Leadership Caffeine—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Know When to Assert Yourself

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

There are points in time when the only right choice is to assert and dictate direction or a decision. In those crucible moments for firms and teams, the failure of a leader to assert is the height of malpractice and irresponsibility.

From critical strategic choices to decisions on talent, teams and execution, there are times when the kinder, gentler form of participatory leadership just doesn’t cut it. This is a difficult topic for those who ascribe to a softer style of leading, Yes, I applaud your daily repression of the command and control style in favor of a more participatory and consensus driven approach. However, when timeliness is of the essence and lives or jobs are on the line, you must step-up, step-in and assert yourself.

I’ve encountered too many well-intended but misguided leaders who through their slow-to-act approaches have squandered opportunities, opened the door for competitors and caused damage to their own careers. In polling these leaders post-crisis (in many cases, years later), what I consistently heard was some form of, I truly expected my directs to suspend their own views and come together as a group around what was right for the organization in that time of crisis. The fact that they didn’t is disappointing.

The only person this leader should be disappointed in is the one staring back at them in the mirror.

I would like to live in that world where people in groups suspended their own personal views and interests in the name of some form of corporate, arm-linking kumbaya focused on the greater good. And while it happens in some circumstances, in 30+ years of navigating corporate hallways and boardrooms through all manner of crises, I’ve learned not to hold my breath waiting for that momentary alignment to emerge on its own. Strong leadership for key directional decisions is essential for unifying people’s hearts, minds and actions.

Your job in crisis situations is to catalyze action along a clear vector. You’re the compass…you determine the vector and your approach to the crisis situation will either help people shake off fear and the resultant paralysis or, you’ll be the cause of chronic running in place.

Don’t wait for perfect clarity to emerge before you decide. It never does. Your leadership must bring clarity to others. Once the team begins moving, you can tweak the course as the fog lifts.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Once you’ve successfully led the team through the storm, you can return to your regularly scheduled style of soft leadership. In the meantime, assert yourself, darn it! Your team, your firm and your career depend upon it.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Humility and the Effective Leader

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

The most effective leaders I know are simultaneously courageous and humble in the face of ambiguity and adversity.

Courage as we all know is essential for facing and making the tough decisions demanded in difficult situations. I referenced this attribute in my recent post, Leading into the Fog.

A healthy grounding of humility serves as a powerful check and balance influence that helps effective leaders fight the pressure to make rash decisions in the drive to be perceived as omniscient.

There’s a very real…and very dangerous pressure in many organizations for those in charge to appear all-knowing and all-confident. This pressure is a catalyst to rash and poor decisions that exacerbate already difficult situations. After all, no CEO wants to appear weak in front of her board and no manager wants to appear as if he doesn’t know what to do in front of his team or boss. The pressure to avoid being perceived as weak or uncertain invites individuals to portray a false sense of confidence and to act around misguided quick-fix thinking.

There are no quick fixes in business. Not for a strategy problem, a revenue problem, a competitive problem, a quality problem or a talent problem. They are sticky, wicked, complicated issues where solutions emerge in iterative fashion of try, fail, learn, improve… . You have nothing to gain by suggesting you have all of the answers.

Please don’t confuse my use of the notion of humility as anything that suggests weakness. Rather, I view the trait of humility as an attribute of a strong leader. Humility allows the leader to clearly understand the situation and to have realistic context for the implications, risks and challenges. It also allows this leader to comfortably seek and accept help.

The effective leader is a realist who understands that he/she is responsible for the choices to move beyond the present circumstances. This leader draws upon the ideas, insights and approaches of the best minds on the team. It takes true inner strength to both acknowledge that you don’t have all of the answers and that you and the team will be better off if you seek and accept input from those around you.

Developing Your Own Leadership Style:

We all cultivate our own leadership styles and approaches over time and based on experience. With the benefit of age and experience, I’ve long concluded that I’m stronger and more effective by drawing upon and engaging others for the most vexing challenges. It’s difficult at times to resist asserting on an issue that seems straightforward or feels familiar. It’s easy to dictate..but it is most often right to hold back and support the discovery and learning of others. Often, the solution the team develops turns out to be superior to the one that worked historically.

At the end of the day, the art of leading and managing effectively is knowing which decisions you can outsource and which you and you alone must be accountable for. Don’t shirk your responsibility to make decisions that enable action. Just don’t confuse this with the need to make all of the decisions.

In situations where the pressure is on from above and below, it’s fine and necessary to portray a strong sense of confidence that you and your team will find the way forward. Those above you want to know that you’re moving forward and those around you want to be part of the work. Just resist the temptation to put it all on your shoulders. That’s not leading, it’s dumb.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Delusional leaders who have worked to convince everyone around them that they have all of the answers have a tendency to begin believing their own dogma. These individuals are dangerous to a firm’s health. Instead of feeling the pressure to act like a superman or superwoman in corporate clothing, try recognizing that the super people around you have the critical pieces to most business puzzles. All you need to do is invite them to get involved with developing the solution.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Leading into the Fog

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

“A core capacity of leadership is the ability to make the right decisions while flying blind, basing them on knowledge, wisdom and the ability to stay wedded to an overriding goal.” –Warren Bennis as quoted in Onward by Howard Schultz

It’s the challenging times that build your leadership character.

Almost anyone and any team can prosper during rising tide situations…a hot economy, a regulatory change that acts as a boon to an industry or, even a hot product that for a moment catches competitors off guard. Certainly, it takes good management and leadership to exploit those opportunities, but the work of leading in these fortunate circumstances is different than the work of navigating the troubled waters of crisis.

During the rising tide situations, the game is simplified…the way forward is clear and the challenges defined. Exploit the opportunity; move fast to deliver more; execute, execute, execute.

It’s when conditions change that the view ahead becomes one giant fog bank and leading suddenly turns difficult. As mentioned in my recent Art of Managing post, “Steering Clear of Flail and Fail,” our tendency as times turn challenging is to overreact. We engage in the undisciplined pursuit of more (Jim Collins) in the naïve hope that something will work and return us to the bliss point of easy days and restful nights… those times where the planets align and all of the indicators point in the right direction and we can congratulate ourselves on our brilliance.

I love the quote from Bennis at the top of this article, because it so succinctly and powerfully captures the truth about the real job of a leader: guiding the firm and team through the fog and safely beyond peril.

Effective leaders understand that there’s no easy way out of a crisis. There are no silver bullets, no sure-fire strategy templates and no programs, courses or approaches that replace the hard work of navigating ambiguity. Someone has to stand up and point and say, “This way.”

The history of the world and the history of modern management are filled with examples to learn from. Facing extreme uncertainty and miserable weather that blew up most of the plans for supporting the troops in the invasion of Normandy in World War II, General Eisenhower sought the input of his best advisors. They were split on whether to go or not given the weather and the inherent risks to the entire operation and thousands of lives. We’ll go,” he uttered, after staring out the window into the fog and darkness, knowing that many would die and success was far from guaranteed. The moment had arrived.

While less fateful in terms of human lives, but incredibly impactful in terms of the business and livelihood of thousands, Howard Schultz, the newly returned CEO of struggling Starbucks made a series of decisions that were contrary to the advice of the critics, analysts and pundits during the 2008 downturn. Anchored with the conviction that he could not compromise when it came to serving his partners (employees), his customers and guided by his overarching belief in the good that his firm provided to millions, he did what he believed was right and he and the team persevered. He retained healthcare for part-time employees, shut down the chain for a day of much needed Barista training, took 10,000 of his store managers to New Orleans to rediscover their passion and help a struggling community and said “No!” to the cry to cut quality and take short-cuts in the name of profits.

Schultz effectively employed Eisenhower’s “We’ll go” which in his one word rallying cry, was “Onward.” The decisions rallied the firm and galvanized his top leaders to fight harder and the push to innovate when others said, “cut” paid off. Eventually. Results are never immediate and wise crisis leaders know that things get worse until they turn towards better.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While most of our own experiences in leading won’t make the history books or become the stuff of business legend, they are no less significant in our own lives and for the lives and welfare of those around us. The way forward is murkiest just at the point where we need to choose a path and then lead into the fog, uncertain of outcome or success. Focus on the bigger issues…the ability of you and your coworkers to continue working on fulfilling a noble mission or on preserving the welfare of those who depend upon you and your firm. And importantly, recognize that everything in your past as a leader and as a professional was simply practice for the journey ahead.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Your Critical Personal Performance Questions

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

An early career mentor offered this comment and it has been with me in one form or another throughout my career: “If you’re sleeping through the night, you’re not thinking hard enough about your job and career and you’re definitely not asking yourself the tough questions.”

While I encourage a full night’s rest…we all need quality sleep to perform at our best, the second half of his advice on asking (and answering) the tough questions of ourselves is spot on. From CEOs to smart functional managers and senior leaders, we often get sucked into the operational vortex of our jobs and we forestall asking and answering the big questions on direction, people and about our own personal/professional well-being.

There are convenient excuses we use to keep from attacking all three of those categories.

  • People issues are sticky and they involve emotions, and when the emotions might be negative, we tend to move in the other direction.
  • Issues of direction…a change in strategy, investing in new offerings or changing long-standing processes, are by nature ambiguous and therefore perceived by us as risky. Too many managers are taught to avoid risk, and by habit, we move towards the status quo as a safe haven.
  • And issues of well-being…physical and mental health and career satisfaction are things we plan on getting to later. They take a backseat to the urgent daily activities.

Yet, no three topics are more important in helping create value (profits, market-share, efficiencies, engagement) for our firms than the decisions and actions we make and take on people, direction and on the development and maintenance of our own physical and mental well-being.

Here are just a few of the questions effective leaders hold themselves accountable to asking and answering.

At Least 11 Must Ask and Answer Questions for Leaders at All Levels:

Fair warning…compound questions ahead.

1. How am I truly doing as a leader? Am I getting the frank feedback I need from my team members and peers to help me strengthen my effectiveness? If not, how might I get this feedback?

2. Am I taking accountability for the team that I’ve put on the field? Is the best team with the right people in the right positions, or, are there clear gaps that only I can fix? Do I have a plan to fill those gaps? Do I have the courage to make the needed moves?

3. Am I a net supplier of level-up talent to the broader organization? If not, how can I strengthen my talent recruiting and development efforts?

4. How am I measuring performance and success of my team(s)? Do the measures promote the right behaviors? Do the measures promote continuous improvement? Do the measures connect to the bigger picture outcomes we are after?

5. Is the firm’s direction clear to everyone on my team? What can I do better or more of to constantly reinforce direction and ensure that our individual and team priorities support direction? Do I need to teach people about our business and how we make money and how we plan to grow?

6. Am I realistic about the need to embrace change? Are market dynamics signaling a needed change in direction and am I advocating for this change with my peers and by offering ideas?

7. Am I serving as a catalyst for productive change in my firm? Do I believe passionately in an issue that can benefit my firm and am I advocating hard for it, or, am I simply going along with consensus? If it’s the latter, how can I constructively break with the consensus and build understanding for my idea or approach?

8. Am I actively cultivating healthy relationships with my peers and colleagues in other functions? Do I recognize how dependent I truly am on the help and support of other leaders and other functional team members for my own success? Is there a rift that needs healing and am I taking the lead on making this happen?

9. Am I developing myself? What investments have I made in time, effort and money during the past year in strengthening my skills and gaining exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

10. How I am doing? Is my work (my firm, my vocation) in alignment with my passion, superpower(s) and values? If any of the three are out of whack, what must I do to fix the problem? Are the issues repairable in my current environment or, must I do the hard work of making a significant change?

11. Do I understand that my physical well-being directly impacts my mental well-being and professional performance? Am I taking care of myself physically? If not, how can I adjust my lifestyle to improve my physical health? Do I need to invest the outside help of a coach or trainer help me jump-start an improvement program?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

High personal performance is an outcome of clarity and balance. From ensuring clarity for the direction of your firm, your team and your team members to gaining objective insight on your own performance, clarity in the workplace is essential for your success. Balancing your passion, capabilities and values with your daily work and backing this balance with physical well-being is essential for your satisfaction and success. The pursuit of needed clarity and healthy balance is a journey with constantly shifting terrain. Get started by asking and answering the questions noted above. And if the answers are less than ideal for you, take action.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.