The Greatest Epiphany a Leader Can Have LeadershipMost Popular

October 12th, 2014 by Spencer Penhart leave a comment

I remember a point in my management career when I was miserable. We were in the midst of an important product launch that wasn’t meeting expectations, and the sales managers were soon being told to manage in a way that resulted in pressuring our customers, micromanaging daily execution points of our sales reps, and endless conference calls.

I didn’t feel like a leader. I felt like a bully and a micromanager, and both our customers and my team deserved better than they were getting from me. I was chronically exhausted, and my stress level was through the roof. Literally at a breaking point, I picked up the phone and called one of my mentors, who gave me perhaps the most important advice of my management career:

YOU CAN LEAD HOWEVER YOU WANT TO!

Here’s how the epiphany occurred:

Me: “Mentor, I think I’m about to snap. I can’t keep doing this. I don’t feel right about what I’m doing to my team, my family, and myself. I either need to start doings things in a way I feel good about, or I need to find another job.”

Mentor: “Sounds like you’re having a values conflict. Have you talked to your boss about this?”

Me: “No, I can’t. He’s new to the job and we don’t know each other well yet, and I’m not sure how he’ll respond.”

Mentor: “Remember Young Skywalker, nothing is impossible. You could talk with him, you just aren’t sure how he will react. Do you have an alternative solution you could propose?”

Me: “Absolutely.”

Mentor: “How far are you willing to push this?”

Me: “At this point, he can fire me if he wants. I can’t keep doing this to my team and family, and we have enough money in the bank to pay the bills for a while.

Mentor: “Sounds like you have little downside then. So why don’t you just talk with your boss, tell him your concerns, give him a list of the things you want to stop doing, and give him your proposal for your alternative plan instead? Then you can negotiate a plan that works for both of your needs.”

Me: “But what if he views that as being disrespectful and rebellious?”

Mentor: “Whining and complaining behind people’s back is disrespectful. Having open and honest dialogue, while having the courage to propose new ideas in the name of helping the business, employees, and customers is the ultimate signal of respect, not to mention an ownership mentality. Any leader worth their salt is going to be open to new ideas. They may say “No” for a variety of reasons, but at least they should listen.”

Me: “What if he says “No”, and then hates me on top of it?”

Mentor: “Then you’ll need to find a middle-ground to give your boss what he needs, while treating your people the way you believe in. If you can’t find that balance, you have two choices: stop doing the things you don’t agree with and accept the consequences, or quit. Look, I can’t make this decision for you, but I can tell you this: You MUST lead from your core values. Anything else is a recipe for mediocrity and unhappiness.”

The next day I breathed deep, went to my boss, explained my list of things I wanted to stop doing that weren’t driving our business, and pitched my alternative plan. He turned out to be receptive to my ideas (and eventually the best boss I ever had), and agreed to many of my proposed changes. My team and I began implementing our new plan, and so began a sustained climb to the top of the sales rankings together.

This experience made me realize one of the most important lessons of my career: You can lead however you want to. Period. No one can make you do anything, even your boss. Yes, there may be consequences for not doing what you’re told, but you still have full power to make that choice in the face of those consequences. Reality is that if you don’t feel right about the work you are doing, or how you are operating with your customers and your employees, it will show, and no one will respond positively, least of all you. NEVER do anything that goes against your values.

Here are some tactics for giving yourself the power and freedom to lead “Your Way”:

  1. Clarify your leadership purpose, values, and philosophy. They provide you your best framework for making both effective and ethical leadership decisions. As my friend and mentor John Spence likes to say, “When values are clear, decisions are easy.” I’ll have more on this in a future post.
  1. Your ability to challenge the status quo is proportionate to your value to the organization, and your amount of acceptable risk. You need both an offensive and defensive strategy, with two key elements:
  • Offensive: Be a high-performer. The more indispensable you are to your company, the less they are willing to lose you over a disagreement. You will also have more credibility, and your ideas are more likely to be seriously considered.
  • Defensive: Have at least 3-6 months of living expenses saved in a liquid financial account, such as a savings account or a money market. This gives you safety and flexibility in the event of termination, layoffs, or resigning, and is priority #1 in personal financial planning.
  1. Talk with your boss about your issue. Unless your boss is a real tyrant, he/she should at least listen to your ideas. Keep in mind the following things when having your conversation:
  • Enter the meeting calmly, without being too attached to the outcome. Just keep focused on trying to help the business, employees, and customers.
  • Be respectful and matter of fact in how you describe the problem. Calling the issue or current policy stupid is akin to calling the boss stupid, which will make him/her unlikely to consider your ideas. Speak accurately, and provide specific business, customer or employee examples of the impact of the problem, so that your boss understands WHY the issue is such a problem.
  • ALWAYS present a well-baked solution to the problem. Don’t bother approaching your boss until you have come up with a better idea than the status quo.
  • Be accepting of the outcome. It is your boss’ job to listen, but it’s also her/his job to make the decision. It is your job as an employee to accept that decision respectfully – getting upset hurts you more than anyone. If you disagree with the decision, you have three choices: choose to accept it, negotiate for a middle-ground, or decline and accept the consequences. If you absolutely cannot accept the decision, this may be your sign from the universe that it is time to find a new opportunity that better fits your needs!

Have YOU ever been asked to lead in a manner you weren’t comfortable with? How did you handle it? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments below!

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