Knowledge Center


Article -> Self-Imposed Leadership Obstacles

Date Added: May 2011

Note: A shortened version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2011 issue of The Green Bay Press-Gazette.

We all seek Leadership. We seek to be great leaders. We seek to have great leaders. We often hold ourselves back from achieving greatness and there are several obstacles to this.

Great leaders strive to make others better as a result of their actions and presence. A goal for leaders is for others to lead in their absence (i.e. you don’t need to be present for people and organizations to succeed). Yet, the first obstacle is leaders becoming too focused on themselves.

Leaders want to be excellent and achieve their own success. They have personal goals. Unfortunately, over-pursuit of these personal goals can result in self-promotion and focus on self vs. others.

Early in my career I concentrated on me. How would I look better? How could I be noticed to get my next career advancement? I was somewhat successful; however, not well liked. I wasn’t a great leader.

Notice how many times “I” was used in the prior paragraph. Seeing or hearing this from a leader is typically not a positive sign unless it’s followed by “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” or “I apologize.” Think about the weekly guest columnists in this newspaper. Several years ago when writing columns, my company name or “I” was frequently mentioned. It was intended for self-promotion instead of educating readers about a topic. The column should be for you – not me. Read weekly columns more closely to see if this occurs.

Great leaders learn by alleviating their own fears. Leadership improves when showing genuine concern and caring for others. Focusing on others can create more fear because it forces us to emphasize others vs. ourselves. Great leaders commit to making others – and the team – better.

A second obstacle to achieving leadership greatness is concentrating on your own image too much. This is the image you believe you are vs. the image perceived by others. Leaders can be viewed as determined, decisive and controlled; causing some to forget who they really are. These leaders “become someone else,” leaving little room for humanity and heart – essentials to being great leaders.

This is how I used to lead, which isn’t effective. It took someone to ask me, “Why do you act nicer when you’re with your wife and act like a jerk at work?” There was an image at work to portray and co-workers never saw me smiling. Leaders weren’t supposed to smile. They are supposed to lead and hold others accountable.

This is sad; yet, many leaders still do this. Only my wife saw the “real me” and leaders should stop leading two lives – one at home and one at work. Showing our humility and weaknesses in front of our teams brings teams closer together.

A third obstacle is waiting for permission to lead. While patience is an element of leadership, those in non-leadership roles wait to demonstrate leadership. Great leaders had innate skills to influence informally – before they had the leader “title.” They made a difference from any role or position. They proactively led before others viewed them as leaders.

Many organizations only view the CEO or leadership team as the leaders and believe they must “put in their time” to lead or give way to those already “putting in time.” Yet, anyone can lead informally. Chairing a committee, demonstrating a passion for a project, speaking from the heart. A leader simply leads and others will follow.

A fourth obstacle is being too independent. Many leaders are extremely confident (possibly arrogant). So much that they surround themselves with “yes” people that only agree with them or don’t seek input from others.

I am fortunate to interact with many community leaders I admire and respect. They have become a core group of mentors and advisors I seek for decisions and input on a variety of topics – and they’re not afraid to provide honest feedback. Great leaders have the ability to make unpopular decisions; however, they have first sought advice from others.

Most of us want to be great leaders (I’m still on this journey). Do you invest time thinking about how to inspire others to succeed or only about yourself? Do others lead in your absence or have you made them dependent upon you? Are you willing to share your failures with your team or only note theirs? Do you proactively lead and impact others or sit back because you’re not the actual leader? Do you have a group of people you trust for input or make decisions in a silo? Recognizing your own barriers and addressing your fears helps you and everyone you interact with.

Morriss, Anne, Robin J. Ely and Frances X. Frei. "Stop Holding Yourself Back." Harvard Business Review, January-February 2011: 160-163.

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