Modern Workplace

The leadership tightrope: Why leading in today's workforce is a balancing act

May 03, 2024
The Leadership Tightrope: Why Leading in Today's Workforce is a Balancing Act

Leadership. It's a word that's often tossed around (as if we all understand what it is and how it’s performed). Yet, truly effective leaders are very hard to find. Some might see leadership as a natural progression of their career. In reality, navigating the complexities of modern team leading is challenging. For many, the act of leading may not be natural, much like walking on a tightrope. Because of this, if someone isn’t intentional about growing and developing their skills as a leader, they are more likely to fall off said rope versus accidentally stumbling into becoming an inspiring and effective leader. 

Despite the fact that leadership is hard to obtain, it's a vital necessity & component to run successful businesses. Unfortunately, the lack of strong corporate leadership can have a ripple effect, impacting everything from team morale and productivity to innovation and overall company success. So, what makes leadership so difficult? Why aren’t we all naturally growing and obtaining leadership traits? And if we truly do wish to grow, what might it take to develop the necessary skills? 

Let's delve into five key reasons why I believe there is a lack of leadership today:

  • Few inspiring role models: Our early career experiences significantly shape how we view our professional life and leadership. If our formative years lacked inspiring leaders who championed collaboration, effective communication, and growth mindsets, it can be difficult to know what good leadership looks like. This lack of strong role models can leave aspiring leaders adrift, unsure of how to navigate the nuances of leading others. For example, when I was serving in the Marine Corps, I was pushing for a promotion to E4, to be a non-commissioned officer. I was ready to take on more of a lead role. At that time a wise leader, a sergeant (E5), informed me that one must be led well before one can lead well. Without having experience serving under a good leader, it's hard to know how to lead well. If one has only seen poor leadership, one is likely to repeat the pattern.
  • The allure of "me" vs. "we": Modern society and social media often paint a picture of success that revolves around individual achievement and personal branding. This focus on self-promotion can make it challenging to cultivate the selfless mindset that is crucial for effective leadership. Great leaders prioritize the success of the team above their own personal gain, fostering an environment of collaboration and shared wins. They don't feel the need to have the last word or be the smartest in the room. They are willing to give glory (or credit) to others and share successes. Great leaders know their personal success is reflected by the successes of their team.
  • The mirage of efficiency over inspiration: Leadership is often mistakenly equated with simply barking orders and ensuring tasks are completed efficiently. Being former military, this was what I was initially introduced to and what I expected - along with a lot of "busy" work to keep people from being idle. While operational efficiency is important, true leadership goes beyond the mechanics of merely getting things done. It's about inspiring and motivating individuals, fostering creativity, and empowering them to reach their full potential. Leaders who prioritize efficiency over inspiration may find themselves with a team that goes through the motions but lacks sparks of initiative, innovation, and dedication. Those focusing on efficiency are likely to stay in operational roles that track metrics. They will prove themselves to be effective managers, not inspirational leaders. And this isn't a bad thing!
  • The multi-generational mix: Our workforce is a beautiful tapestry woven from multiple generations, each with its own values, communication styles, and work preferences. Baby Boomers may value work-life balance differently than Millennials, and Gen Z might have a more collaborative approach than Gen X. Leading a team that spans generations requires a nuanced understanding of these differences and the ability to adapt leadership styles to create a cohesive and productive work environment. Yes, this means a leader adapts their style versus expecting their direct reports to adjust to them. The leader sets the example and leads through collaboration and openness.
  • The erosion of trust: Trust is the bedrock of any successful relationship and that relates to a team, a department, and the company. However, a general erosion of trust in institutions and leadership figures across society can make it challenging for leaders to build trust within their teams. I've found that effective leaders must work diligently to build transparency, foster open communication, and demonstrate their commitment to the well-being and success of their team. 

Here are some key steps to take along your leadership journey. They are based upon my experience and were effective for me. Granted, I'm still on my leadership journey and I'll admit hasn't always been smooth sailing:

  • Seek out mentorship: The absence of strong role models in your early career doesn't have to be a permanent roadblock. Actively seek out mentors who embody the leadership qualities you admire. Learn from their experiences, both positive and negative. With the advent of social media and sites such as LinkedIn, this task has become a bit easier. It means you can find good mentors even if there may not be amazing leadership in your own organization. Reach out, connect, communicate, engage, ask. Yes, leaders are busy. However, you will find they make time for things that are important. 
  • Cultivate Selflessness: Leadership is a service, not a power grab. Focus on empowering others, celebrating team wins, and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and supported. Giving credit for successes and taking blame for failures to protect the team will help grow trust. 
  • Lead with Inspiration: While efficiency is important, don't underestimate the power of motivation and inspiration. Leaders who can paint a clear vision, connect with their team on a personal level, and challenge them to grow will cultivate a more engaged and productive workforce. 
  • Embrace the generational mix: View the multi-generational workforce as a strength, not a challenge. Invest time in understanding the values and preferences of each generation and develop a leadership style that fosters collaboration and leverages the unique strengths of each team member. By having routine meetings (i.e., 1:1's) one learns each individual person and how to best engage and communicate with them. 
  • Build trust through transparency: Be honest and upfront with your team. Share information openly, be receptive to feedback, and demonstrate your commitment to their success. By building trust, you'll create a foundation for a stronger and a more resilient team.

Bringing it all together

To recap, if you're seeking a mentor, reach out and ask them, even if they seem busy. One of the board members at my current company, Andy Brown, was amazingly generous when I first started and asked for some of his time. Not only did he find an hour to meet with me, he allocated that time within 2 or 3 business days of my request. When I told him I was shocked how quickly he found the time, he stated that as a leader it's his responsibility to be available to those whom he leads. He makes it a point to be visible, accessible, and available to all he has the privilege to lead. 

Cultivating selflessness helps build trust and security within your team and organization. When your team knows they are free to try and fail, they are more likely to push and take on additional risk. This lets you lead your team to achieve the best possible outcomes as they are willing to test the limits and get outside the comfort zone.

Lead by example, not by exemption. Or, as parents realize when teaching and leading our children, more is caught than is taught. We need to inspire our teams through our words and, perhaps more importantly, through our actions. We need to model what we expect and desire to see from our teams.

Most of us are aware of the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. I've started to adapt more to the platinum rule which is to treat people the way they want to be treated. This takes the focus off me and puts the focus on them. This subtle shift in focus can have a great impact.  

Leadership is a journey, not a destination. Everyone’s path is different. By acknowledging the challenges and actively developing the necessary skills, aspiring leaders can navigate countless challenges and create a thriving, high-performing team. 


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