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Beating unrealistic expectations and creating good leadership

Karen Meager - Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy

Metrics for measuring the effectiveness of a business leader have changed over the years. It used to be all about profits, but things are different these days. While modern business leaders are still expected to provide strategic thinking and make business decisions, they are also being held responsible for employees’ mental health and wellbeing, psychological safety, as well as diversity and inclusion. They are expected to be decisive yet flexible, empathetic yet analytical, and clear yet nuanced. It can be exhausting.

Good leaders care about their teams and employees. But the more they care, the more they are hurt by the constant critique and judgement. Many feel that they cannot do right no matter what, resulting in them evaluating whether they are right for the role. Unfortunately, if these caring leaders leave the profession, those that remain will be the hard-nosed, thick-skinned, disconnected leaders that don’t care about the critics.

But we need good leaders now more than ever. So, what needs to change to encourage good leadership? And what can leaders do to make it easier? Here’s what’s needed:

It’s important to find ways to develop resilience to criticism. This doesn’t mean you stop taking feedback. It does, however, mean creating a layer of armour around yourself so that you don’t take it all so personally.

Armour also means boundaries. While it can be difficult to express clear boundaries sometimes, setting them for yourself can be a helpful reminder to switch off and recover. Set times when you will switch off your phone and laptop so you aren’t always available. Try to limit the number of evenings you work late as well. This will help maintain some energy and work-life balance.

Strong emotional regulation
Becoming triggered by all the emotional chaos around you is exhausting. Unfortunately, when others are emotional, your emotional dysregulations will suck you in, causing a cycle of upset. The employee is upset, you become upset, they are upset at your reaction and get more upset, and so on.

It can be useful to consider what psychologists call the Drama Triangle. In the triangle, there are victims, rescuers and persecutors. Victims need a persecutor to blame and a rescuer to save them. Being cast as the persecutor can feel unfair and unwarranted, leading them to become the victims in their own triangle. Being cast as the rescuer can feel rewarding at first but, really, it is an unending task since the victim stays steadfast in their role as victim.

Instead of getting sucked into any of these roles, it is important for leaders to remain grounded. That way, you can listen and empathise without feeling the need to agree or disagree, rescue or persecute.

It also helps to be well-organised. Keep in mind that most people like clarity and hate surprises. Publishing an agenda for every meeting, however small, can help people to prepare mentally and emotionally. Similarly, having an appointed facilitator can help provide clarity and direction to meetings.

If you need to cancel, leave or rearrange a meeting, be sure to take an extra moment to explain why. People will really appreciate the clarity and it will stop them from taking it personally and becoming dysregulated themselves.

Clarity about leader type
Identify your strengths, and lean into them, cultivating skills that you are uniquely good at. If your strengths don’t fit the organisation, perhaps it actually isn’t the right role for you. If they do fit, you can make yourself part of the fabric of the business.

As well as identifying your strengths, it can be very useful to find your ‘why’. Why do you do this work? Why is it meaningful to you? Once you know the reason and meaning behind your own motivations, it becomes easier to focus on them and develop the right skills for meaningful work.

By setting the right development goals—those that feel meaningful and relevant—you will become the type of leader you want to be. You can’t be an expert at everything, so for things that you are less good at, find someone else who can help plug the gaps.

 Peer support
Leadership can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Cultivating a group of supportive peers and/or mentors to go to for help processing difficult events can provide essential moral support.

Peer support groups can be particularly important and effective in larger organisations, where structures tend to be more hierarchical. By creating a cohort of leaders on a similar level, you can share and discuss challenges openly without fear of conflicting agendas or power dynamics.

In smaller organisations, or for very senior leaders, developing a mentor relationship can be a useful approach. It is important that you can trust your mentor so that you can speak openly and share your concerns freely. It can also help if the mentor has some pre-existing knowledge of your industry so that the conversation and advice are relevant.

Mastery of the difficult conversation
Dealing with difficult people and behaviour is a key part of being a leader yet is one aspect that many leaders find hard, especially those who are more sensitive and empathetic.

Many people think that they can avoid conflict by avoiding difficult conversations, but this only causes issues to remain hidden and fester. Difficult conversations are essential in understanding the expectations and challenges of employees.

If you can create armour for yourself, establish clear boundaries, develop your emotional regulation, and have peer support, these conversations will become much easier.

However, this does not come naturally for most people and requires practice. Start small and build up as your skills improve. You can practise your listening skills with peers, mentors and third-party trainers before going into a ‘live’ situation. And there will always be an opportunity to practise in live situations through your work.

There are lots of books and resources that can help, from our practical guide Real Leaders to Adam Grant’s brilliant book Think Again which challenges our fundamental notions on how to shift perceptions and have productive, challenging conversations.

You don’t need to do everything that is asked of you, but you do need to engage. That means listening, understanding and asking questions. Showing that you are genuinely interested and concerned goes a long way to resolving conflict.

The world needs compassionate and empathetic leaders now more than ever to help deliver an economy that looks after people and the planet. Remember that it is possible to be a kind, caring leader without burning out.

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