Steven's Blog

You Have the Right to Make Mistakes

You Have the Right to Make Mistakes

Some people are natural leaders, and I have met a few. For most of us, leadership is something we learn. Making the transition from an operational staff or manager to a leader of people can involve the discarding of false beliefs and misconceptions. Below are five of the most common ones I have encountered when coaching leaders at all levels, along with what I advised.

1. You are not there to be liked. You are there to get results. There is nothing wrong with being liked or even being a likable leader. The best leaders usually are. However, it is a mistake to make being liked a prerequisite to implementing a needed change, no matter how unpopular, how large, or how small. A mid-level manager who I was coaching held off on implementing a change that some on his staff vociferously opposed because he was afraid of not being liked as a leader. It did not help that HR regularly ran a so-called “employee engagement” survey, in which employee attitudes toward their immediate manager were taken into account, and could affect his individual performance evaluation. So, he was tentative, delayed implementation, and otherwise sought to mollify the execution, even though he knew it was strategically critical to success. Such tentativeness compromises strategic objectives. No one likes working for a manager who consistently fails to get results and no leader likes a weak manager on his or her staff. While the naysayers were appeased—at least temporarily—his indecisiveness and tentativeness alienated the top-performers, who sought to be transferred to another position under a better manager from which they could learn within the company, or otherwise left for another job. Making likability a prerequisite for change is a sure-fire recipe for being liked by none.

2. Buy-in is not needed, but professionalism is a must. Similar to likability, too many managers ascribe excessive importance to unanimous buy-in as a prerequisite to change, in the mistaken belief that without buy-in execution is impossible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Think about your own experience. Have you ever had to implement a decision made by your manager that you did not completely believe was right? Did you do it anyway? Probably, and you probably did a decent job because of your professionalism, which I believe you would never compromise if you are bothering to take the time to read this article. Would you have done it even better if your heart had been in it? Maybe, but you still did it nonetheless. Perhaps later after seeing the results, you might also have realized it was the right way to go. Buy-in is rarely necessary for successful execution and getting desired results. However, delay for unanimous buy-in, which in some cases might never come, can compromise business results and alienate the very staff who already buy-in to what you want to do—the very ones you want to support and retain! Most employees are professionals. They know that sometimes they need to support decisions with which they do not agree. Ignore the ones who lack the professionalism to do so. Thinking adults decide to buy-in in their own time, and the time it takes for everyone is different even for the same idea. That should not stop you from acting. Nothing is wrong with dissent, but insist upon professionalism.

3. You cannot motivate people. People must motivate themselves. A manager I was coaching felt it was a personal failure on his part that some of his staff simply were not motivated by the job no matter what he said or did. He asked what should he do to motivate them. I told him to stop trying. He’s done what he can and the rest is up to them. As a manager, you have no control over someone’s motivation. Motivation comes from within. All you can do as a leader is clear the way. Click To TweetThis manager spent time explaining objectives, made himself available for advice and even coaching, streamlined processes, and offered to pay for external coaching or training if needed. That is about as much as a leader can do. Leave behind those who are not motivated. Their lack of motivation is not your responsibility, but supporting those who are motivated is. Focus your effort, energy, and time on them!

4. Giving freedom is not the same as giving ownership, but stewardship allows both. A manager I was coaching told me that she gives her staff the freedom to decide how to do their jobs and leaves them to it. In her mistaken view, that is ownership. In reality, ownership is the ability of an individual employee to make a difference to a business outcome through independent action. While freedom to act is part of ownership, freedom to act per se does nothing to guarantee a business result if an employee does not know what to do. If you have staff, you are also a coach. It is part of the job to transfer your capabilities to your staff or support them in developing capabilities themselves. Freedom to act is fine as long as it is done with clear accountabilities and access to you for advice. Your best staff will seek your advice. Yet, seeking advice is not the same as seeking your command, and do not indulge staff to go to you simply asking you to tell them what to do. Advice means describing what you see as options and a process for deciding which one to choose. Let the choice be theirs. That’s stewardship!

5. You have the right to make mistakes, but learn from them and live with consequences without recrimination. A manager I was coaching told me that he was worried about making the wrong decision when he had staff advising him to do something different. And so he hesitated to act. A postponed decision, however, is a decision in itself and rarely an optimal one. You should never postpone a decision for something as arbitrary for staff that have a view different from yours. Every good decision about anything significant always has its dissenters. There is nothing wrong with listening to the perspectives of those on your staff and considering what they advise, but as a leader the decision is yours to make, right or wrong. Only you will be held accountable, not your staff. Most of the time, you will likely get it right, and sometimes you will get it wrong. That comes with the job. When your staff become leaders themselves, the decisions will be theirs to make—and to get wrong, which they will from time to time too! For now, that privilege falls to you!

If these insights are already obvious to you as a leader, teach them to those you lead who have staff of their own, should they have yet to learn them. If some of these are new to you, great! Give them a try! You are allowed to live and learn too!


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