Whenever I am asked if I enjoy being a senior leader in my organisation, I consistently answer positively. Leading an organisation of thousands of members and hundreds of groups scattered across the United Kingdom is extremely rewarding. Having the opportunity to turn a vision and goals into reality is a thrill and as is the chance to fulfil a noble endeavour by helping others to grow at the same time.
However, leadership also brings many challenges as well. These often tend to be overlooked and the journey of becoming a leader can be long and painful for some. Here are three cold hard truths about leadership that I invite you to reflect on.
Leadership is about execution
The stereotype of a leader is of someone that makes decisions and then delegates the execution of tasks to others in his or her team. Here, the leader may supervise what is going on and require periodic updates, but isn’t directly involved with the action and doesn’t always stand at the coal face. If you aspire to become a strong leader, you must forget this stereotype immediately and start thinking differently. This is especially true for anyone with aspirations to grow an SME into a market leader and an industry reference.
While my current role is a strategic one and has a lot of tasks related to strategic leadership. I was nevertheless not a position to rest on my laurels once the strategic plans were published. Coming up with a vision is great, having a strategy to implement it is superb, but turning both into reality will take more time than either of these things combined. Execution is the one task that is both time consuming and very challenging.
Execution can sometimes be tedious and boring, the opposite of what one imagines leadership to be. However, without it, nothing can happen and nothing will move forward. Moreover, spearheading execution requires a combination of both hard and soft skills. Your hard skills as an analyst, problem solving and think will build and enhance your situational awareness of where your organisation is going. In terms of soft skills, persuasion, emotional resilience and strong interpersonal communication skills are key.
None of this will likely be news to you of course. But a major discovery in my leadership journey in various senior roles has been how interconnected both sets of skills are. This is especially true if you aspire to become a transformational leader. A vision needs a plan and the plan needs to be communicated after all. More than anything else, executing a plan or a vision also takes time.
You can’t lead while you lean
It is common to associate successful leaders with individuals living a life of luxury, travel and meetings in glamourous locations. I have experienced some of the perks of high-level leadership on a smaller scale with the opportunity to attend events in Chicago, Kuala Lumpur and most recently Paris. My role additionally allows me the opportunity to travel a fair bit within the United Kingdom. All of this might seem nice at first glance and I readily admit that there are nice aspects to it.
There is a reverse to this image though. It is the dozens of hours spent travelling to and from meetings or events. Nights spent burning the midnight oil while preparing for something, late finishes and early starts. While a lot of satisfaction can be derived from presenting a complex proposal, seeing a vision turning into reality and delivering on the faith that others place in us. Choosing to lead is also choosing to invest a considerable amount of time in a pursuit that isn’t always clearly defined. If your mindset is already one that is tuned to short-term sacrifices for long-term gain, your journey of leadership will be easier than if the opposite is true.
Effective delegation and strong teams can reduce the time burden placed on leaders, but they can’t eliminate it entirely. What’s more, building strong teams requires a considerable investment in time and energy. The same is true for building systems and processes. As I said earlier, leadership is about execution. So, don’t be surprised to find yourself spending time looking at the smaller details of a problem that was unknown when you previously planned your masterplan. Time may become your most precious resource as you tread the path of leadership.
Managing this time may involve attitude changes and also incur some costs as well. Both physical and emotional ones.
Leadership can all-consuming
Besides the investment in time, being on the move and working to fulfil your leadership ambitions will require an investment in physical and emotional energy. I almost always find that my daily routines can be turned upside down if I travel a few days to attend an event, conference or training. These events themselves can be tiring with limited opportunities to rest and demands to perform at the best of one’s abilities. The physical energy demands of leadership can be managed with self-care and self-leadership. However, the emotional demands of leadership are far more unpredictable.
Any relationship with another person will contain a degree of emotions. Relationships involving team members and peers even more so. In fact, working very closely as part of a senior leadership team can bring demands almost akin to those in a marriage. At one point in your leadership journey, you will disagree with somebody that you work with. This person may even be a close friend of yours and it’ll be painful when you two disagree. Additionally, the time demands placed on you as a leader may lead to strains with friends and family members. Having a supportive partner can be a huge hidden benefit to help you on your journey. A close friend that understands you and what you do can also be a good person to blow off some steam with and express how you feel in light of the demands placed on you. What you may also find challenging to cope with as a leader is that others will notice and highlight what you’ve done wrong but may not praise you and highlight what you do well. Consistently delivering and even over-delivering in your role will prevent some of this but may require you to invest more time.
A final and yet not often mentioned way in which leadership can be all-consuming is decision making fatigue. Leaders can be expected to make decisions all the time on both large and small topics. Yet this all adds up and it can be difficult to always remain “on the ball” to make the right decision every time.
Leading is a choice
There is a lot more that I could say about leadership and the challenges and opportunities of being a leader. It is up to you to make the choice to lead an organisation and make a difference in the world. There are huge rewards in choosing to lead and the best one is to look back at those that helped you and say: “We did it!”