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When Leaders Struggle

When Leaders Struggle

I remember the first time I recognized traces of desperation in a leader’s voice. I was on the phone with a high school principal I had never met who lived on the east coast of Florida.

We were discussing high school sports, and she veered off the topic to make a comment that let me know she was extremely distressed and discouraged. In addition to the comment, the tone of her voice sounded frustrated and fearful.

I was surprised by her unexpected openness. I had not been in my previous position as a high school principal long, but I suppose I believed, like many others, that if you have the position, it is because you can handle it.

In coaching conversations and in private discussions since that time, I have heard other leaders in public and private sector roles express fear or misgivings about the course of their jobs. I have seen good people placed in untenable situations, and I have seen very capable people suffer. It is easy to say that leaders need to be prepared for these misadventures; it is not as easy to experience and survive them.

I would like to say there are easy solutions to prevent or minimize unpleasant leadership situations, but each person suffers and experiences professional hardship in his or her own way. However, I will offer a few ideas that seem to make a difference to my clients and other leaders with whom I work:

    • Avoid making the job the reason for being. That is hard to do when leadership positions take so much time and energy. However, recognizing that life is more than the job expands one’s focus and minimizes extreme reactions to both success and perceived failure.
    • Take care of yourself and those you love. Most leaders can vocalize that their priorities are self and family, but when it comes to decisions about how to spend their time and energy, these parts of their lives often take second or third place.
    • Continue to learn; be curious. What do you need to do to make yourself more competent? Who do you need to be in order to accomplish your goals and mission?
    • Take advantage of coaching opportunities before you think they are necessary. Find a coach who can be brutally honest. Share concerns that may be uncomfortable to discuss. It is often the people who need coaching the most who minimize its benefits. They are unaware of areas in which they need to grow. A coach or mentor does not necessarily need to have a similar background. Frequently, seeing a situation with new eyes provides greater clarity.
    • Find a support system before you need it. Listening to and sharing what is and is not working helps to put experiences into perspective. Make time to develop a network of colleagues and friends who have similar and very different interests who will share their experiences. Let your conversations be purely social.
    • Similar to the previous idea, build relationships in and outside the organization. Life and leadership are all about relationships. Through relationships, leaders find meaning in their personal and professional lives and accomplish the many tasks they want to accomplish.
    • If you find yourself in a difficult situation and you do not have the support system or coach in place, ask for help. Find someone you can trust and with whom you can share your concerns.
    • When unpleasant situations arise, reflect on what you are learning and what you need to learn. It is through reflection that new and more productive behavior and outcomes develop. Avoid the urge to blame someone. Consider whether any part of a difficult situation stems from faulty or unrealistic perceptions. Is there a point at which you can feel grateful for the experience?
    • Recognize that no one has all the answers...even the bloggers you may read. You were placed in your position because you have something to contribute. Value your contributions. When it is time to move on, take that as a new opportunity.
    • Realize that having a positive attitude and doing the right things do not always lead to success. Unfortunately, sometimes bad stuff happens. It is how we deal with it that makes us successful human beings.

All these suggestions are easier to write than they are to implement, particularly when things go wrong. If you are struggling, seek out someone who will listen without judgment, and give yourself time to heal. As hard as it is to accept, it is possible to move on.

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Comments (6)

  1. Renee Charney

    Wonderful words of wisdom, Lyn! Many times when I coach leaders who are seeking to “be” different in their approach enter into our conversation with an intention around how to “do” different. They want for themselves, and for their staff, skills, techniques, tools to do their job of leadership or technical delivery differently. The stretch, and the work is, as you an I have discovered and espouse to, in shifting the “being” — as I often say it’s the work around, “who shows up when I show up.”

    Your post will help me frame my conversations with a current client, Lyn. And, for that, I am truly grateful.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Renee, Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I think the idea of “being” is so often overlooked as we consider all that we “do.” I like the idea of “who shows up when I show up.” I am sure that is helpful to clients.

  2. Simon Harvey

    Nice blog and great subject. You are so right about over stressed leaders. Although I do seem to find more leaders that are slowly seeing the power of spending some time in the area of self awareness. Perhaps the 21st century is finally the one where we start to first understand who we are before trying to understand others. Yes to exercise and yes to making sure you have a support system.Great advise.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. Your point about “understanding who we are before trying to understand others’ is an important one. We so quickly jump to believe we understand both ourselves and others when we may have blind spots that prevent full functioning.

  3. Liz Weber

    Great post Lyn & you’re dead-on with the need for leaders to take care of themselves and find outlets to help them do that. Take care of themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The most successful leaders I work with have a regular (or at least somewhat regular) exercise routine, they have social and professional outlets, and they have some venue that allows them to regroup (churches, nature, etc). Leadership can be lonely, but only if you allow it to be.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Liz, Thank you for responding and for adding the important pieces about taking care of oneself. I believe too many leaders get wrapped up in the “doing” and forget the “being.” Leadership can certainly be lonely, and it can be a challenge to prevent it from being so. You have made some excellent suggestions.

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