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When Leadership Knocks You Down

Leadership is tough!

The ongoing stress of meeting deadlines and making the numbers will wear on you. The constant problem solving, the upsets, the mistakes, the rework — all of it is not easy on you. Not to mention the emotional tear that not everyone is going to like you. People will say mean things — mostly behind your back, but sometimes to your face or through electronic means. They will call you names, criticize decisions, and point out your weaknesses.

It may even feel like some are simply out to make you lose your job. You may wonder, "Why even continue?" You might look for the exit sign, wanting to run from it all. You question if they pay you enough to take all this on. You dream of the good ol' days of being a front-line worker when you left work and stopped thinking about work.

All of these things are challenges that are pushing against us. It's like we are in a boxing ring, getting hit with a left jab, then a right hook, followed by an uppercut. Hit after hit after hit until we finally fall down.

This is what my world felt like during year two as a principal. People were saying mean things. They were criticizing my leadership, and for good reasons, as things were not going well. Then I'd get hit with a parent complaint, hit again with a multi-student fight, and hit once more with criticism from my senior leader. Over and over and over again. Hit after hit after hit. I first got frustrated, "Why am I getting so many hits?" I then became anxious, wondering when the next hit was going to come and from where. This anxiety caused me to hide out in a portable classroom in the middle of the school day — several times. Yes, that's right, I was hiding…literally running away from these hits. I felt like I couldn't take it anymore.

Maybe you've felt this way. Research shows that you probably have. One study demonstrates that 51% of surveyed managers said that they were happier before they were managers. That same study found that 73% of leaders are thinking about leaving their company within the next year! Another study shows that middle-level leaders have the highest rates of anxiety and depression than any other worker group.

Leadership is hard. It knocks you down. And, yes, you may feel like not getting up. Trust me, there were several days I went home, swearing it would be my last day. Thankfully, I have a wonderful wife who wouldn't let that happen (she kept reminding me that we have four kids and need a regular paycheck and healthcare). So, I kept getting up and with great persistence, resolute determination, and a humble heart, I figured a few things out. Because I kept getting up, I gained more confidence, learned new strategies, and started building stronger relationships with my team.

Over the course of time (a bit more than two years), things at the school started to really turn around. Within three years, we were leading the district in student standardized scores, teachers were requesting to be transferred to our school, and, believe it or not, I started to love my job. I still got hits, but it became easier to get back up.

I don't know where you are in this process. Maybe you are thinking about quitting, maybe you are in the depths of depression, or perhaps you've figured out how to keep getting up. No matter where you are, remember this: someone once believed in you. Someone took a look at you and thought, "Hum, she'd be a great leader. Let's promote her."

You didn't get to where you are by yourself. Someone at some time had to have thought that there was something inside of you that was different. Something that could help the company or organization. So, you were chosen. You became a leader and now, people need you. You can't get this far to only get this far. Don't quit. When you get hit, get right back up and fight on.

While this can be difficult to do, allow me to give you three strategies that have really helped me.

#1 - Eliminate Fiction

What would be the first thought to go through your mind if you found a Post-it note at your workstation that said the following:

Be honest. Most of us would suddenly think, "Oh crap, what did I do now?" You might create a list of possible things the boss is upset at. You might even recall mistakes and mishaps that have happened in the past. Some of you might take this thought so far as to tell your boss that you quit before she even has a chance to tell you what her note was about.

These thoughts, the ones that take a truth and spin it to a hundred negative places, are fiction. These are pessimistic thoughts that we make up, based on truth, but often tear us down.

Eliminating fiction means that we see the truth for truth and fiction for fiction. We stick with the truth and try our darndest to not write any fiction. What's the truth? Your boss wants to see you. That's it. Anything we try to guess from there is fiction. This is what we need to eliminate.

A phone call from a client, a message from the finishing department, a piece of criticism from a team member. Instead of allowing our brains to freak out, to get pessimistic, to create all sorts of anxiety and frustration, just let the truth be the truth. Maybe the client does have an issue with our product. OK. Let's work through this and fix it. There's no use destroying an evening with the family over it. Perhaps the finishing department noticed an error and we have to do some rework. Yes, that sucks, but becoming self-critical and going down the rabbit hole of negativity doesn't do you or anyone else any good. So, your team member thinks you didn't communicate well on a project. Maybe he is right, maybe not. Take the truth (his opinion) and explore it. Ask a few others, do some reflection, talk it out with your senior leader, but don't tear yourself up about it.

We all make mistakes and we all have room for improvement, but don't allow yourself to create all sorts of headtrash that you are a failure just because you messed up on one or two things. You're not a failure. Someone believed in you. People believe in you now. I believe in you. Get back up and see what you can do.

#2 - Reflect on Your Purpose

Although I've never conducted a formal study, I believe that the key difference between leaders that leave their jobs after a couple of years and leaders that remain leaders for the long haul is purpose. If you get knocked down and have no purpose to get back up, why get up? Seriously. It's like a lazy Saturday where you have nothing planned. Why would you get up early? There is no motivation and no drive. Yet, if you need to shine your motorcycle and drive an hour so that you can attend a motorcycle rally that you've been looking forward to, you'll get up. Heck, you might even get up much earlier than you need to because you're that excited. Leadership can be exciting when you understand your purpose.

For a couple of decades, my purpose was to inspire young people to become better adults. Now it's to make it easier for people to like and follow their leader. Mine changed and yours might too.

For the intent of getting up after a hit, it matters not if you've discovered your life-long purpose. What matters is that you have pre-determined a few thoughts that motivate you. Note that I said pre-determined. Certainly, you can discover your purpose while being knocked down, but that is extremely difficult. What works for me is to reflect on my purpose while knocked down, not develop my purpose. This means that I've found a few things that get me excited before being knocked down. It means that I've taken some time to think about what motivates me, why I do what I do, and what contribution I'm trying to make.

So, why do you do what you do? Why do you keep showing up day after day?

Here's a shortlist of possible answers to get you thinking:

  • I don't want to be fired

  • I like the money

  • The privileges of leadership are nice

  • I can't give up the parking spot

  • My title sounds cool when I tell my friends

OK, so yes, these ideas can get you back up, but that is not what I'm talking about when it comes to purpose. Those listed above are self-centered, material-based ideas. They might be able to work in the short term or give you the motivation to get up once or twice, but over time, they are not going to last. When I talk about purpose, I'm really talking about these types of ideas:

  • To add value to people and help them grow

  • To create collaboration and friendships within my team

  • To help my team work really hard and provide the best product

  • To make the world a better place with our product

  • To inspire others to become leaders

  • To serve as _____ (Christ, Mohammad, the Dalai Lama, Buddha, or whatever spiritual hero you have) served

  • To make people laugh, live presently, and enjoy life

  • To help Jonny have confidence because I'm the only one that believes in him

As you read through these statements, it's hard not to feel the passion that each one holds. When knocked down, imagine coming back to a list that you've created, reading through it, and feeling that same passion. You get up, brush yourself off, and start again, because your purpose drives you to do it.

If you like one of the suggestions above, feel free to steal it. Better yet, read through the list and then start from scratch and develop two or three statements that can really get you going. Then, put them in your work area, carry them in your wallet, or post them in your bathroom mirror so that you can refer to them often.

#3 - Stay Calm and Grind On

I'm really proud of my son Ethan. He's had a lot of accomplishments, but it didn't start that way. Ethan was born with almost no natural talent at anything. I know that this is harsh to say, but it's true. He could not catch a ball, he was the goofiest kid you've ever seen on a skateboard, and he was one of the slowest runners in his grade. At school, he struggled tremendously. In fact, his difficulties with reading and writing got him an occupational therapist and several special education evaluations. He never qualified, but that didn't mean learning came easy. We also realized that music did not come easy when enrolled him in piano and trumpet lessons (my ears are still recovering).

Despite not having any natural talent, the kid did have one major thing going for him — he wouldn't give up. Nope. No matter how many times he was placed on the younger soccer team, no matter how many bad test scores, no matter how much he didn't hit the right notes, he continued on. He worked and worked and worked at it. He'd go to soccer practice, come home, eat dinner, and go right back out to the field to practice more by himself. During the summers (when everyone else was taking a break), he'd fill our house for hours with the noise of him trying to play the trumpet. He'd also stay after, go in early, or approach the teacher during class. He had no fear and he was full of determination. Hit after hit after hit knocked him down, but he kept getting up. What was the result?

After years of struggle, he played goalkeeper for the varsity team and was a team captain. He auditioned and finally made it into Concert Band, playing second chair. He also graduated with almost a year's worth of college credits, a 4.15 GPA, and an acceptance letter into a school with a very low admission acceptance rate.

The story of my son is probably best summarized by a quote from President Calvin Coolidge. "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

So, yes, leadership is hard. Yes, you're going to be knocked down. Yes, it sucks and we wish it were easier. But, in the words of management expert Jim Rohn, "Don't wish the work was easier, wish you were better."

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