Typically when I start coaching a new client, I spend our first meeting doing a lot of listening. It doesn’t take long to figure outwhere the opportunities are to help someone if you just let them talk for a while. A while back I was coaching an executive and he spent a great deal of our first meeting explaining all of the things that were keeping him from leading.
While most leaders will have a number of things they wish were different in the world, this particular executive spent more time than most explaining to me why he couldn’t possibly succeed as a leader in this environment. There was a long list of reasons why he had to spend all of his time solving problems that his people, and their people, created.
After listening for a while I asked him how he was going to adapt to more effectively lead this business and these people. Then I suggested that maybe these people needed a different leader. He bristled at the suggestion that someone else could do his job better than he could. I explained to him that I didn’t say they needed a different person, he may very well be the perfect person, but he wasn’t yet the right leader. As long as he saw his people as the problem, he wasn’t capable of leading them.
I had the good fortune several years back to be seated at a dinner table with Captain Jim Lovell. If you don’t know who Jim Lovell is all you have to do is go rent the movie Apollo 13 and watch the portrayal of him by Tom Hanks. He was the captain of the Apollo 13 mission.
I had an opportunity during Dinner to ask Captain Lovell what he believed the single biggest factor was that contributed to their mission getting home safely. He said that for a while there, during the chaos, they were distracted by all of the things that were going wrong and were out of their control. Captain Lovell said they moment they started focusing on what they could do to make a difference, they set a series of events in motion that helped them return to earth and see their families again. They realized that there was a lot that was completely out of their hands. What Houston was doing, the freezing temperatures, the damage that was done to their spacecraft; they couldn’t change any of it. And every moment they spent worrying about it could cost them their lives.
That’s great leadership in a crisis, but everyday leadership is a lot like that. So many leaders spend most of their time worrying about all of the things that are in their way and so little of it thinking about what they need to do to succeed in spite of them.
Every great leader I’ve worked with has had to lead in challenging situations. Whether it’s tough market conditions, inheriting a broken culture, company politics or even natural disasters. The moment they start thinking that the problem is out there, that’s the real problem. We can only affect the things we can influence or control and if we think our people are broken, for instance, then we need to become a leader who can either help them find a better fit or lead them to become more successful in their current job. If we had a bad team last month, we can’t help that now, but if our team is still just as bad next month, that’s our fault. Every time I’ve located a consistently underperforming team, there’s an underperforming leader somewhere close by.
Great leaders adapt to challenging situations and look inward first to figure out what they need to do differently to help the organization and its people succeed in a tough environment. It’s ok to say, “Houston, we have a problem”, as long as you then start becoming part of the solution.
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