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Don't Hold Yourself Back

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Five steps to avoid unknowingly sabotaging your rise to leadership

Managing and leading are two different skills, and at some point in your career you'll struggle to understand the difference and act accordingly. Indeed, many professionals unintentionally stop themselves from becoming exceptional leaders, according to consultants Anne Morriss and Robin J. Ely, who have worked with hundreds of leaders in more than 30 fields and 50 countries.

If you're one of them, never fear: In the January 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Morriss and Ely identify five major barriers to leadership:

  • Overemphasizing personal goals (because true leadership is about making other people better, not yourself);
  • Protecting your public image (because sticking to the mental script you've created about who you are wastes energy);
  • Turning competitors into enemies (because doing so severs your link to reality, making you incapable of exerting influence);
  • Going it alone (because support networks help provide perspective and encouragement); and
  • Waiting for permission (because healthy organizations reward people who decide on their own to lead).

In this issue of Executive Catalyst, we discuss these five barriers in more detail, ending with some wise words of advice from Morriss and Ely: "You must simply begin," they write.


Where do you stand?

It's easy to assess whether the five barriers Morriss and Ely discuss are holding you back: Just ask yourself the following questions, they advise. If most of your answers are "no," you may need some personal development.

Catalyst - Don't Hold Yourself BackOveremphasizing personal goals

  • Do you spend most of your time as a manager thinking about what other people in the organization need to succeed?
  • Does the best version of your employees show up in your presence?
  • Does the best version of your employees endure in your absence?

Protecting your public image

  • Do you ever stop monitoring yourself and simply do your job?
  • Have you been willing to look bad in the service of your team or organization?
  • Do you explicitly model the attitudes and behaviors you want others in your organization to adopt?

Turning competitors into enemies

  • Is it rare for you to feel defensive, insecure, or judgmental?
  • Is it rare for people to feel defensive, insecure, or judgmental around you?
  • Is your environment generally free of people you can't stand to be around?

Going it alone

  • Do you have a core group of people who help you make important decisions?
  • Do you have people around you who can handle both your audacity and your insecurities?

 Waiting for permission

  • Is it possible to make a difference from your current position?
  • Do you have control over when you'll be able to have a meaningful impact?
  • Could you become a leader before other people see you as one?

Barrier 1: Overemphasizing personal goals

According to Morriss and Ely, true leadership is about making other people better and ensuring that your impact endures, even when you're absent.

That doesn't mean leaders are selfless, however. Leaders, like all of us, have personal goals. The point Morriss and Ely make is that the narrow pursuit of personal goals can lead to self-protection and self-promotion—and neither fosters the success of others.

To illustrate, Morriss and Ely offer an example of a leader they studied. After a successful career in information technology, this leader, named Troy, began managing the service division at a software company.

When customers began complaining about the company's service, Troy blamed the product development division, claiming that his team had to support an inferior product. The company's chief operating officer (COO) disagreed. Faced with losing his job, Troy tried to win over senior colleagues by asking for feedback on his performance. Customer complaints proliferated, however. In essence, the harder Troy worked to save his job, the harder his job became. The situation wasn't resolved until a customer service representative asked Troy to help resolve the conflict with the product development team. That shifted Troy's thinking from worrying about his own position to healing the split between the two divisions. After a few cross-team meetings, the service division and product development division were brainstorming about ways to solve the service problem together. Within a few weeks, customer complaints diminished—even though the company hadn't yet changed its product.

According to Morriss and Ely, the decision to focus on others can feel dangerous because it forces you to take your eyes off your own welfare and stop scanning the horizon for predators. Making other people a priority is particularly challenging for emerging leaders, who may feel pressure to protect their interests in a world that seems rigged against them. While the challenge cannot be underestimated, Morriss and Ely offer the same advice to all: "Get over yourself," they write. "Start with a commitment to make another person, or an entire team, better—and then go back for the skills and resources to pull it off."


Barrier 2: Protecting your public image

Another common impediment to leadership is being overly concerned with the image you present—what the authors call "that ideal self you've created in your mind."

Sticking to the script that goes along with that image takes a lot of energy, they write, but it also inhibits effectiveness. "The need to be seen as likable can keep you from asking tough questions or challenging existing norms," they offer as an example. Likewise, "the need to be seen as decisive can cause you to shut down critical feedback loops."

To illustrate, Morriss and Ely offer an example of another leader, Anita, who was in charge of the regional performance of a large retail company. She had projected the image of a tough and decisive leader, and that had helped advance her career. It left little room for humanity, however. When data suggested Anita's company gained little advantage from long-term employees, she ordered that experienced salespeople be replaced with lower-paid part-timers—reducing payroll cost but wreaking havoc on the business culture and thus service. When Anita ignored store manager complaints, resignations began rolling in. It wasn't until turnover reached 50 percent that Anita decided to make a change. She sought feedback from members of past teams she'd been a part of, and ultimately realized her error. She invited one of the managers who had resigned back, and worked with her to repair the damage.

"This type of journey is not uncommon," write Morriss and Ely. "At some point in their leadership trajectory, ambitious people must choose between image and impact, between looking powerful and empowering others. They must choose, in effect, between impersonating a leader and being one. … If you want your people to care what you think, first make it clear that you care what they think."


Barrier 3: Turning competitors into enemies

Next, Morriss and Ely point to a particularly toxic behavior: making those people you don't get along with into two-dimensional enemies.

"Distorting other people is a common response to conflict, but it carries significant leadership costs," write Morriss and Ely. "It severs your links to reality, making you reliably incapable of exerting influence. As you turn others into caricatures, you risk becoming a caricature yourself."Catalyst - Don't Hold Yourself Back Image 2

To illustrate, Morriss and Ely discuss Sarah, the COO of a global medical devices company. Easily annoyed by what she considered incompetence, she became increasingly frustrated with her company's chief financial officer (CFO), Max, whom she considered a sycophant. Eventually, she came to dislike everything about him, from his voice to his cufflink collection. Sarah didn't reconsider her opinion of Max until she was seated next to him on an overseas flight. Forced to engage with him, she learned his sycophancy was driven by concerns about the chief executive officer (CEO's) public credibility. By the time the plane landed, Sarah and Max had developed a plan to present the CEO more effectively. 

"Take a hard look at how you interact with colleagues whose agendas seem opposed to your own," write Morriss and Ely. "Recognize that these colleagues are real people who may even become your allies."


Barrier 4: Going it alone

Choosing not to lead is a path many people take, and with good reason, write Morriss and Ely: It's safe. Leadership, after all, results in change, and change can be frightening.

To provide support during times of transformation, Morriss and Ely recommend that you assemble a "team" of supporters. They can be family members, friends, or colleagues—but the litmus test is whether the leader in you regularly shows up in their presence.

To illustrate, Morriss and Ely revisit the case of Troy, the service division manager, who learned to work with his company's product development division. While Troy initially found it difficult to work in a new way, he coped by relying on the advice and support of select friends and family members. By giving him perspective and ideas, write Morriss and Ely, Troy's team played a key role in his shift from focusing on his own career to helping his colleagues succeed.

Morriss and Ely say they heard similar stories from other effective leaders. Their advice: "Find the people who believe in your desire and ability to lead," they write. "Fall in love with them. Or at least meet them for drinks on a regular basis."

"Get over yourself. Start with a commitment to make another person, or an entire team, better— and then go back for the skills and resources to pull it off."


Barrier 5: Waiting for permission

Patience, like risk aversion, has an evolutionary basis: It can prevent us from getting hurt. It can also be a curse for emerging leaders, write Morriss and Ely, because it encourages them to keep their heads down, waiting for someone else to recognize their efforts. That can be problematic, because healthy organizations reward people who decide on their own to lead.

"Most of the exceptional leaders we've studied didn't wait for formal authority to begin making changes," write Morriss and Ely. "In one way or another, they all simply began to use whatever informal power they had."

To illustrate, Morriss and Ely discuss the case of Jon, a personal trainer who decided one day, in the middle of a workout session, to do something different with his life. Worried that a teenager he knew might be involved in a gang, and believing that weightlifting would appeal to young people at risk, Jon decided to launch InnerCity Weightlifting, a program designed to provide teenagers at risk with physical empowerment and community. Today, Jon has expanded his business to many cities.

According to Morriss and Ely, Jon's move didn't make sense: He was young; he was inexperienced with youth-development programs; and his family thought he was crazy to give up his lucrative personal-training practice for a pipe dream. But Jon was impatient, and persevered.

Jon's story, write Morriss and Ely, can be a lesson for all. "You must simply begin," they write. "Power and influence are intimate companions, but their relationship isn't the one we tend to imagine. More often than not, influence leads to power, not the other way around."

"If you want your people to care what you think, first make it clear that you care what they think."

Our Take

One of the most common shortcomings of developing a powerful leadership style is leading from a narrow, narcissistic perspective. This unilateral lens hinders one's capacity to accurately attend to complex situations with elegant solutions by handicapping one in a multitude of ways: It impedes one's own internal promotional capacity, one's ability to retain good talent, and one's ability to impact, inspire, and influence those one leads.

Assuming that the narcissistic perspective isn't clinical, but driven by the individual's underlying fear, distrust, insecurity, or blindness, the executive's shift to incorporate the capacity of others is one of the most powerful development gaps to target and improve. Ultimately, giving back to others comes back to reward us and the company.

Those of you who have worked with JMA and have engaged in our Energy Leadership Process understand that authentically caring about the development of others builds strong relationships that allow for greater impact and influence. This Level 4 "caretaking" leadership style is one of the most engaging and successful forms of leading others. It all begins with a simple but profound shift to become curious and authentically interested in the needs and development of others.

For more information, see the January 2011 Harvard Business Review ("Stop Holding Yourself Back").

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[Jody Michael Associates] leads you to achieve what you believed was impossible. This process can be difficult, but the reward is beautiful.”

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