere between 40% and 85% (depending whose numbers you believe) of the things we worry about never actually happen. Studies have shown there are ‘promoters’ who try to make good things happen, and ‘preventers’ who try to keep bad things from happening (http://www.heidigranthalvorson.com/books/focus). There are glasses that are half full, half empty and — in a nod to my oldest son the engineer — ones that are twice the size they need to be.

So what does that mean for leaders? From my perspective, it means that context is everything. In actuality, the glass that is half full and the glass that is half empty have exactly the same amount of water in them . . . it’s all about what direction you think the water is going — up or down — and whether you believe you can impact the state of your cup. Because if you believe you can impact the state of your cup, you will take proactive steps to do just that. If you see your cup as half empty, and fixate on all the ways your water supply can be further depleted, you can become paralyzed with worry and ultimately create a glass-draining, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let me give you a real life example of what I am talking about. Recently, we asked our staff to complete a SWOT analysis. We ask for this feedback on a regular basis, and report back to all staff their cumulative top five responses in each quadrant. This year, under the Opportunities quadrant (the “O” in SWOT) one of our staff’s top five responses was “changes in government.” I was thrilled! Why? Our state government is in total chaos. (No, that’s not why I was thrilled.) The fact that our staff could see this as an opportunity means they understand that they can impact the state of our cup! Yes, they also listed “changes in government” as a threat, but think about how their approach will be different if they can see the current volatile environment as an opportunity . . . something they can positively influence . . . a chance for them to help fill our cup. With that perspective, our staff will look for creative ways they can position the agency for impact. They will be seeking new solutions, while their glass-is-half-empty colleagues will be hunkering down for the next blow. Our staff and their colleagues in other agencies are facing the exact same external circumstances, but unlike some organizations, our staff believes they can impact the state of our cup . . . and so they will.

What is the context of your leadership? Do those who look to you for guidance see your organization’s cup filling up or inching lower? Are you fostering a can-do attitude or encouraging a defensive shield? The current water level isn’t the critical issue. The critical issue is the direction it’s headed.

What is the state of your cup?