The hardest skill for any leader to develop
A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
Any great leader faces a multitude of challenges every day. Whether it’s communicating strategy, helping people through change, holding on to excellence in the face of compromise or just navigating the leadership environment, there is no shortage of development opportunities lurking in each day’s schedule.
I’ve worked over the years with leaders on all of the challenges above – and many, many more – but surprisingly, the skill that I see more leaders struggle with more than any other is relatively mundane (but very important): the ability to work with their team as an equal – to, when appropriate, be ‘merely’ a resource, rather than the team leader.
As we’ve seen before, many leaders can only operate in one of two modes – in charge, or not there. In other words, once they join their team (virtually or otherwise), the team instantly defers to them, and they take the lead.
Truly great leaders have a third mode – the ability to sit with their team without needing to be in charge, using their subject matter knowledge just the same way as anyone else around the table would.
If you don’t already have it, here’s how to develop that skill:
1. Start with something small. Pick a topic that’s controllable. Don’t start with something that bets the ranch. It’ll only make you anxious, and you’ll end up grabbing the reins back when things lurch off kilter.
2. Start with something you’re not passionate about. Find a topic that doesn’t fire you up – maybe new employee onboarding rather than redesigning the entire company’s branding, for example. Again, you want to be able to take part in the discussion dispassionately (at least for now).
3. Nominate a leader (and tell them). Put someone else on charge of leading a session on your selected topic. Tell them – and the other meeting participants – in advance, but don’t lobby them. Or tell them how to lead the session. The goal is that you hand over facilitation to someone else, not that they become your glove puppet.
4. Be there. Sit through the entire meeting. Resist the temptation to absent yourself when things get boring or granular. That’s not being a resource, that’s cherry-picking. Everyone else has to work through the detail, and you should, too.
5. Participate. Sitting in stony silence isn’t being a resource any more than dominating the meeting. Participate – which means contributing when you have something to share that will be helpful to the rest of the group, and staying quiet when you don’t. Others do it, and with practice you can too.
6. Be comfortable with silence. There is a time for silence, however – the point at which everyone expects you to jump in and take over – or rescue – the meeting. Initially everyone will turn to you when a question is asked, or a decision has to be made. Say nothing – not even an explanation of what you’re doing. Jut be quiet, and get comfortable with silence. Let the person you put in charge of the session tease out participation from the rest of the group – if you do it, you’re back in charge.
7. Take an action point or two. When it comes to mopping up the implementation points and doling out responsibility, take on a few for yourself. And don’t cherry pick the ‘leadery’ stuff – take some granular, janitor-level action points as well. Everyone else has to, and so should you.
8. Resist the temptation to mop up afterward. When the session is over, let things sit as they are – resist the temptation to email / call / drop in on others and recalibrate the results to reflect what you would have preferred the outcome to be. Do this once and no one will trust you in a resource role again – they’ll just conclude (rightly) that you’re only pretending.
9. Rinse and repeat. Try it again after a while, this time with something larger, more strategic. Note what works and what doesn’t. Find your own style, your own way of ‘being there’, not just absent or in charge.