As a young professional who worked diligently to quickly move up the ranks, I learned much about leadership with the fast-forward button firmly pressed. I often say that while experience is life’s hardest teacher, it is definitely the most effective. When I reflect upon some of the advice and life lessons I collected along the way, I realize that there are a quite a few lies we are told, or tell ourselves, about leadership. This is where experience once again becomes our greatest opportunity to learn what it really takes to be a good leader, even if it means a few bumps and bruises along the way.
Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office
As a “nice girl” currently sitting in my version of the corner office, I couldn’t disagree more. I have always been an introvert when left to my own devices, quiet to a fault, but also someone who can get along with most everyone. I don’t subscribe to drama, and I believe that we truly can “all get along” if we try hard enough. As much as I planned to stay away from “playing politics” in my career, I soon learned that it was unavoidable. But it was up to me how I played the game.
Can you make it to the top by not being a nice girl or a nice guy? Sure you can. You can bully your way through the ranks, not concerned about whom you might step on as you stomp your way up the ladder. But there’s a big difference between being the big boss, the person in charge whom everyone fears and dares not to cross … and being the leader they are choosing to follow.
A quote I heard many years ago has always stuck with me: People follow managers because they have to, but they follow leaders because they want to. Don’t feel like you have to become someone you’re not in order to achieve your career goals. Your unique personality and your “likability” have much to do with what type of leader you will become. Being nice isn’t a sign of weakness; it means you care enough about others to treat them with respect and kindness. A great leader can do that without ever sacrificing results.
Leave Your Sense Of Humor at the Door
We all work way too hard not to have fun while doing it. The amount of stress, burnout, difficult conversations, deadlines and mistakes that we encounter day after day are enough to put anyone in a permanent bad mood. And the higher you go up the leadership ladder, the more these things are compounded. All the more reason we should infuse laughter and lightheartedness into the workplace whenever possible. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, right?
One of my favorite things in the world to do is laugh and make others laugh. I have a witty sense of humor, and I often call on it to lighten stressful situations. I think developing fun memories with work colleagues is a great way to build a positive work culture. But not everyone shares that view.
I can remember times in my career when I was given feedback and led to believe that I actually had to stop all of that and be serious all the time in order to be a good manager. And I bought into that for a while, because I so desperately wanted to learn to be a leader. What a dismal time that was! It made me think I had to change who I was in order to be taken seriously. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized how wrong that was.
My sense of humor, my fondness for laughter and my ability to make others not take themselves and situations so seriously were all parts of what made me a good leader. These were some of my unique strengths that I brought to my role. Is there a time to be serious? You bet. But there should never be a time that we change who we are to fit someone else’s mold.
It’s Supposed to Be Lonely at the Top
Yes, it is indeed. It’s often leaders who are sitting in their offices after everyone else has gone home, worried about making payroll, or trying to figure out how to scale without overextending, or trying to figure out how to stay competitive. I’ve even heard some say that it’s lonely at the top for a reason. But that reason shouldn’t be because you feel you have now reached the top and no longer need anyone else’s support, input or guidance. It doesn’t mean that you can’t, or shouldn’t, reach out to your colleagues when you need it most.
I get it — no one wants to admit they need help, that we can’t balance everything on our own, that we are hanging on by a thread, especially when we’re supposed to be leading the charge. I operated that way for a while when I first became a CEO. Admitting I didn’t know it all and didn’t have all the answers was terrifying. To me, that meant I was somehow failing as a leader. I was worried that admitting this somehow meant I wasn’t qualified to do the job.
But I quickly learned that I was only failing when I couldn’t find a way to get past my own ego and ask for help. I was holding my organization back by not being willing to consult those who knew more, hiring those who were better than me, and reaching out beyond the four walls of my office for perspective and guidance.
Do relationships change when you’re the leader? You bet they do. That’s what can make it feel really lonely at times. But, if you are willing to open yourself up to them, new relationships will come along that will help you to be the best leader you can be.
Don’t allow stereotypes, misguided advice or excruciating life lessons keep you from being the leader you are meant to be. Own your unique strengths and use them to your advantage, and never be afraid to be who you are. Surround yourself with people who will challenge you and keep you accountable, but don’t allow anyone to make you think you have to fit their mold to be successful. Be the leader you would choose to follow.
Kristen Merrifield, CAE, CNAP, is CEO of Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits.