I recently finished reading a powerful book called ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ which is a follow up to the number one best selling book ‘Extreme Ownership’ by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors who happen to be highly decorated Navy SEALS share their inspiring and at times scary tales on the battlefield, relating how those experiences blend with real world business and board room leadership challenges.
The book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ struck a cord with me as I’ve struggled over the years with the balancing act which takes place in leadership. This balancing act, or dichotomy, is an ever present daily tug of war often between two extremes which are intrinsically linked yet incredibly challenging to consistently toe the line successfully.
Dichotomy itself is an interesting word rife with conflict. Dichotomy is defined as a contrast between two things that are, or are represented as being, opposed or entirely different. (ie – in leadership there is the push and pull of how friendly you become with your employees – too friendly and you lose their respect and or ability to make tough decisions, whereas not being friendly enough alienates you as a leader and keeps you from knowing your people)
As I’m reading this book one of the dichotomies the authors spoke about which is a consistent challenge for leaders is the contrast between leading and following. There’s a strong misconception in the world of leadership which aligns with the idea that if you’re in a leadership role you must always be leading. Decisions should be made by those in leadership, strategies engineered and dreamed up by those in leadership. This of course is an ego-centric mentality and quite frankly one which is incredibly out of date in todays’ business world. Yet this same idea, leaders must always be leading, permeates every facet of business in most companies we encounter on a daily basis.
My awakening as a result of this book came about as a result of my own shortcomings, and yes ego, as a leader. I too thought, “As a leader it’s up to me to decide the direction we’re taking and therefore the decisions we’re making.” Unfortunately this thought process is incredibly short sided.
The true nature of a good leader, as the book artfully describes, is a person who understands they can be in a leadership role and simultaneously lead while following. Sounds strange at first yet it’s possible, more importantly it’s highly impactful in an organization. The act of a leader willingly following sends a powerful message to the leaders team and company that they are out to do what is best and necessary for the greater good, not just themselves as the leader.
Here’s how following as a leader plays out.
A CEO of XYZ company has a tough decision to make when it comes to the direction of her company and the potential new markets they’re looking to develop. Traditional leadership has dictated the senior most person, often times the CEO, makes the decisions for the company. They may collect information from their subordinates on options or alternatives to consider however the senior most leader is the one to make the decision based on as their position and respective authority demands they be the one to blaze the path forward.
However, a leader who possesses the ability to balance the dichotomy of leading and following can recognize that while they are in a leadership seat it doesn’t mean they always must be leading. Sometimes following can produce more impactful results. It also means these leaders are able to recognize their ego and set it aside for the betterment of the company.
Going back to our CEO of XYZ company, as she’s considering where to take the company into the future she may get advice from an employee in the company which provides a great opportunity for growth and future success. Leaders who are successful in balancing leading and following would then lean on that employee to drive said initiative recognizing what’s important isn’t where the good idea comes from just that it is implemented successfully. Our leader, rather than leading, makes a conscious decision to follow and allows the employee to step up with their idea and help lead the company through it. They empower the other person while giving them an opportunity to shine. The leader, in this case our CEO, allows their employee to receive the credit for the idea while also helping them to get it up and running. Our CEO is now following and doing so because they know this decision is what is best for the business.
Key Take Away:
One of the most challenging things to balance as a leader is knowing when to lead versus when to following. Leaders who lead all the time lose sight of what is best for their company while also struggling with humility to give others the opportunity to shine. When we step aside and follow as a leader we encourage others to deploy their ideas while creating a vacuum for our employees and peers to step up, offer suggestions while increasing their likelihood to take additional ownership in their work. Leaders must recognize their ego drives many of their decisions and actions, one of the best decisions we can make is acknowledge our ego and set it aside to make room for others to take the wheel while we encourage them to do so.
If you struggle with the balancing act which comes with leadership, in particular the area of ‘leading versus following’ I highly suggest picking up the book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ by Willink and Babin. The nuggets of knowledge, insight and real world practical examples these two authors share more than once will open your eyes to new and alternative approaches to successful leadership.
Leadership is one of the hardest things a person can do professionally. There’s no manual, no playbook, no cliff notes that give leaders the ‘secret sauce’ to successfully lead the charge. Sure there are thousands of avenues one could go to learn more about leadership however at the end of the day it’s still a job that mainly rests on intangible actions like care, empathy, intuition and respect for the very people leaders serve.
Leading is often described as a lonely experience. Elisabeth Elliott, a famous author, speaker and missionary once said “Loneliness is a required course for leadership.” The feeling of loneliness at the top is much more common than most of us realize as more than 50% of leaders indicate they have experienced loneliness at one point or another in their career. The stats are even higher for first time leaders at a whopping 70%.
When leaders experience solitary the impacts can be devastating. Isolation and loneliness have a direct negative affect on a leaders’ performance which then directly impacts their employees, departments, business units and companies.
How is it then leaders find themselves down in the dumps on lonely island? Some of the most common causes are:
1. Forced Isolation- Leaders seclude themselves from the rest of the group by working in an office which can create imaginary barriers between them and their staff. Closing the door actually creates a real barrier that communicates “I’m not available and don’t have time for you”. Regardless if this isolation was intentional or unintentional it produces the same results where the leaders’ staff hesitate to communicate with their boss, or not at all.
2. Decision Making- In most businesses decision making is typically left to the people carrying the torch. When decisions go well all is good in the world yet when decisions produce less then spectacular results the leader is left out in the cold to take the brunt of the responsibility. It’s part of the job but it can also produce isolation at a whole new level which isn’t typically understood or felt by the company’s employees.
3. Don’t Ask For Help- Many times isolation is self-inflicted as leaders don’t ask for help from their teams or peers. There’s an unspoken feeling for many leaders which goes something like, “they expect me to know everything because that’s what I get paid for and why I’m in the job”. Thoughts like this can be incredibly damaging and certainly have no justifiable basis for being correct or healthy.
4. Lack Humility- When leaders act in a way which broadcasts ‘I’m more important than you because I’m in a leadership role’ employees quickly disengage, refraining from putting effort in to build relationships with their leaders or working hard on their behalf. When leaders act this way many times it can be attributed to ego or overcompensating for a lack of confidence.
5. Poor Treatment of Others- One of the quickest ways a leader can find themselves on lonely island is by treating their employees or staff in a poor manner. They lack emotional intelligence. (EQ) When employees feel like they aren’t valued or respected they withdraw which commonly leads to limited interaction and feedback with leadership. The result is a drift occurs in the organization between what leadership wants and what employees are doing.
Let’s be clear here, we aren’t about to throw a pity party for our leaders. They’re grown ups right, big boys and big girls who have made the choice to enter leadership on their own accord. So if they’re feeling isolated or lonely than it’s by their own doing, right?
While we’d all love to think the statement above is accurate the reality is that employees do in fact have some ownership in the leadership isolation situation. Employees have a unique ability to see things their leaders don’t, hear things their leaders don’t and help in situations where their leaders would otherwise be clueless about.
These five options when implemented help to foster an environment of support and mutual respect, one in which both leader and employee benefits from:
When leaders and employees work together and support one another it significantly reduces the likelihood people of any kind will experience isolation.
“There is no respect for others without humility in one's self.” - Henri Frederic Amiel
Key Take Away:
If you’re feeling lonely as a leader chances are it’s a result of your own doing. Sorry to hit you with the brutal honesty. Loneliness in leadership impacts more people than just yourself. One of the best ways to overcome it is to join a peer group or get a leadership mentor/ coach.
Feeling like you’re on lonely island right about now? Select two people from your company, one of which needs to be a direct report, and ask them for their candid feedback. Start by telling them how you’re feeling and your desire to do something about it. Get vulnerable and ask for their help while creating an environment where people feel comfortable telling you how they perceive you and your presence as a leader. After you receive the feedback – SHUT UP! Don’t argue about it, don’t disagree. Just listen, observe and take it all in. Thank the person for their feedback and take the rest of the day to smolder on it. With time and patience, you will begin to open yourself up to hearing other people’s perspectives while learning how to take their words and incorporate it into a new you. Now, go get em, champ!
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.