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The Double-Edged Sword of Leadership


Oh, to be a leader. Many folks aspire to the position. Even for those who state unequivocally that they DON’T wish to be a leader they often stand in awe and admiration of those who are in the role.  

There are reasons for this allure. Leadership often seems to garner respect. It comes with a title. In a world that values pecking order, leaders are at the top. And our world often shows it’s value of leadership with increased remuneration -- in whatever small measure that might be (in other words, those who hold the title often get paid more, at least to some degree).  

The flip side -- the side that has folks shy away from leadership -- is increased responsibility, expectations held by others, and the conflict between personal and professional obligations. These three in combination can be enough to turn folks off leadership for good. 

There is a way to navigate the challenge, however, even while you embrace the perks. It boils down to remembering and working with some key points. 

  1. True leadership is not about the title -- never has been and never will be. Leadership is about being willing and able to see what’s needed and providing direction and support for folks so that what is needed gets done. When you understand this, you will understand that sometimes folks with the title excel at leadership, and sometimes they fail miserably (usually because they get stuck on the title and forget the actual responsibilities that are theirs to hold).

  2. If you’re going to hold the title, you’ve got to be willing to accept responsibility. And you’ve got to be accountable to those whom you lead. You’ve got to be available, you’ve got to be a model of what you yourself expect from others, and you’ve got to be willing to do the icky stuff. It really isn’t “do as I say” -- it’s absolutely, “do as I do.”

  3. There’s a subtle art to delegation. Successful leaders delegate, for sure. And, they do not delegate the stuff that’s tough, or the stuff they don’t like. They delegate the tasks that can effectively be done by others, without abdicating the responsibilities they hold as leader. (See point #2).

  4. You’ve got to practice what you preach. If you expound upon the value of family, or the value of self-care, for example -- you better make darn sure that you are making time for those same values, showing those around you what honouring those values looks like.

  5. Remember that there is a difference between LEADING people and MANAGING them. Yes, there are circumstances in which management is necessary. And, it’s not the same as leadership. Managing is very task-oriented; leadership is people oriented. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must know and understand the difference between these concepts and not use them interchangeably (because they’re not interchangeable).

  6. Don’t fall prey to the expectation trap. Yes, folks will have expectations of you; your job is to manage those expectations (this is where management is necessary). Just because someone EXPECTS you to be at their beck and call, doesn’t mean you allow that expectation to guide your actions. It’s imperative that you consider the rationale for the expectation, ask yourself what is actually required of you, what will serve, and act from there. And (and this may be the most important piece when it comes to expectations) provide context for your actions. Don’t leave people guessing or otherwise wondering what you’re up to or if you care. Provide explanation, without getting defensive. This is another way of holding yourself accountable.

  7. Set clear boundaries (see last week’s article) and be available to your stakeholders within the frame of those boundaries. Know when you will and will not respond to messages (and always make sure that you DO respond to messages). Establish what your open-door policy looks like. Check-in with folks and be a visible presence, even as you take care of the tasks that are yours to do.

Bottom-line: if you want to hold the title, you’ve got to be willing to hold the responsibility. And if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to know how to navigate the tug-of-war between being present for your stakeholders and present for yourself. Sacrificing your life on the altar of your leadership does not make you an effective leader; it makes you someone who’s on the road to burnout.