LEADERSHIP IS A LIFELONG PRACTICE (PART I)
Updated: Jun 17
I never cared about money or fame, and I don’t care now. I follow the groove, and money always follows.
— Quincy Jones
I see myself as a leader. I could say that I like to lead. But I think it would be more accurate to say that I like to be followed. A lot.
For too long my fragile ego has depended on the loyalty of others. I have tried in vain to please bosses, shareholders, employees, clients, partners, and win them over. Tried to meet their incredibly high standards and exceed their expectations. This has plagued me for years. And made my life rather unpleasant. It’s exhausting trying to make everyone happy.
So I’m giving up.
Instead, I’m falling back in love with leading. With the actual craft. And not the disease of fortune and fame. I’m kicking my lust for power. There, I said it. I’ve got an addiction — I’m powerless against power. But not anymore. I’m changing, turning over a new leaf, and learning to lead for the right reasons again.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
It’s 8.00 PM on Sunday. I usually take this precious time to plan my schedule for the coming week. My second child Alex comes to my desk and asks me to help him with his Math homework. He’s in Primary Five. Slightly annoyed, I tell him to sit quietly next to me and only consult me if he gets stuck. I’m not happy with the invasion of privacy, but I want to be a good mum.
“Mum… I don’t know how to answer this question. Can you help me?”, Alex pipes up. “Sure, darling”, I reply. I stop my work, give him the answer, and get straight back to my work. Just leave me in peace.
“Mum… I don’t know how to answer this question. Can you help me?”, Alex pipes up again. This is really testing my patience. “Sure, darling”, gritting my teeth. I give him the answer, and get back to my work. Pleeease, just leave me in peace.
“Mum…. ”, Alex pipes up again. It dawns on me who is doing Alex’s homework Not Alex. Obviously. Alex wasn’t even trying; he was just waiting for me to tell him exactly what to write. I blow up at him: “This is not fair! Why can’t you do it yourself?!!”
“I really can’t do it. I’m not good at Math”, Alex says, with his big innocent eyes.
This was not the first time Alex was asking me for help. I’ve been helping him with his Math homework since he was Primary Three. He would approach me at the last minute: right before bedtime. I’d be so knackered at the end of the day that I just dictated the answers to him. I had no patience to teach him “by first principle”. I just wanted it over and done with. Chop chop lollipop. Which suited Alex just fine. Over two years, this had become a finely tuned habit.
I have often found myself in similar situations at work. Organisational psychologists have a term for this: learned helplessness. People will come to me with their pressing problems, venting their frustrations. I can’t do it. Even though my plate is already full, I will grit my teeth, put on my Dalai Lama smile, and fix it for them. It doesn’t stop there. It happens again and again. I end up with a situation where people are frustrated and venting, no one grows, some regress, and I’m overwhelmed.
I carry around a beautiful red backpack. “Oh, you can’t do it? Let me fix it”, and pop it goes into my gorgeous backpack. And I keep filling it. I know how nonsensical this looks as I’m writing it. So why keep doing it? When faced with challenging deadlines or irate customers screaming for blood due to a screw-up — when failure is simply not an option — it’s next to impossible not to get involved. Or maybe deep down it makes me feel good: I’m such a hero.
I nitpick at people’s work: “This is not good enough. Move aside, let me do it properly.” But each time the backpack weighs a little more until one day it becomes too much. My teeth are gritted out. The power bitch fully emerges, “Why can’t you do this yourself?!!” And marching orders ensue.
In an ideal world, I’ll be 100% focused on developing people. I’ll be the poster child of enlightened leadership, promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment. I’ll be a paragon of virtue, exercising godly patience and divine wisdom.
But too many times I’ve fallen into the trap of wielding power instead of transforming people. I feel like a schizophrenic sometimes. One minute I’m a coach acknowledging great work, the next minute I’m a military dictator barking orders.
People say “There’s no such thing as an ugly girl, just a lazy one.” And I believed it to be true for leadership, too. There’s no such thing as a lousy leader. Not getting what you want? Buck up, sister! Grit your teeth and double your efforts. Work harder. Go on a charm offensive. Cajole them, encourage them, do whatever it takes to win them over. But no one tells you that hard work can have the opposite effect. What do you call someone who tries too hard? Desperado. Instead of attracting people, you repel them.
I’ve been working too hard, not getting the results that I want. I keep hitting my head against the wall. I’m tired, I’m grumpy. I’m prickly, over-sensitive, and prone to violent outbursts of anger. Almost everything is taken personally. During a crisis, I become a ticking time-bomb, one small slight and I fly into a great rage, puffed up with a sense of indignation and entitlement.
Some of my closest allies call me “intense”. They are being nice, I think what they’re really saying is “psycho”. One day I’m sugar and spice, and all things nice. The next day, I’m throwing a diva-sized tantrum, micro-managing everything and everyone. Erratic and volatile. Mercurial. Short-tempered. Not really a person you’d like to hang out with. There’s just no disguising my lack of leadership gravitas. I’m more like a petulant child, throwing tantrums when she can’t get what she wants. I’m ashamed of it, it’s unbecoming, and I’m going to brush it out. Detox it out. You simply can’t have it.
WHY WE LEAD
This book is an outstretched hand to other leaders who feel this same tension between people and performance. Between doing what is right and what is popular. Leaders who feel the burden of trying to be all things to all people. This is a clarion call for all of us to start leading for the right reasons.
This is the first and only lesson every leader must learn: Real leaders don’t lead for fame, fortune and powerful friends. They do it because they cannot not lead.
When you ask them, “Why do you want to be a CEO?” At first, the answer will be very rational: to solve a world problem, to close the gender gap, or simply, to get a return on investment on my MBA. But those are not the real reasons.
The truth is: they simply can’t not do it. They can’t imagine doing anything else. There are a thousand good reasons not to do it, but only one to. And they have to. It’s hard to explain this without sounding impulsive or whimsical. It’s not rational.
But by their gifts, and under the authority of a higher calling, they are compelled to lead. They are taken over by a force greater than themselves, against their rational judgment.
To see a world full of possibilities.
To connect more deeply with people.
To take courageous action.
But most importantly, to empower people to bring their game to the next level. They sense the potential in others and want to do what they can to unleash it and help them achieve their dreams.
Real leaders are bold. They are ambitious. But their ambitions are not self-serving. Rather, they feel personally responsible for making the world a better place. They have the imagination to conjure up a vision of a better future, and they are relentless in turning it into reality. Real leaders wake up every morning feeling: “There’s something bigger I’m meant to do”.
Even if they can’t yet articulate it.
Under immense pressure from all sides, when it is so tempting to call it quits, they discipline themselves to persevere. Questions of how long or how much is irrelevant. What is imperative, what cannot be emphasised enough or belaboured upon, is that they persevere.
As leaders, they are called to work each day to chart the right course, rally the team down the rabbit hole, and make corrections when they inevitably fail. The little voice in their head says: You must not be afraid of it. You must accept it, just as you accept the weather.
It is natural, of course, this desire to be admired. To be acknowledged as a force that changes the world. But ultimately it corrupts the art — the pure craft of leading. It becomes an addiction, we become power-hungry. We develop a rather nasty narcissistic streak. We feel terribly superior to others and come across as ambitious, competitive and overbearing.
From my own experience, this comes from a place of deep insecurity. Maybe it’s because I never got enough attention from my hardworking Chinese parents. They were simply never around, they were too busy working. And it wasn’t much better when they were around. Dad was constantly testing our limits. Just ran five kilometres? Do one more. Whatever we did, it was never good enough. There was no acknowledgement, no pat on the back. It’s not good enough. He always expected more. Mum’s a super-achiever, too. Managing Director of a pharmaceutical company. First in the family to get a university degree, beating the boys to it. “Be independent”, mum drilled into me since I was young. Do it yourself, because you can’t depend on others.
Suffering is a way of life. Stoicism is a given, to be worn proudly. We’re made from hardcore gritty Chinese immigrant stock. It’s in our blood.
As a kid, I learnt how to present a more confident and happy face to the world than how I actually felt. It neatly covered up the gaping inner emptiness and low self-esteem. I became a master at attracting more than my fair share of attention and hogging more of the limelight from others. I studied hard and achieved straight-A’s. I went into competitive swimming and won medals and trophies. Externally, I looked like the model student, but underneath the surface, I was becoming dangerously addicted to the hits of attention I receive from these badges of honour. It feels sooooo good…. I feel whole and worthy. It’s like I’m shouting out to the world: I’m the best. (And you’re not.)
Unlike teen acne, I didn’t grow out of this narcissistic streak. Instead, it grew bigger. And more dangerously sophisticated.
As an adult, I say that I love making others happy. I listen to people with empathy and want to provide support. To be a good wife. To be a good mother. To be a good boss. But really, it boils down to control. I’m personally in charge. You’re going to drop the ball, and I have to be the responsible one here. I’m compelled not by the need to connect with people but by the need to control and manipulate them. In my control-freak mind, people are like things: to control, manage and carrot-and-stick in order to achieve my objective. To acquire another badge of honour. It’s fake empathy, finely-honed over decades.
Well, I’m not the only one. I have studied leaders for a long time, remember? You can see an impatient or distant look on their faces whenever you talk about something that does not directly involve them or their goals in some way. They immediately turn the conversation back to themselves.
And apparently, it’s quite normal. Neuroscience research has shown that power does very specific things to our human brains. People who get into senior leadership positions are “goal-focused”. They think of people not as humans, but as objects or concepts, to achieve their goals. Like light bulbs. Blown one? Replace it with another. More like target fixation, at all cost. This is great if you need to restructure and let people go. But it’s not so great when you steamroll over people and don’t care about what they feel.
So, I’ve got to stop terrorising people with my insecurities before karma returns and bites me in the ass for my childishness and selfishness. I must put these ideas of fame and fortune to death. They have no place in the act of leadership. The true leader simply shows up. Ready to do the work. They walk the talk. They create a safe place where everyone at every level is seen as a leader. Everyone plays a part. Every part is significant. The true test of leadership is when everyone else feels they are in charge.
Stop your manipulative meanderings and pay deeper attention to people. Reverse your normal impulse to pontificate and give your opinion on everything. Instead of indulging in the sound of your voice, hear out the other person’s point of view. Be curious about what motivates them, enter their world and value system, and really be excited for them. You have to love people’s success. You have to love giving people promotions. You have to be turned on giving big fat bonuses. It has to make you feel great, and not “I gave him a bonus, but I didn’t get one that big.” Erase those egotistical shortcomings out of your psyche and get over them as quickly as possible. Brush out that peccadillo and come clean with your ego.
Understanding another person’s thinking and feeling is a very active task. The greatest mistake megalomaniacs like me make is thinking we really understand people and be too quick to judge and categorise them. I’ve got you figured out. We lack the humility to accept that we can never know exactly what people are thinking, no matter how close they are to us. People are more complex than we imagine. People are like the cosmic universe, the final frontier. They are strange new worlds waiting to be explored.
Whether we are successful or acknowledged is not important. Empowering people is our primary concern.
This article is part of a book I’m writing titled Dancing At The Edge Of Greatness: In Pursuit of the Joy of Leadership. I would love to hear your comments on what resonated with you and where I can make things better.
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