Sometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .
Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?
Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?
Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?
Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?
Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.
I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.
How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.
Have you noticed how many “experts” there are out there today? No matter what the problem/challenge/opportunity before you, there is an expert who has an answer. That might seem like a great thing, and it can be in some cases. I’m just not at all sure that “experts” make the best leaders. Let me explain.
Experts know a lot about the thing they know about. In fact, I have run into many an expert who thinks they have THE answer about their area of focus. And that is exactly the problem. When you become an expert, when you have THE solution, you quit gathering new information, considering additional possibilities, or calculating the impact of changing variables. You have devoted years of effort to create an amazing hammer . . . and as a result, everything starts to look like a nail.
If an expert doesn’t make the best leader, who does? A life-long learner. It is fine to be a life-long learner with a lot of experience — in fact, that is highly desirable. So what is the difference between an expert and a life-long learner with a lot of experience? The former thinks they have found the answer, the latter is continually looking a better solution. The best leaders are seekers — not in terms of the “what” of their mission, but certainly in terms of the “how”.
Even when it appears they are at the top of their game, a leader committed to learning is always looking for ways to improve, to extend their reach, to have a greater impact. How?
They listen. To those who receive their services, those who provide their services, the “experts” who are happy to offer solutions, and others in the field . . . all of whom can contribute to a greater understanding of the issue at hand.
They challenge. Even when their organization enjoys great success, and it would be easy to sit on their laurels or pat themselves on the back, they are looking for a better way — either through small tweaks or bringing an entirely new approach to their efforts.
They don’t put limits on their thinking. It doesn’t matter if a concept comes from a different industry, from someone with no experience, or if it seems “impossible” given the current environment. “Why not?” and “What if” are regular parts of their conversations.
The best leaders continually expand their understanding. They can have a great deal of expertise, but always consider their efforts a work in progress. “Making it,” being an “expert” is a stopping point. Learners don’t stop. Who do you think is most likely to move your organization forward?