If I’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s that leadership, and entrepreneurial leadership in particular, is incredibly difficult.
The challenges faced are deceptively simple on the surface, but the solutions are complex and nuanced. There are a myriad of solutions and approaches that can be adopted to cope with these challenges, but they vary from situation to situation.
I’ve found that only one tactic holds true in every single situation: authenticity.
Authenticity requires taking the time to reflect on your personal weaknesses. Everyone has different faults that influence their decisions and behaviours. One of my big weaknesses as a leader is that I tend to be too soft when it comes to dealing with employees and partners.
When it comes to the old “stick or carrot” approach to motivating those around me, I overwhelmingly favour the carrot. I have a deep desire to see my team and partners find success, happiness, and fulfilment in the work we do.
Unfortunately, this approach can cause problems if left unchecked. When a leader tries too hard to be a friend rather than a manager, it becomes almost impossible to make the tough decisions that are right for the business.
Know when to hug and when to kick
One of my favourite books is Jack Welch’s 2001 management treatise “From the Gut.” In it, he talks about how leaders can be both firm and fair. “This isn’t about being tough-minded and straightforward,” says Welch. “That’s the job. But so is sensing when to hug and when to kick.”
I’ve struggled in the department in the past. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I have historically let underperformance and bad behaviours go on too long, only to reach a breaking point and snap.
When this happens, my response seems out of the blue and team members can easily be frustrated or confused. I’ve learned that It is far better to be consistent in your approach, remaining friendly but “kicking” when necessary.
I’m the type of leader that tries to understand the reason behind behaviours or decisions. In trying to understand the whole story, I often inadvertently find myself making excuses for people.
This has resulted in underperformers lingering far longer than they should. I’ve since changed my approach. I still try to understand the circumstances around the situation, but now I’m much better at “hugging” and “kicking” as needed.
Accept that leadership is lonely
I want to be friends with my team members, and that often makes it hard for me to be firm when enforcing expectations. It’s similar to parenting in a sense. As a parent, you love your kid so much that you just want them to be happy and have fun no matter what.
However, you also know that they have to learn responsibility, independence, honour, and honesty. You can’t teach those things by always letting be behaviours slide. Kids need their parents to be parents, not friends.
The same thing goes for teams. Employees need a leader, not a friend. They need someone who will push them, mold them, and help them grow. You can’t do that without being firm. That can be tough for people like me who aren’t authoritarian by nature.
My behaviour with regards to the two employees I mentioned earlier was driven largely by my desire to be their friend. In reality, though, I failed them both as a friend as a manager.
I now realize that a certain amount of distance has to exist between a leader and his or her team members. It is the only way to nurture an environment of high performers.
A delicate balancing act
As with just about everything in life, the key is balance. I realize now that it is possible to be a friendly, genuine, and invested leader while maintaining the distance necessary to manage.
As Jack Welch said, leadership is about knowing when to kick and when to hug. After all, BodeTree is a business, not a social club.
As CEO, I have three priorities inside of the organization. The first is to run a profitable business and create value for my shareholders. My second priority is to help my team members grow, both personally and professionally. Third, I need to foster a culture that is positive and enjoyable for everyone.
To accomplish this balance of priorities, I have to push myself out of my comfort zone and become a more confident and firm leader. I need to be more consistent, hugging when necessary but not afraid to deliver a swift kick to make sure people stay on the right path.
Hopefully, this approach will help ensure that my team remains productive, happy, and committed to personal and professional growth.