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Leadership: Game of Empathy


Leadership in any field or organization (professional or otherwise) is challenging.

It is over-glorified in film and literature. We raise heads of state, celebrities, or sports stars to messiah-like status. Their capacity for failure is the driving force for their stories because it allows heroic success. Deep down, we know this. Why else would we tend to adore the scoundrels and brigands that exhibit leadership qualities? Whether it be swashbuckling pirates or gunslinging quarterbacks, they are the stuff of modern legend.

We can relate to them. Their fallibility is something most of us know all too well. Whether it be an absent-minded mistake, failure to hold back an emotionally-charged tongue, or just plain ignorance, we have all been there.

Leadership is commonly associated with accountability, especially in critical moments when the impact of an erroneous decision is considerably more significant than it would otherwise be under normal circumstances. Again, if we turn to the silver screen or published works, leaders are often depicted as the bearer of the decisions that shape the story's path. Some stories demonstrate a seasoned leader passing the torch (often via their demise) to a young maverick built from youthful naivety and bursting with as-of-yet unshaped potential.

In several hundred pages or two hours of screen time, this rising star transcends the realistic years of experience, failure, and hardening to emerge as the new leader. While this is entertaining, romantic, and inspiring, it isn't the reality.

Leadership isn't necessarily a measure of age. There are many examples of outstanding young leaders. It is about providing value to more than just yourself, your desires, and your direction. You have to think of every team member. You may even have to think about every person with whom each team member comes into contact. Leadership can extend beyond your ranges of authority and influence.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that the universe wastes nothing. When we accomplish a task as a team, the efforts of the weakest link of that team are just as valuable as the strongest's if those efforts are more meaningful than the distance beyond which we have crossed the line of achievement.

It is more than hard decisions that guide the direction and limit the blast radius. Leadership is about driving the objectives of each part of the whole. We must accommodate the experience and conviction of veteran members of our teams and the deer-like novelty of junior partners. We must accommodate strong and timid personalities, balancing their statements, actions, and opinions to carry equal weight among their peers. We have to strive for fairness to build camaraderie. We must understand and respect differences or boundaries to build trust and respect. Yet, even harder, we sometimes have to toe the line of those boundaries to provide a challenge, motivate, and yield results.

We must find humility in our own mistakes. We must admit them quickly and deliver atonement with greater visibility than those we coach or manage. We are a proxy for our success, passing it on to each of our team members. Conversely, we are a filter for failure, placing accountability on our shoulders while allowing through only the care and feeding necessary for our teams to grow and learn.

We must swallow our pride and hold our emotions at bay when disagreements occur. We must find a way to deliver a message with the proper tone, respectfully, and openly. We must find ways to manage conflicts so that differences of opinions and ideas can become strengths rather than internal strife. We should foster multi-dimensionality and healthy discussion versus extinguishing flames that scatter creativity and passion.

We must approach the beginning of each day as the potential for growth, accomplishment, and meeting new challenges. If we wake to rain, let us seek an opportunity to evade its drops rather than worry about whether or not we will get wet. We must end each day with a pause to our efforts rather than flight as if to vow to the day's challenges "we shall meet again tomorrow!".

Leadership is about more than just bearing the weight of your team. If we perform all the work and horde all the challenges, we rob them of their growth and exposure. While we may be the first to ride towards a challenge, we must find ways to inspire all of them to pursue and experience the challenge together. When a member stumbles, it is our responsibility to help them back up.

Leadership is also about loss. Sometimes we must make sacrifices to bring our efforts across the line to completion. We are the first ones to make those sacrifices. We are the ones who stay after hours, come in on weekends, and put vacations on hold to make sure that the team has dotted its i's, crossed its t's, and achieved the required result. There will be times when we have to answer for loss or failure. Our responsibility to our team sometimes comes at a loss to our personal lives. In many cases, we are likewise a part of a team, and we must answer for the failures and losses within that team. We have to ensure that we hold ourselves accountable.

The hardest of moments are those when we recognize that a member of our team, for whatever reason, is incapable of contributing in a consistent way to allow our team to meet our requirements. We must coach with compassion and dignity. We must also know when coaching and support have been exhausted without success. We must approach hard conversations empathetically and ensure an exit is as respectful and humane as the initial entrance. It is not the end. No matter the separation's terms, we must find a way to approach the circumstance with a silver lining. People change. They can improve skill sets, become more mature, and, most of all, evolve into contributing team members. Our mistakes only define us if we allow them.

Leadership is also about recognizing talent. It is about being able to distinguish between the potential of candidates. Not only do we have to identify when a particular candidate has the relevant skills to fuel the engine of productivity we strive to be, but we have to determine if they also possess valuable soft skills and personality characteristics to drive growth and improvement. How well will they communicate? Are they so similar to the other team members that they will be redundant? Are they so different from the other team members that it will result in considerable conflict?

The reality of leadership is that it often comes with something other than the glory portrayed in books and movies. Good leaders find solace and accomplishment in the productivity and fellowship of their teams, leaving the glory to fuel their members.

I once read an article that analogized leadership to a chess match, where leaders deserved the fanfare for deftly leveraging the skills and capabilities of each chess piece. I agree with the responsibilities of the leader to manage and leverage the characteristics of a team, but my reaction remains the same today:

Without the pieces, we have no game.