Heaven and Hell: The day-to-day struggles of a leadership position – Dr. Raul Villamarin Rodriguez, Ph.D.
- Listen. Listen to people’s responses to your ideas, plans, and opinions. Listen more than you talk. Listen to a broad range of people, not just to those who agree with you. Probe to find out why they think or feel the way they do. Assume that everyone has something important to say. If you hear the same things from a number of different and diverse sources, you should at least consider the possibility that they’re accurate. If they’re about things you do that you can change, you might give it a try.
- Ask for 360-degree feedback…and use it. This is feedback (people’s views of you) from everyone around you – staff, volunteers, Board, participants, people from other organizations or groups yours works with – anyone you work with in any way. As with listening, if you hear the same thing from a lot of different sources, it’s probably true. Act on it. All the feedback in the world won’t do you any good unless you do something with it.
- Look at what’s going on around you. Are you the center of controversy and chaos? Or do calm and good feeling seem to reside wherever you do? The chances are that the answer lies somewhere in between these extremes, but it probably should be closer to the calm and good feeling side. Even if you’re involved in a battle with the forces of evil, you can foster calm in yourself and those you work with. At the same time, your group could be on top of the world, and you and your colleagues could still be climbing the walls if that’s the kind of atmosphere you create.
Another question to ask is whether the people you work with are happy and enthusiastic. If you’re meeting their needs, the chances are they will be. If you’re insensitive and impatient, if you play favorites, if you’re disengaged from them and from the cause, or if you’re downright nasty, they’ll probably wish they were somewhere else. Taking a look around will tell you a lot about what – and how – you’re doing as a leader.
- Reach out for help in facing internal challenges. Most of us find it difficult to change entirely on our own. A psychotherapist, a good friend, a perceptive colleague, or a trusted clergyman might be able to help you gain perspective on issues that you find hard to face. Many people find meditation or some form of self-discovery helpful in understanding themselves and in getting through change. Don’t feel you have to do it all on your own.
Challenges stemming from the nature of the leadership role
A leadership position brings with it unique demands. Leaders can be looked on as authority figures, as saviors, as fixers of things that are broken, as spiritual guides, as mentors, as models, as inspirers, as teachers…in short, they may be seen however others choose to see them. This in itself carries a set of challenges, in addition to those posed by what all leaders indeed have to do in order to keep things going. Some of the issues that leaders have to cope with specifically because they’re leaders are:
- Keeping an eye on, and communicating, the vision. As the guardian of a group’s vision, it’s up to the leader to remind everyone of what that vision is, to keep it in mind in everything the group or organization does, to protect it from funders or others who would try to change it…and to make sure it doeschange, if necessary, with changes in circumstances, the needs of the target population, or the available information. That means not being distracted from the bigger picture by day-to-day issues (even as those issues are addressed and resolved). It also means not substituting another, lesser goal (getting enough funding to start a specific program, for instance) that may be contrary to the true vision of the organization.
- Keeping the everyday under control while you continue to pursue the vision.You can’t maintain the vision without making sure that there’s paper in the printer, that you understand the legal implications of an action you plan to take, that people know what they’re supposed to be doing on a given day, that there’s enough cash in the bank to meet payroll, and that there’s someone there to answer the phone, to pay the bills, and to look for funding. These aren’t necessarily all things a leader has to do herself (although there are certainly organizations where that’s what happens), but she’s responsible for making sure they get done, and that things run smoothly. No matter how transformative she is, no leader can accomplish much if the infrastructure doesn’t work.
- Setting an example. If you want others in the group to show mutual respect, to work hard, to embrace the vision and mission of the organization, to include everyone in their thinking and decisions, you have to start by doing those things yourself, and behaving in the ways you want others to behave. A leader who yells at people, consults no one, and assumes his word is law will intentionally or unintentionally train everyone else in the group to be the same way. A leader who acts collaboratively and inclusively will create an organization that functions similarly.
- Maintaining effectiveness over time. One of the hardest lessons of leadership is that you’re never done. No matter how well things go, no matter how successful your group or organization or initiative is – unless it’s aimed at accomplishing a very specific, time-limited goal – you have to keep at it forever. Even if you get a bill passed or manage to get money for your cause included in the state budget, you have to work to maintain your gains. If you’re running a community intervention, you have to recruit participants, refine your methods, do community outreach, and raise funds…indefinitely. Maintaining effectiveness is a matter both of monitoring what you do and working to improve it, and of keeping up enthusiasm for the work within the group. It’s part of the leader’s role to maintain his own enthusiasm and drive, and to communicate and transfer them to others.
- Avoiding burnout. This is a challenge not only for leaders, because a burned out leader can affect the workings of a whole organization. Leader burnout is a product of being overwhelmed by the workload, the frustrations, the stress, and the time demands of the position, multiplied by the number of years spent in it. It can reach a point where the leader no longer cares about the vision, the work of the group, or anything but when he can go home. By that point, the rest of the group is likely to be struggling, feeling rudderless and uncertain. It’s crucial that leaders learn to recognize the signs of burnout and – depending on where they are in their lives and a number of other factors – either find ways to renew their commitment or leave.
- Finding support. Clichés often become clichés because they’re true. It is lonely at the top, largely because a good leader tries to make things go smoothly enough that others aren’t aware of the amount of work she’s doing. The leader may have no one to share her concerns with, and may have to find her own satisfaction, because others don’t recognize the amount and nature of her contribution. The buck may stop with her, but where then does she unburden herself? As mentioned earlier, leaders are human. They need support and comfort as much as anyone else, and it’s important that they find it.
Coping with challenges stemming from the nature of the leadership role
So how can you continue to be a leader and also continue to be a functioning human being? There are things you can do to retain both your sanity and your competency. (Contd. in PDF)