It’s a tricky time to be a leader. With the economy so unforgiving right now, making smart business decisions is critical. That’s true not just in terms of strategy (whether to change your product mix or move into a new marketplace) but also relationships (whether to fire the toxic high performer or address a conflict head-on). All actions have consequences. So does lack of action. And with the margin for error so slim, you want to make sure you’re thinking as coolly and clearly as possible.
“Don’t get me wrong, we all feel fear,” says Staver, author of Leadership Isn’t for Cowards. “What separates the proverbial men from the boys, and women from the girls, is how we respond to that fear. Courageous leaders face what needs to be faced and do what needs to be done. Cowardly leaders make excuses, hide their heads in the sand, and generally take the easy way out.”
By definition, says Staver, all leaders “mess with people’s lives.” That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re leading from a place of clarity and awareness—courage—and not letting fear drive your decisions.
“Whether you’re messing with their lives in a positive, growth-inspiring way or a negative, spirit-crushing way depends on the clarity with which you make decisions and execute,” he explains. “Fear obscures that clarity—especially fear that masquerades as something else.”
You don’t have to be an out-and-out coward to let fear impact your leadership. Many people are unaware of how profoundly fear influences their decision making. Staver says you may be leading from a place of fear if the following apply to you:
You frequently take the easy way out. In other words, you avoid taking bold, decisive action because it makes you uncomfortable. Then, you rationalize why you didn’t do what you really needed to do: I wanted to go to the national trade show, but we just couldn’t get the prototype ready by the deadline…or I’ve always thought we should take part in the green initiative, but the CEO would just shoot down the suggestion, so there was no point in bringing it up.
Generally, says Staver, such rationalizations boil down to fear. What if you unveiled the prototype at the trade show and it flopped? What if you approached the CEO with your green initiative idea and he rejected you—or worse, what if he didn’t reject you and then you had to make it work? It’s easier to avoid taking action (at least in the short term), but it’s also a sure path to mediocrity and stagnation.
“There is no doubt that action drives results,” writes Staver. “A plan doesn’t drive results, willpower doesn’t drive results, and not even goals drive results. Action drives results. Period.”
You pretend you don’t know what you actually know. Pretending is common in the workplace, says Staver. You pretend you don’t know about opportunities in order to avoid risk. You pretend you don’t know that high performer is behaving badly and making other employees unhappy. You pretend that your biggest client isn’t crushing morale and needs to be fired. Maybe, you even pretend you don’t know it’s time for you to move on.
“All of this pretending allows you to avoid pain and feel good in the short term, but it exacts a heavy price over time,” observes Staver. “There is always a price to be paid for needed actions not taken. Never doubt it. Your job as a leader is to look reality in the face and accept it so that you can make the tough decisions that need to be made.”
You fall victim to “shiny ball” syndrome. Can you relate to this scenario? You’re trying (well, sort of) to focus on a serious project when a “shiny ball” rolls by. It may be an email or a phone call or just a less urgent task. You break away and chase the shiny ball until—well, would you look at that! It’s time to go home already!
Most of us can’t say no to such distractions, says Staver. In fact, we don’t want to say no because what we should be focusing on is usually difficult, unpleasant, or anxiety producing. Anyone can stay busy. It takes real courage to stay focused and on task.
“I heard a shocking statistic recently: The average Sunday edition of the New York Times has more information in it than the average human being in the 1700s received during his entire lifetime,” says Staver. “If we can’t achieve focus and manage the deluge of information that comes at us every day, we’ll drown in the chaos. We’ll fail to do the important things. We’ll fail as leaders.”
You ignore what’s causing “weight and drag” in your company. You already know what this is, don’t you? Maybe it’s a policy, a person, or a scarcity mindset that’s holding you or your team back from optimal performance. Ask yourself now: What am I doing, or not doing, that is adding weight and drag? Am I refusing to make a decision, waiting to hire an assistant, delaying a hiring or firing issue?
“At the core of your job is your role as an obstacle remover,” says Staver. “Be courageous: Remove the obstacles you can and work around the ones that remain so that you can stay productive, directed, and focused.”
You refuse to balance your head and your gut. It takes both facts and intuition to analyze properly. Many leaders stick to the analysis style they’re most comfortable with. (Staver calls the data deciders “mullers” and gut deciders “gunslingers.”) To blend the scientific and artistic is simply too intimidating. (What if you make a mistake?)
Courageous leaders, on the other hand, understand that decisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives require both aspects of analysis—and that means most of us need to step outside our comfort zones when it’s time to make decisions.
“Your leadership will be enhanced, the performance of your team will improve, and they will likely trust you more if you lead with both your head and your gut,” writes Staver. “They are like two sides of the same coin.”
You hide behind the “I’m not quite ready” excuse. “Leaders and organizations spend too much time getting ready to be ready to get ready to almost get ready to be ready to get ready,” writes Staver. “Then they form a committee or a task force (which is just a committee on steroids) to evaluate more and look into the situation more so that they can really be ready.”
Getting overly ready is a result of fear, he insists. You don’t want to fail so instead you put off the moment of truth by perpetually getting ready. Should you prepare? Of course! Do your research? Yes. But stop hiding behind the “we aren’t quite ready” curtain. Say, “Enough is enough,” and just do it—even if conditions aren’t perfect.
“If you are going to build a culture in which people take action and aren’t afraid to boldly step out, then you had better be courageous enough to endure a lack of perfection and a dab of chaos,” says Staver. “Messy and quick is better than perfect and slow.”
You forsake the present in favor of the future or the past. It takes courage to be fully present, says Staver. It takes discipline to not ruminate on what happened yesterday, look at your iPhone, check your email, or think about tomorrow’s agenda instead of fully committing to and engaging in the present. Worry, anticipation, regret, and hope are some of the mental processes that rob us of fully and courageously experiencing our leadership and influence on a day-to-day basis.
“I am not suggesting you should not plan for the future,” Staver writes. “I am not suggesting that you ignore the past instead of learning from it. What I am suggesting is that all the planning and reflecting in the world provides no guarantees. If you decide to trade this moment for the memory of yesterday or the concern of tomorrow, you are likely to miss what’s happening now.”
You see only the information that agrees with your beliefs. We all have a natural tendency to ignore information that contradicts our beliefs about the world, especially our negative beliefs. If we believe someone doesn’t like us, we will see only those behaviors that support that impression. If we think we are bad at something, we will see only more evidence of that conclusion. This tendency is so strong that it blinds us to contrary evidence. As long as we don’t see other possibilities we don’t have to take action.
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