I was talking to a friend recently who was at the top of a pretty big company for several years. He was running a business that was bringing in nearly a billion dollars in revenue annually and there were only a few layers between him and the CEO. He had a great paycheck, tons of people reporting to him, credibility in the organization and a pretty nice annual bonus. He was miserable.
The politics at that level of the organization was incredibly challenging. The expectations were extreme with respect to the amount of work that was generated and the scrutiny on the weekly and monthly numbers was intense. My friend was spending every moment of his eighty hour week managing, and none leading.
He had a huge organization that counted on him for leadership and yet he was mired in the reports, the meetings and the bureaucracy. Although he wanted to take his business to the next level and be the kind of leader that would help his team accomplish more, he had become just the opposite. He was working harder, stressing more and accomplishing less.
So he traded it all in for a front line job that put him back in front of clients. He gave up the prestige and the nice office and went back into selling. He couldn’t be happier. His peers were a little shocked at first and there was an awkward period where he found himself explaining why multiple times a day but he’s settling into the role and becoming more of a leader than he was able to be in the big job.
His new peers and others are coming to him routinely to ask how they should handle challenging clients or to understand the products better. He has had managers pull him aside to get a little advice on a tough situation with a team member and advice on how to move up the corporate ladder.
In our last conversation I was struck by how much more of an impact he felt like he was having on the business now than he was when he was running it. He’s making sales, helping others, creating momentum instead of drafting presentations, preparing for meetings and answering emails.
I walked away from our conversation with a few key thoughts about leadership that were driven home for me as we talked.
If you’re not having fun, you can’t lead for long. If you aren’t enjoying the journey and getting some satisfaction from what you do, then it’s impossible to lead others in any sustainable way. People want to follow people who have a great attitude, start their day with energy and cause others around them to be more positive. I’ve never known anyone who worked that way if they were miserable. You can fake it for a while but it requires more energy than most people can muster over the long haul.
You can lead from anywhere. It doesn’t matter what your title is, how big your office or your paycheck is or how many people you command. Leadership is often about making a difference one person at a time and you can do that from any position or pay grade.
Alignment matters. Sometimes the organization’s definition of leadership and yours are different and when that happens you either have to get them aligned, or get out. This doesn’t apply just to big businesses either. I have known small business owners who thought leading their company would look very different than it does once they get up and running. Their challenge is to make adjustments that allow them to lead the way they set out to instead of getting caught up in the activities that soon create an environment where the business is leading them.
Leadership should be fun, rewarding and leave you feeling well used up, but satisfied, at the end of the day. If that’s not how you are feeling then leadership gets very difficult and you’re probably not doing it very well. When you’re focused on the misery of your own situation it’s impossible to help others look at all the exciting possibilities in theirs. Figure out what changes you need to make, and then get moving. If you aren’t enjoying the trip, chances are the people that are supposed to be following you aren’t either.
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