Your job as a leader isn’t what you think it is.
When many people visualize a leader, they picture someone almost like a superhero. A mythical creature who has all the right answers all the time. One of the most common insecurities we hear from the leaders we work with is the pressure to have all the answers at the tip of their fingers.
The best leaders don’t have all the answers and they know they don’t need to. The best leaders ask great questions and build capacity in their teams so there is greater ownership of the work and a deep bench of team members who can serve the team in a variety of ways.
Often, we use the words leader, manager, and boss in place of each other. And while the work of leaders and managers has considerable overlap, there are also significant distinctions.
Transactional Telling vs. Capacity Building
Developing well-rounded team members is a key part of any leader’s role. And finding opportunities and challenging tasks to help them push the boundaries of their skills (called ‘zone of proximal development’) is how leaders find and define a transformational practice for their teams. Identifying opportunities where all your team members, regardless of perceived potential or ‘promotability,’ can push themselves with your coaching and support.
Managers may assign tasks to those who have room to work on them without thinking about how the work or opportunities may aid in their team members’ development. This usually isn’t malicious, instead, it’s another way transactional interactions show up in the workplace.
You always want to have an eye on ways you can give your team members opportunities to build their confidence and competence to solve problems, mentor their peers, collectively decide on a solution, and most importantly, make mistakes.
Fixed-Mindset Culture vs. Culture of Experimentation and Learning
A common pitfall is believing your job as a leader is to provide immediate answers or solutions to problems occurring in the day-to-day work. The issue isn’t that you are or remain knowledgeable about the work your team members are doing; it’s that by positioning yourself as the single source of answers, you are setting up your team for long-term failure.
When a leader provides a solution too quickly for their team members, they become the person to rely on, and in doing so, they remove the opportunity for anyone doing the work the chance to think creatively, to pursue possibilities, to mentor others, and to grow the pool from which answers could come.
You may become frustrated with your team members because they have ‘lost’ the ability to develop innovative answers or solutions. Still, the reality is that you, the leader, aren’t giving them ample opportunities to get messy, get it wrong, and develop a team culture of experimentation.
You may also experience frustration at your habits by filling up your own time with chasing down answers, leaving you with little to no time to do the deep, strategic work the company hired you to perform.
I know you may be wrestling with this, wondering, “What if I look stupid?” or “Shouldn’t I know these things? I’m the manager/director/team lead, after all…”
Your job as a leader is “Chief Question Asking Officer.” You should be asking the questions of your teams that encourage them to push boundaries and find solutions. Will they fail sometimes? Yes. But then it is your job as a leader to help them navigate that failure and uncover more possibilities and learnings.
And by empowering your team in this way, you build in white space to your daily work where you can now tackle more significant, deep-thinking, time-consuming work.
Toxic Workplaces Vs. Psychological Safety
You set the tone for your team’s sense of safety by how you respond to difficult criticism, intense disputes, and conflicts of values in the workplace.
There are some traits that distinguish high-performing and value-added teams from average or lower-performing ones. Psychological safety, for example, is one of those things.
Being able to be your genuine self, fail, take risks, and disagree without fear is what psychological safety is all about. Workplaces with a high degree of psychological safety feel like the opposite of walking on eggshells.
Leaders will proactively work to create psychological safety for themselves and their team members. And team members will need to go through the following stages of safety before they feel fully secure, according to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Determining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.
Safety in inclusion is the first stage since it meets the human desire for connection and belonging. Your unique qualities and distinguishing characteristics will now be acknowledged as part of your persona, allowing you to be yourself without fear.
In the second stage, learner safety, the urge to learn and grow is satisfied. In this stage, you feel comfortable asking questions, offering and accepting criticism, experimenting, and making errors in the learning process.
Participant safety is the third stage and it fulfills the desire to make a difference. You’re comfortable using your talents and abilities to make a meaningful contribution since you’re confident in your abilities.
In the fourth stage, referred to as challenger safety, the demand to improve things is met. When you see an opportunity for change or improvement, you feel comfortable speaking out and challenging the status quo.
Managers may never be willing, or able, to do the work of ushering their team members through these stages of safety. Whereas a Leader will do what is within their power to make safe environments a reality.
Leadership is a Development Journey
I also want to dispel the notion that a promotion signals the end of your work towards success. Success will look different now, and your work will continue. Primarily the work will consist of pushing your boundaries to become more self-aware. It’s not as simple as achieving a title and becoming a complete leader.
You will need to find ways to unlock your potential, alter your perspective, open new options, and change how you relate to yourself and others.
Your Fearless Audit
Ask yourself these questions and journal your responses to further self-reflection:
- What am I doing or not doing to encourage experimentation with my team?
- In what ways am I preventing or encouraging innovative thinking and problem-solving?
- What am I doing or not doing that prevents me from having the time to tackle the deep work of my position?