The year 2020 has been exceptional and unexpected.
As business owners and leaders alike, we’re facing entirely novel challenges—never before seen in our careers. And it’s not like there was a Leadership Operating Manual we inherited, instructing us how to counter a pandemic and feeble economy at the same time.
For small and medium-sized businesses the strain is existential. Some businesses are battling with an expiration date looming on their horizon, while others have had to say their final goodbyes, and close up shop for good.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
But the crisis isn’t limited to just small and medium-sized businesses. Though enterprise organizations and corporations appear to have a greater degree of insulation, we’ve seen the notion of “too big to fail” put to the test. We’ve seen layoffs by the thousands, and brands we cherish and grew up with on the brink of fading away forever.
Regardless of the nature or size of your business, pandemic or no pandemic—being a leader has never been easy. It’s lonely at the top, and it’s just become a lot harder.
The realities of leadership
As leaders we work under a microscope—as we should. The decisions we make have very real, very sobering consequences that don’t just affect our business, but our people, too.
We aren’t expected to just lead our companies towards success, but do so while demonstrating the very best leadership behaviors. And during these unnerving times, that scrutiny has magnified—every announcement, decision, action, conversation and behavior is critiqued, judged, and evaluated.
While this level of scrutiny comes with the territory—it can be challenging to reconcile being human and making mistakes, and being a fearless leader in the face of uncertainty.
Leadership is a privilege, but it’s not always a pleasure—these are the realities of being a leader:
As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” While we may have the best intentions as leaders, people don’t always interpret our intentions—rather, they judge us by our actions. They make their own assumptions, and those assumptions become their reality. Perception is reality, and you must be okay with it.
Empathy is not always a two-way street. As leaders we must strive for empathy, always. We may walk a mile in our people’s shoes, but not receive the same level of empathy for the position we’re in as leaders—because, “it’s your company,” or, “you’re in charge.” You must be okay with it.
We must break down barriers between work and life, so we can better understand and empathize with what employees are experiencing at home and in life. And attempt to help in whatever capacity we can. Sometimes our employees struggle to see past the label of “boss” to consider our lives outside the role. You must be okay with it.
As leaders we have to trust our teams if we want them to be cohesive and high-performing. But the flip side of that—gaining the trust of our teams—can feel demanding and unbalanced. You must be okay with it.
There are double standards we have to consciously overlook, as we receive feedback that isn’t acted on by the person giving it. Feedback is a gift—and we can’t let the giver's own pitfalls diminish that feedback. You must be okay with it.
You might give a team member feedback in the moment to help them grow or improve—maybe it wasn’t packaged perfectly. They may understand that feedback as being more critical than constructive, and feel attacked. You must be okay with it.
We are human, and we are emotional—and at times our emotions can get the better of us. We snap, we raise our voices, we get impatient—then we apologize. But sometimes a leadership behaviors are held onto, they aren’t forgiven, and we have to work overtime to make up for those misdeeds. You must be okay with it.
We recognize and appreciate even the smallest of sacrifices our people make. Yet, we feel like our own sacrifices are at times overlooked. You must be okay with it.
It’s our responsibility to align with, and help our employees grow personally and professionally. However, when their agendas don’t align perfectly with company vision, they are skeptical or maintain a hardline stance against it. You must be okay with it.
There is a sense of loneliness in leadership—and recent times have only exacerbated the feeling of isolation and disconnect. Let’s be honest, who isn’t experiencing this?
I still commute to and work out of our office most days. I spend a lot of time alone in a 25,000 sq. ft office because it makes me feel closer to my people, my biggest motivator. But the issue isn’t just the physical distance that’s discouraging to us leaders—it’s the emotional distance and toll that is even more taxing.
These are the realities of modern leadership, but as a leader, you must be okay with it.
Making sense of this reality
This reality can at times feel more like a nightmare than a reality. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t lost sleep at any point in 2020.
I have felt crippled by insecurity, overwhelmed by the responsibility—and had to fend off a nagging sense of self-doubt with every ounce of my being. But there is solace—there are things you can do to shock yourself out of that nightmare, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Focus on the good, analyze the bad
Every small success can be expanded on, compounded, and used to build momentum. That is the power of progress. Those everyday wins create confidence—confidence in your teams, confidence in your vision, and confidence in yourself.
And when things go awry—analyze it, study it, and pick it apart. Understand why it happened, not how it could have gone better. It’s not so much a point of mindset (optimism vs. pessimism), but being solutions-focused rather than problems-focused.
Concentrate on what you can do, not what’s been done to you
As leaders we are under the microscope—while our intentions may be good, our actions always speak louder than our words. We might inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings with the feedback we give. We might raise our voices because we’re passionate. And sometimes, we just make the wrong play call.
As a result, unforgiveness can form—trust can be depleted, and judgement can be passed onto us that may feel unfair, or simply incorrect. But you can’t fall into the trap of feeling like a victim. You have to ask yourself, “What can I do?”
If you want to see change, advocate for it. If people have misconceptions, mentor them. If you make mistakes, own them. Sun Tzu wrote, “a leader leads by example, not by force.”
Remember: no leader is an island
I’ve said it’s lonely at the top, but the simple truth is: that’s nonsense.
No leader is an island. Though we may sit at the top of our organizations, and final accountability rests on our shoulders—we are human and we do not need to feel alone. We need our teams—we need their empathy, their support, and their love.
But we cannot just sit there and expect it. We need to be vulnerable, we need to be human—and we need to ask for help. Your organization’s greatest strength (and my biggest motivator) is your people. Now is not the time to sit alone at the top—your business is not going to survive or grow, if you think you can do it alone.
There is opportunity in our new reality.
You probably don’t want to hear that—and I’m not trying to undermine or minimize the obstacles your business is facing. But you can’t let those obstacles undermine or minimize your influence and ability to create meaningful change in your business, and in the lives of your employees.
Leading ain’t easy. But it is an absolute privilege, and an awesome responsibility.
You have the ability to touch more lives and help more people in a day, than some people get in a lifetime. Along the way, people won’t agree with you, they won’t like your decisions—and they might even inadvertently hurt you on a personal level.
But getting consensus is not your job, neither is being liked—and if you thought everyone was going to be your best friend, then perhaps try taking off the rose-tinted glasses.
You are in the position you are, because it’s who you are—it’s not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t always a pleasure.
Now accept it, and go kick some ass.
And give your teams a big virtual hug.