In my work as an executive coach, I work with a lot of senior leaders. Busy people who have reached new heights in their careers after many years of hard work, rising through the ranks of their organizations. I find this work to be incredibly rewarding—as a coach I am able to help people become happier, healthier, and more productive in their work and lives. In my years doing this work, I’ve started to notice some common themes in the challenges my clients are facing. Many of them think that they need to be heroes for their teams—always offering solutions, always having the right answers, always swooping in to save the day when things get tough. The problem is that the approach of leader as hero often backfires—creating disengaged teams, and stressed out leaders.
What’s worse is that almost every client I work with thinks that they are the only ones who have this problem. They think that something is wrong with them—that every other leader has it all figured out. It’s ironic that this incredibly common challenge is perceived as being unique.
You know when you see a movie that is based on a true story and the opening frame says something like, “based on a true story, some names and events have been changed”? The following story is “based on many true stories” from real people I have met. If it sounds familiar, don’t worry. You’re not alone. And I’ll offer some tips to help you get out of leader as hero mode, and start living a more balanced, and ultimately, more productive life.
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Meet Kate. Her resume is impressive, filled with accomplishments that she is proud of. After graduating with her MBA she has followed a steady path of advancement to her current leadership position. And now even more is expected of her, and she wants to rise to the challenge.
She is excited and a little bit nervous. The demands to her schedule can be overwhelming, the targets set for her and her team are aggressive, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done. Her days are filled with endless meetings, conference calls, and a never ending onslaught of emails. Some days she feels like she is drowning.
And that’s just at work.
Although her New Year’s goal was to eat healthy and exercise, she hasn’t worked out in weeks. And when she is at home, she often isn’t really present, with her energy and focus on her phone and messages from work. Her husband and kids miss their wife and mom.
And worst of all, she feels that she can’t share how she feels with anyone. It can be really lonely at the top. She tells herself, “That’s just the way it is in the corporate world.”
Kate and her husband are enjoying a cup of coffee while reading the The New York Times. They really treasure the quiet time to enjoy each other’s company and finally having time to read. Kate has always loved reading, from fiction to the latest business books and magazines, but finds she can never really make the time.
Kate picks up her phone—she has wanted to check her email since she got up. She opens her messages and sees three “urgent” messages that she “must” attend to right away.
She tells her husband that she just needs to take care of a work thing and will be right back. She leaves the comfort of the things she loves—her husband, reading and relaxing with a tasty coffee—and disappears into her home office.
Before she knows it two hours has flown by and a relaxing Sunday morning has turned into an afternoon filled with work.
She tells herself and her husband, “this is just a busy time. It won’t be like this much longer.” He rolls his eyes. He’s heard this for years.
Tuesday at 3pm
Kate exits the conference room after another frustrating meeting with her team. They are behind on their Q2 goals and she is beginning to lose hope.
“Why can’t they just roll up their sleeves and get things done? If HR wasn’t such a pain I would start the process of firing a few of them.”
She returns to her office and opens up her email. 27 new messages have arrived in the last 90 minutes. 10 of them start with “Re:” and have at least six other people copied on them. Four start with “Urgent,” and one from her immediate boss starts with “We need to talk.”
That’s never good, she thinks to herself.
As Q2 is coming to an end, Kate once again finds herself doing it all alone to make sure her team meets their targets. “Why can’t they just get it?”
The morale on her team is at an all time low, and Kate doesn’t want to hear about their complaints. She leaves the office at 10, grabs a slice of pizza on the way home and stays up to 2 am cleaning up other people’s messes.
The truth is that Kate’s team has exceptional skills, and really like and respect each other. They used to plan a weekly lunch together, but not anymore. This is a team that Kate recruited and built before she took on her current senior leadership role. Somewhere between all the changes, pressure from Kate’s boss, and even more demanding targets, something changed. Despite their considerable skills and expertise, Kate’s team has started to disengage from their work, no doubt contributing to the frustrating results.
It started slowly, but devolved into Kate being the leader as hero—the person who gets stuff done, has all the answers, and ploughs through the difficult times. The trust in her team has eroded, as has their happiness, engagement, and results.
Currently, no one is winning.
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In my coaching and consulting practice, I work with a lot of people like Kate. People who feel overwhelmed with the pressures of leadership and fall back on destructive habits. Leaders who think they “don’t have time” to coach or guide their teams, and instead feel like they have to have all the answers. Each of these people think that they are struggling with unique challenges that no one else could possibly understand.
Protect Your House
“The truth will set you free, but it will probably piss you off first.”
– Thomas Leonard
All positive change starts with telling the truth.
If Kate ever made the time to have lunch with her best friend, she would likely say: “I’m tired, stressed out, my health is declining, I’m not sleeping at night, my family life is falling apart, I’m on the road to divorce, and my team is not happy with me. But the money is great!”
I hear similar stories from business leaders every week. In my experience, one of two things happens to the people who decide to make positive change:
- They experience a traumatic life event – health scare, death of a loved one, get fired, etc. And it wakes them up and reconnects them to their vision for the future.
- They ask themselves the question “what is the cost of doing nothing?” When faced with answers like: family break up, health problems, getting fired, or death, it can inspire change quickly.
Many leaders feel that they must sacrifice their personal life in order to be successful—yet in my experience, the exact opposite is true. Great leaders are grounded by prioritizing the things that are truly important in their lives. They understand that if they are happy and healthy in their lives, that they are able to better show up for their teams. And they understand the difference between productivity and busyness—carving out the time they need for deep thinking, and undistracted time.
Leader as Hero Doesn’t Work—For You Or Your Team
Many of the leaders I work struggle to let go of control and trust their teams. They think they need to have all the answers, and feel that they are letting their team down if they can’t swoop in and be the hero.
The problem? It doesn’t work—and can even backfire. This approach to leadership often results in micromanagement (which leads to disengagement), low morale, and a lack of accountability. If your team members feel that you will always offer the solution, they will eventually stop offering their ideas and start waiting for you to save the day.
When faced with a challenge, stop yourself from jumping in with a solution, and ask your team to brainstorm potential solutions. Resist the urge to save the day, and ask some coaching questions to encourage your team to think for themselves, and unpack the challenge they are facing.
Not only will you build their confidence and demonstrate that you value their opinions, you will start to create independence and accountability, meaning that over time, there will be fewer and fewer urgent issues for you to attempt to solve on your own.
Show Them – Don’t Tell Them
Employee engagement is critical to the success of any team, and it is essential that the leader be a model of what they want their team to be.
A few essential elements to having a productive and engaged team are:
- Having a shared vision
- Trust and respect for each other
- Recognizing each other
- Having empathy for each other’s life
One thing that all of these elements have in common is that you simply can’t write a memo or declare that they are priorities. These elements must be demonstrated by leaders in order for them to be more widely adopted, and to create a positive impact on team culture.
If you tell your staff that they don’t need to answer emails on the weekend, but you bombard them with emails during their downtime, they will take their cue from your actions, not your words.
I get it. Being an effective leader is hard work. It can be stressful, and when you’re stressed out, it’s easy to fall back on old habits, or to think “I’ll just do it myself.” You’re not alone in this approach. The problem is that thinking of yourself as hero for your team leads to burnout and disengagement—which in turn has a negative impact on results. Whether you’re new to leadership, aspiring to a leadership role one day, or a seasoned executive feeling a bit frustrated by your team’s results, learning to protect your house, let go of the idea of leader as hero, and model the kind of behavior you want to see from your team will help you all become happier, healthier, and more productive. Go ahead and put away your cape.