WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE CHALLENGES OF LEADERSHIP?
Being a leader is in itself a challenge. The challenges of leadership are really of three kinds: external, coming from people and situations; internal, stemming from within the leader himself; and those arising from the nature of the leadership role.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a situation where a leader doesn’t have to cope with external challenges. In an organization, such issues as lack of funding and other resources, opposition from forces in the community, and interpersonal problems within the organization often rear their heads. Social, economic, and political forces in the larger world can affect the organization as well. To some extent, the measure of any leader is how well he can deal with the constant succession of crises and minor annoyances that threaten the mission of his group. If he is able to solve problems, take advantage of opportunities, and resolve conflict with an air of calm and a minimum of fuss, most of the external issues are hardly noticeable to anyone else. If the leader doesn’t handle external challenges well, the organization probably won’t, either. We’ve all seen examples of this, in organizations where everyone, from the director to the custodian, has a constantly worried look, and news is passed in whispers. When people feel that leaders are stressed or unsure, they themselves become stressed or unsure as well, and the emphasis of the group moves from its mission to the current worrisome situation. The work of the group suffers.
While leadership presents to each of us the opportunity to demonstrate the best of what we are, it also exposes our limitations. In many cases, good leaders have to overcome those limitations in order to transmit and follow their vision. Fear, lack of confidence, insecurity, impatience, intolerance (all can act as barriers to leadership. At the same time, acknowledging and overcoming them can turn a mediocre leader into a great one. It’s often very difficult for people, especially those who see themselves as leaders, to admit that they might have personality traits or personal characteristics that interfere with their ability to reach their goals. Part of good leadership is learning to accept the reality of those traits, and working to change them so they don’t get in the way.
Sometimes, what seems to be an advantage may present a challenge as well. A leader who’s extremely decisive may alienate followers by never consulting them, or by consistently ignoring their advice. A leader who’s terrific at developing relationships with others in the organization may be unable to tell someone when she’s not doing her job. Some characteristics can be double-edged swords, positive in some circumstances and negative in others. The real challenge is in knowing the difference, and adapting your behavior accordingly.
CHALLENGES ARISING FROM LEADERSHIP ITSELF
Real leadership makes great demands on people. As a leader, you are responsible for your group’s vision and mission, for upholding a standard, often for being the group’s representative to the rest of the world and its protector as well. These responsibilities might be shared, but in most organizations, one person takes the largest part of the burden. In addition to its responsibilities, leadership brings such challenges as motivating people – often without seeming to do so – and keeping them from stagnating when they’re doing well. Leaders also have to motivate themselves, and not just to seem, but actually to be, enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They have to be aware of serving their group and its members and all that that entails. In other words, they have to be leaders all the time.
WHEN ARE THE CHALLENGES OF LEADERSHIP MOST OBVIOUS?
One obvious – and correct – answer to this question is “all the time,” but in fact some times are more likely than others. Leadership is usually the most difficult when the situation is changing or unstable. When a grass roots group is doing well – gathering allies, getting its message across, attracting funding – no one much notices what the director does; but when something unexpected happens, she’s expected to take care of it, often in a very public way. Some particular times when challenges may arise:
* When something new is about to start. When you’re beginning a new intervention, trying something different in a program that’s been running for a while, stepping up to another stage in your initiative, or hiring a new leader, no one is quite sure what’s going to happen. Systems and relationships can break down, and it’s often a matter of leadership as to whether the new situation is successful or not. * When something is about to end. Often at the end of a school year, a particular project or initiative, a training period – anytime when something is coming to an end and things are, by definition, about to change – times get difficult. That may be because of a big push to get finished, or because it’s tough to tell what’s coming next, or because a close-knit group is splitting up. Whatever the reason, it often takes leadership skills to make sure that the project ends successfully, and everyone moves on to the next phase, whatever that is.
* When times are tough. If there’s not enough funding, or an organization or group is being publicly criticized, for instance, its leader usually has to try to solve the problem in some way: find money, reduce expenses, defuse the attacks. Leaders are tested when times are difficult. * During transitions. There are many ways in which a group can be in transition. It may go – because of a grant or because of other circumstances – from a loosely organized, grass roots collective to a much more formally structured organization. It might grow quickly…even too quickly. It might be losing some key people, or changing leaders. One of the most difficult tasks a leader faces is trying to keep a group stable through a period of change.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SPECIFIC CHALLENGES THAT MANY LEADERS FACE, AND HOW to COPE WITH THEM?
The world surprises us at every turn, throwing up barriers where the way seems clear, and revealing broad highways where there seemed to be only brick walls. Both kinds of surprises – sometimes the positive more than the negative – present opportunities for exercising leadership, with all the challenges they entail. Some common situations that call for leaders to use their resources include: * Public criticism, especially uninformed criticism, of your group or mission. * Flare-ups of others’ interpersonal issues, either within the group or outside it. * Crises, which could be tied to finances, program, politics, public relations (scandals), legal concerns (lawsuits), even spiritual issues (loss of enthusiasm, low morale).
* Disasters. These are different from crises, in that, in a crisis, something important (usually negative, but not always) seems to be happening, and you’re trying to control the situation. In a disaster, the worst has already happened, and you’re trying to deal with that in some way. * Opposition and/or hostility from powerful forces (business groups, local government, an influential organization, etc.) * A financial or political windfall. Sometimes an unexpected benefit can be harder to handle than a calamity. * Collaboration with another group or organization may call upon a leader to define clearly the boundaries within which he can operate, and to balance the needs of his own group with those of the collaborative initiative as a whole.
HOW TO COPE WITH EXTERNAL CHALLENGES
Regardless of the situation, it’s important for leaders to do something. Waiting is occasionally the right strategy, but even when it is, it makes a group nervous to see its leader apparently not exercising some control. Be creative.
Try to think “outside the box,” i.e. in unexpected but effective ways. If disaster has struck (you’ve just lost a major source of funding, perhaps ), how can you turn what looks like the end of the world into a new beginning? Can you change the way the organization operates to deal with the loss? Can you use the fact that you’re about to lose services to gain community and political support? Is this an opportunity to diversify your funding? Can you expand your horizons and your reach through collaboration? Don’t just look at the obvious, but consider a situation from all perspectives, and search for unusual ways to make things work. An important piece of information, one that’s often quoted in community work, but which can’t be overstated: the Chinese character for “crisis” combines the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Face conflict squarely.
This doesn’t mean come out fighting, but rather identify and acknowledge the conflict, and work to resolve it. This is true both for conflict within your group, and conflict between the group and others outside it. Far too many people, leaders included, act as if conflict doesn’t exist, because they find it difficult or frightening to deal with. As a result, it only grows worse, and by the time it erupts, it may be nearly impossible to resolve. If it’s faced early, nearly any conflict can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved. It’s a function of leadership to have the courage to name the conflict and work on it. Always look for common ground.
If there’s opposition to what you’re doing, it may only be to one specific part of it, or may be based on misunderstanding. There are few groups or individuals who don’t have some common interests. If you can find those, you may have a basis for solving problems and making it possible for people to work together. Retain your objectivity.
If you’re mediating a conflict within the organization, don’t take sides, even if you think you know one side is right. That will come out if you mediate objectively and well.If you’re faced with detractors or opposition, don’t automatically assume they’re villains. What are their concerns, and why do they disagree with what you’re doing? Don’t get sucked into a fight unless there’s really no alternative. Even rabid opposition can often be overcome through a combination of respect, political pressure, and creative problem solving.
When you do feel you have to fight, pick your battles carefully. Make sure you have the resources – money, political and other allies, volunteer help, whatever you need – to sustain conflict. Battles can advance your cause, or they can kill your initiative once and for all. Don’t get into a fight you have no chance to win. Look for opportunities to collaborate.
This is important both within and outside your group or organization. Within the group, involve as many people as possible in decisions, and make sure they have control over what they do. The more they own their jobs and the organization, the more enthusiastic they’ll be, the more effective the organization will be, and the more effective you’ll be as a leader. Outside the organization, try to forge ties with other organizations and groups. Let them know what you’re doing, get and give support, and work with them to the extent you can. Make common cause with other groups that have similar interests. In numbers, there is strength, and you’ll be stronger as an alliance of groups than any one of you could be individually.
Leaders are human. That’s hardly news, but it means that they come with all the same problems and failings as everyone else. One of the greatest challenges of leadership is facing your own personal issues, and making sure they don’t prevent you from exercising leadership. Acknowledging the attitudes and tendencies that get in your way, and working to overcome them, is absolutely necessary if you’re to become an effective leader. Among the most common personal traits that good leaders have to overcome or keep in check are: * Insecurity. Many people feel, at least some of the time, that they’re not up to the tasks they face. They may even believe that they’re fooling people with their air of competence, when they know they’re really not very capable at all. Insecurity of that sort keeps them from being proactive, from following their vision, from feeling like leaders. It can be crippling to both a leader and her group or organization.
* Defensiveness. Also born of insecurity, defensiveness shows up most often as an inability to take criticism (other people might catch on to the fact that you’re as incompetent as you know you are), and continuing hostility to anyone, even an ally, who voices it. Defensiveness often also includes a stubborn resistance to change ideas, plans, or assumptions, even if they’ve been shown to be ineffective. * Lack of decisiveness. Sometimes it’s hard to make a decision. You never know till later – and sometimes not even then – whether you made the right decision. Maybe if you had a few more facts… The reality is that leaders are called on to make decisions all the time, often with very little time to consider them. It is important to have as much information as possible, but at some point, you just have to make the decision and live with it. Some decisions are reversible, and some are not, but in either case, it’s important to learn to make a decision when necessary and understand that living with the consequences is part of being a leader
* Inability to be direct when there’s a problem. Many people want so badly to be liked, or are so afraid of hurting others, that they find it difficult to say anything negative. They may be reluctant to tell someone he’s not doing his job adequately, for instance, or to address an interpersonal problem. Unfortunately, by letting these things go, they only make them worse, which makes them still harder to address. It’s essential to learn when firmness is necessary, and to learn how to exercise it.
* Inability to be objective. Neither looking at situations through rose-colored glasses nor being always on the edge of hysteria is conducive to effective leadership. Just as objectivity is important in dealing with external issues, it’s important to monitor your own objectivity in general. There’s a difference between being an optimistic individual and being unable to see disaster looming because it’s too painful to contemplate. By the same token, seeing the possible negatives in an apparently positive situation is not the same as being paralyzed by the assumption that calamity lurks around every corner. The inability to accurately identify the positive and negative in any situation and react appropriately can create serious problems.
* Impatience – with others and with situations. It may seem, given the importance of decisiveness and firmness, that patience is not a virtue a leader needs. In fact, it is perhaps the most important trait to develop. Situations do not resolve themselves instantly, and anyone who’s ever been involved in an organization knows that Rule #1 is that everything takes longer than you think it will. People in unfamiliar situations need a while to orient themselves. Leaders who are impatient may make rash decisions, may alienate staff members or volunteers or allies, and can often make situations worse rather than better. It’s hard to be patient, but it’s worth the effort. In addition to character traits that can get in a leader’s way, there are the effects of health and personal crises.
COPING WITH INTERNAL CHALLENGES
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. 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 does change, 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, 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. Perhaps even more threatening than burnout is “burn-down” – the loss of passion and intensity that can come with familiarity and long service. You may still care about what you’re doing, but the enthusiasm just isn’t there anymore.
In many ways, this condition may be even harder to deal with than burnout. At least if you’re burned out, it’s obvious: if you’re burned down, especially if it’s happened over a long period, neither you nor others may have realized it. * Finding support. Cliches often become cliches 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. Create mechanisms to revisit your vision.
Hold occasional meetings and at-least-yearly retreats to discuss vision and renew commitment. These will serve both to review the vision to see if it still resonates (and to rework it if necessary), and to renew your and others’ purpose and pursuit of it. They’ll help to remind you of why you’re doing this in the first place, give you an opportunity to work on group solidarity, and – ideally – leave you feeling refreshed and ready to carry on. Share the burden.
Surround yourself with good people who share your vision. If you can find others who are competent and committed to whom you can delegate some of the tasks of leadership, it will both remove pressure from you, and make your group stronger. One of the greatest mistakes a leader can make is to be threatened by others’ abilities. In fact, sharing responsibility with capable people makes all of you more effective, and strengthens your leadership. Having competent people to depend on also means that you can develop systems and know they’ll work. Organizational maintenance becomes much easier, and you have more time to devote to the actual pursuit of your vision.
Find an individual or group with whom you can discuss the realities of leadership. In many communities, some heads of organizations meet on a regular basis to talk about the difficulties and rewards of their situations with others who truly understand. Some such arrangement can be a valuable hedge against burnout, and can also help you gain insight into how you function as a leader. It can introduce you to alternative ways of doing things, as well as giving you a chance to vent, and to realize you’re not alone. Make sure you have personal time.
The founder and director of a prominent think tank once went seven years without a day off – including Sundays. That’s 2,557 straight days of work. (That includes two leap year days, for those of you doing the math.) Even if that doesn’t cause burnout, it’s not good for your creativity or your understanding of the world. Everything becomes work or related to work: the world holds no other reality, and leadership becomes all you do. In order to maintain perspective and to keep yourself fresh, you need to take time away from being a leader, and away from your organization or initiative. It’s important to have an activity that gets you away from your daily concerns, and to take days off from time to time. Some people meditate every day, others play music regularly, others participate in sports or fitness activities.
Your getaway doesn’t have to be an everyday thing, but it should be something you love and look forward to, and it should be frequent and regular. It may be as simple as taking a walk with your kids for an hour every evening – whatever it is that relaxes your mind and feeds your soul. Rather than detracting from your effectiveness, your time off will increase it. Depending upon how you approach it, leadership can be a hard and lonely road, or an exciting and collaborative trip to a new place. The more, and more useful, strategies you can find to cope with its challenges, the better leader you’ll be.