I know you want to be a good leader. Wanting to be inspirational, effective, and remembered makes perfect sense. Yet, most people aren’t great leaders. In fact, odds are you aren’t a great leader. Leadership is tricky and out of reach for most. It’s this magical combination of empathy and high-standards. You’ve got some folks good at the former – they care about people. And you’ve got even more folks good at the latter – they expect a lot and don’t have a problem letting you know it. But having both – being both – is too hard for most people. They can’t pull it off.
Good leadership is both art and science. I’ve seen it on occasion and it is powerful. Despite all of the executives I have worked with, the best example of effective leadership is my daughter’s former kindergarten teacher. If you have ever been in a kindergarten class, you know that if you can lead five year olds and get them to work for you, you can lead anyone. Mrs. Bell would drop down so that she could look the children in the eye when she spoke to them and she often told them that she loved them. She never had a mean word for any of them, never raised her voice, and never lost her temper. But she never babied them. She never let them off the hook and she had the world’s highest standards. No matter that they were five, she expected excellence and the kids knew it. And the result was that those kids would have followed her anywhere. She had what every leader wants – respect, productivity, efficiency, excellence, creativity, teamwork, contribution.
Part of the reason we are insufficient leaders – either too soft or too hard – is that natural- born leadership is a myth.
Well, maybe not a total fiction, but it is about as common as being ambidextrous or being able to touch your nose with your tongue. My husband says dogs are born knowing how to swim. Throw any dog in a pool and it will paddle. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I am 100% sure that for the most part people aren’t born knowing how to lead. Look at the leaders you have known personally and anecdotally (or even leader in the mirror maybe). How many of them are nailing the leadership thing? Most are drowning or, at best, treading water.
In fact, our very human wiring often is at cross-purposes with leadership. The amygdala – our lizard brain – is what triggers the fight or flight response. Also, often it sabotages us as leaders. When someone doesn’t follow our direction, questions our authority, makes a mistake, rejects our ideas, doesn’t work hard, criticizes us, and takes control from us the lizard brain perceives all of this as danger and threat. We become, not the good leaders we so badly desire, but leaders who are either confrontation adverse or confrontation inclined. We become all empathy (wimps softies) or all rules/regulations (uncaring, punitive). Neither is good. In either case, we lose people, they check out. When we default too far left or right on the empathy – results scale people don’t consistently and loyally follow us, we get half-hearted effort, they don’t hear what we say, they are sloppy, they aren’t invested, and they leave.
Nonetheless for those who have the courage and the resolve, bad leadership isn’t destiny. The amygdala is not the only part of the brain. Luckily for leaders and maybe even more so for everyone being led, we have the prefrontal cortex too and this is where beneficial executive function happens. The prefrontal cortex gives us the ability to pause and the pause is powerful!
With a pause we create options. Instead of making a situation worse either by failing to confront the problem or alternatively engaging in work place combat we can stop in the middle of our flight or fight panic. The pause creates room for us to silently ask, “Is there another way?”
Great leaders do this. They are not controlled by well-intentioned, but misplaced instinctual responses.
Before reacting, before mistaking a manageable workplace skirmish for high-stakes, life or death, drama, they ask themselves questions such as – what is really going on here, is a compromise possible, is my approach the best approach, what’s the real danger, how can both of us come out winners, is the best thing really for me to get my way, and what is this other person feeling?
Leaders who are pushovers or bullies surround us. Why wouldn’t they? This is the lazy leader’s path. It is what we do when we don’t have better options and when more impactful tools are absent. Too much to the left or the right is a hallmark of desperate leadership. Worthwhile leaders, on the other hand, take neither a strictly soft touch nor heavy-handed approach. Rather, they incorporate both. In this way they are remembered, followed, and bring forth our best work and highest potential.
It’s not about being liked or being nice. It’s not a popularity contest after all. Simply, it’s good business strategy. Work is about money ultimately or at least a large part of it is. A hybrid leadership approach – being an empathetic human and also a masterful businessperson – positively impacts the bottom line. Leaders know that if they go too easy they will be ignored, ineffective, and won’t get compliance. If too hard, compliance is temporary, transactional, and not sustained – people only listen when you are in the room to scare them into submission.
It is natural to react before assessing. It is even normal to be controlled by fear and anger. However, this is not the path to great leadership. It is not the road to exceptional success.
To be a real leader – one who is respected, heard, and one people work hard for – silence your lizard brain
The next time the stakes are high, when someone lets you down, when you crave results, listen to your executive function reminding you that this is not mortal combat with a foe and that with a pause and the use of the prefrontal cortex, there is a way for all involved to come out alive, intact, and victorious.