Keeping things together (or not): Leadership in the face of adversity

Life hard at times. The edges are messy and there are things that just creep in from the sides. It can be all sorts of woes that want to sneak in from family dramas to difficult coworkers, money troubles, sickness, death and so forth. Leadership in the face of these situations is hard.

Yep, life is a pretty ol’ messy thing.

When we are in positions of leadership, and please note I didn’t say authority, it can feel like we need to be the “together person” that has the answers. I’ve never met anyone who was truly a leader that hasn’t confronted this in some capacity.

When you are in leadership positions you want the team and the people you support to flourish. You want to help them grow and if something “not right” is happening be the one of the people who stands in the gap for them.

It is natural. The moment you give a damn, you cannot pretend not to care.

Sometimes we think the role of the leader, the coach and mentor is to have all the answers, to know the right thing to say and to make the difference. This at times feels like you are being forced to put on something that resembles the English stiff upper lip. The problem with this is the falsity of the stance.

People aren’t silly, they can smell fake from 1000 miles off. If they think for a second you are just putting on a show, you have lost them. They will not come to you and they will not trust you. You help no one. You sound like a gong banging on in the wind, right words, no heart.

There is another way, that is a lot more honest.

Be vulnerable and genuine

Be willing to share the fears you face. If you have doubts, don’t hide them, lean in. We are all human. We all have messy edges and sometimes those experiences will help you connect better than any “stiff upper lip” garbage. I’m not saying deport yourself in a way that crosses boundaries, just be willing to open up from your side of the fence too.

Listen, just listen

We’ve all heard it, but practice reflective listening and really hear what the person is saying. Don’t try to solve the problem. My experience is that most people have at least some of the answers they need. Just listening can bring them along.

Seek help when needed

Three of the most powerful words are “I don’t know”. It is worth practicing them. Ask for outside advice when you need it. Be open about not having the answers. It will create more trust than pretense ever can.

Don’t be a rock, be a person

It is OK to have it all together. You can be the chill guy that has it together in the crisis, but you don’t always have to be. If you are having an off day, be willing to call your day for what it is. Letting your team see the battle wounds will let them know, they too can be human. I’m not say let it all hang out, just let your team in and be honest.

Forgive yourself

You are going to have shocking days. 100% guaranteed. When you do, be willing to forgive yourself for them. Don’t spend time in self-flagellation, learn and move on. It is perfectly OK not to have it together, it is not OK to live there. Forgiving yourself your humanity is the surest way I know to move forward.

Build leadership in your team

Finally, when it all goes to hell in a hand-basket, you aren’t alone. If you are truly leading and building those around you, your team will also reward you in kind. That investment you made in them will pay dividends. Trust your team and work together to pull through. It is amazing what you can do together.

Leadership is never about a position, it is about who is willing to follow you. It is even better when you help build team members you would willingly follow to hell and back as well.

You don’t need to keep it together. You are trying though to build a team who will stand together and get the job done.