8 Beliefs That Limit Your Leadership Potential

Frosted-Mug-and-Beer-PitcherA follower, a manager, and a leader walk into a bar. They are all thirsty for a beer but the place is very crowded and it may be a while before they are served. Sure enough, many minutes pass and no one helps them. Feeling annoyed but unsure of what he can do, the follower continues to sit patiently for the waiter to arrive. Unhappy with waiting for the inefficient waiter to come by his table, the manager secures a menu from the hostess, analyzes the beer options, assesses the cost of an import vs. domestic beer, and finally signals his urgent readiness to order to the waiter across the room. Recognizing that there are three very thirsty people in her presence, the leader walks across the room to the bartender, communicates her need while extending a healthy tip, and returns to the table with three cold mugs and a frothy pitcher of delicious beer. Her absolutely delighted compatriots rejoice!

Stereotypes aside, why would each individual take a very different course of action when they all wanted the same result? The answer lies in what possibilities we allow ourselves, and our realm of possibilities are a direct function of our belief systems. More succinctly put — our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior. The follower’s personal story was one of limited possibilities. There were social norms that he was supposed to follow, and wanting to be a good follower, he did what he thought he was supposed to do. The manager’s personal story is one of control. Valuing efficiency and optimization he took action that would expedite the ordering process. The leader’s personal story is one of service. Ignoring social norms and irrational restraints, the leader assessed the needs of the group, adapted to the environment, and made things happen through purposeful action. Why was the leader most effective? Because she was not confined by a story that limited her potential.

In my executive coaching work, I have come across several common beliefs that consistently show up and can limit a leader’s potential. Note that these stories do not discriminate, and even the most successful leaders can sometimes fall victim to them periodically. My hope is that by sharing these with you, it may bring awareness to your own personal stories and how they impact your leadership potential. As you read these first four, check-in with yourself….what is it that you believe?

1. Leaders are supposed to have the answers – Are we not? We get promoted to positions of authority primarily based on our experience and competence. Followers value our ability to clearly articulate vision and direction. Thus, we are supposed to be the smartest person in the room. If you don’t know, then you can’t possibly be leading effectively. False! Not knowing is a prerequisite for curiosity, which enables both a sense of humility and our ability to innovate. Leaders who value curiosity over knowledge tend to facilitate the exchange of diverse perspectives and foster healthy debate within teams. Yet, leaders who can thrive in such ambiguity are a rare breed. For more on how you can overcome this common belief and instead turn uncertainty into opportunity, I recommend Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner’s book “Not Knowing.”

2. Good leaders never show signs of weakness – Of course they don’t! As soon as you show weakness, the wolves will attack your soft underbelly. Great leaders project strength and have the will to overcome adversity. Well, this is only part of the story! Great leaders also know how to demonstrate vulnerability to increase their approachability and authenticity with followers. In doing so, they connect with followers in a truly meaningful way and inspire far more engagement than the stoic warrior-leader ever could. Once more, leaders must know how to ask for help. No leader can succeed alone and if you believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness, you have already significantly limited your potential.

3. My team can’t operate without me – This one is certainly the truth right? The place falls apart when you go on vacation. Plus, we all know that things just won’t get done right unless you are personally involved. Untrue! If anything, this is the manager’s story not a leader’s story. Leaders seek to relinquish control and recognize that the true mark of leadership is when they can walk away from a situation and trust that things will be executed in their absence. Why? Because leaders create more leaders. In the U.S. military, leaders are required to train multiple people to do their job should they be lost in battle. It is a culture that inspires constant coaching and mentoring. Your leadership ability then becomes more about the quality of your team than your personal skill. I wish I saw more of this in our modern corporate environments. Instead, I often come across leaders who believe that training the team too well makes them expendable. Do you need to be the hero? Or do you relish in creating heroes? Leaders value the latter.

4. It’s my job as a leader to enforce the rules – This is a no brainer. Rules exist for a reason and leaders have a responsibility to ensure that team members work within the social contracts we agree upon. If they don’t, the result is chaos and disorder. No organization can survive in such conditions. Not exactly! A leader must manage two operating systems: one that limits risk and one that encourages experimentation and change. Leaders fully own their responsibility to provide stability and act ethically. Yet, they also push boundaries and realize that sometimes rules exist to stifle innovation, preserve the status quo, and bring outliers right back to average. The mindset of a leader should always be one that abhors mediocrity. What’s more important to you, meeting other’s expectations or redefining the expectations altogether?

If any of these stories resonate with you personally, it may be time to release a belief or work towards changing a value which is no longer serving you as a leader. In part two of this article, I’ll examine four more beliefs that can limit your potential as a leader, including the most pervasive belief that holds leaders back. Stay tuned!

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The Leadership Equation

Part of West Point’s academic curriculum requires every cadet to study the natural sciences, advanced mathematics classes, and an engineering discipline of choice. While I often struggled in these challenging courses as a cadet, it was likely here that I developed my fondness for logic and healthy respect for a sound equation. A well proven equation really is a thing of beauty. In a concise set of symbols, one can communicate volumes of information and help to explain the world around us. For example, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation (E=mc2) is considered pure genius because it unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the universe in just five simple characters. I share this with you because equations can similarly help us to explain the inner workings of organizational life and help develop us as leaders.

In fact, there is one equation in particular that continuously guides me as a leadership development professional. It stems from the work of organizational development scholar & practitioner Kurt Lewin and is as relevant today as when he first theorized it back in 1943. While not an actual mathematical equation representing quantifiable relationships, it is a heuristic formula that accurately explains one of the biggest challenges of leadership and it’s as simple as this:

Lewin’s formula states that behavior (B) is a function of the person (P) and his or her environment (E). Thus, if you are seeking to change an individual’s behavior, you must influence one of two variables (or preferably both for maximum effect). Leadership, at its heart, is often about moving individuals and organizations through change and Lewin’s formula gives us a practical way of organizing our efforts. Looking at your own team as an example, perhaps there are behavioral tendencies that are negatively impacting performance and you would like to see change for the better. Let’s first work with the idea of shifting behavior by focusing on the individual person.

It’s important to note that you can never really change another person, they have to change themselves. Attempting to force behavioral change on another individual is likely to incite resistance and is ultimately unsustainable. Yet, often this is the norm as managers leverage their proverbial carrots and sticks to shape organizational outcomes. The real leadership challenge at hand is how does one inspire an individual to want to learn to behave differently and better align with the team’s goals? Well, much of that inspirational ability stems from your own behavior and example as a leader. Are you a person of character, competence, and credibility? Are you demonstrating an authentic empathy with those you are leading? Do you own your vulnerabilities and have you established a track record of personal accountability? These are just some of the leadership behaviors that are a prerequisite for inspiring another person to change their behavior. It comes down to this — do followers admire and respect you enough as a leader to make the difficult process of changing themselves an imperative.

Now let’s look at how the environment impacts behavior and performance outcomes. Are your team’s behavioral challenges isolated to a few individuals or is there evidence of a systemic issue? If the latter is true, exercising leadership now becomes more about addressing environmental factors like values, mission, vision, structure, relationships, technologies, and reward mechanisms that are not producing the desired behavior. Perhaps your organization’s structure is fostering competition over collaboration and promoting selfishness. Or maybe there is a values disconnect between what executives are communicating as the priority and what front line workers are expected to deliver on. Whatever the environmental challenge, the savvy leader understands that changing the organization’s environment is a much larger undertaking and should be approached with caution. There is risk in championing change to the organizational environment as every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. There will undoubtedly be stakeholders that have a vested interest in keeping things exactly how they are. One will need to build a strong case for change and create alliances with organizational authority that can help generate movement.

In summary, the B=ƒ(P,E) formula gives us a simple yet powerful way to determine things we can do to improve individual, team and organizational performance. Leadership is about facilitating change and behavior is how we can tangibly interpret progress towards desired change. When seeking to move the needle in a positive direction, a leader can look to influence the individual directly and/or seek to shift environmental factors that are impacting outcomes. Regardless of the point of influence you choose, it’s essential that you are personally practicing the leadership behaviors you are seeking from others. No individual or system will adopt your vision for change if they do not see you first being the example.

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point (Part 2)

West Point Dress Uniform

The United States Military Academy at West Point has produced some of the United States’ finest leaders. From President’s Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower to General’s Douglass MacArthur and George Patton, every graduate experiences a formal four year leader development process that is designed to yield principled centered leaders of character. As a leader development professional and graduate myself, I often reflect back on my West Point experience and the powerful leadership lessons that it taught me. In this two part series, I compiled some of the stickiest lessons that continue to guide me today. Part one explored how great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. Here are five more timeless lessons to reflect on:

1. No combat ready unit ever passed inspection – West Point cadets endure lots of inspections. From daily uniform checks to white glove room inspections called SAMI (Saturday Morning Inspection), by default every cadet becomes a master shoe shiner and sink scrubber. If at any time you failed to meet Academy standards, you could get written up and ultimately end up walking hours on the area as punishment. No matter how “squared away” you were, most cadets end up walking at least a few hours over their four years as you are constantly juggling many priorities and eventually balls are dropped. Thus, cadets get very good at prioritizing what is most important. With only so many hours in a day, sometimes studying for the big exam or writing that important paper meant you would likely be written up for an untidy room or uniform. The same goes for leaders today. It’s important to get the big stuff right — always. You might take a few bruises along the way, but in the long run, your ability to stay focused on what’s most important will pay off.

2. Trust but verify – In their second year at the Academy, every cadet is assigned a first year cadet (called a plebe) as a direct report. For many, this is their first opportunity to lead someone on a daily basis. You are responsible for your plebe’s performance and quickly learn to conduct periodic inspections to ensure discipline and proper accountability. While subordinates in today’s organizations don’t want leaders hovering over their shoulders and inspecting their every move, they do expect you to check-in with them often and acknowledge their hard work. Train your team, trust they will deliver, and then verify standards have been met. The act of verification is important because it validates your leadership priorities and helps to clarify expectations for the team.

3. The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask – As a first year cadet in particular, success is often clouded with mystery. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it all. Then, just when you think you have figured it all out, you are challenged with new tasks that make you feel like a novice again. To survive this intense period of learning, you must accept your vulnerabilities and lean into others for support (we used the saying “Cooperate and Graduate” as a reminder). Leaders today must do them same. No one expects you to have all the answers in this fast changing and complex world we live in. Instead, leaders should practice an impassioned curiosity and have the courage to say “I don’t know” when appropriate. The irony being, in admitting our vulnerability we often find the answers and/or develop the very competence we are seeking.

4. Always understand your mission two levels up – A key philosophy of U.S. Army operations is that in the absence of specific direction, any soldier should be able to take initiative and complete the mission. To support this concept, every officer learns to embrace their Commander’s Intent, as well as their next level Commander’s Intent. It might seem like overkill but in the fog of war, intent is the glue that keeps a unit together. The corporate world is no different. For a leader to be successful, they need to make their supervisor and their organization successful. Clearly understanding your bosses’ definition of success, daily priorities, and leadership philosophy is a must.

5. Mission first, people always – This popular Army slogan represents much of what a cadet does on a daily basis until it philosophically permeates every bone of their body over time. From simply checking on your subordinates feet while on a long road march, to never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield, cadets practice balancing mission execution with taking care of their people’s needs. Leaders in the corporate world should also embrace this philosophy. Talent is the single greatest differentiator in the marketplace today and every organization’s greatest asset is its people. Successful business leaders understand how to manage the stresses of short-term stakeholder expectations while continuously being mindful of employee needs and concerns.

Thus, in addition to the behaviors noted in part one, great leadership is also about rigorously maintaining priorities, holding others accountable to standards, being a life-long learner, exercising initiative through intent, and taking care of your people at all times. It’s worth repeating that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. Practice these behaviors consistently and watch your personal, team’s, and organization’s success exponentially increase.

(If you would like to learn more about how my leader development programs can help you and your organization practice these critical behaviors more consistently, please contact me at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com)

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