Leading an organization is incredibly rewarding and equally humbling. It requires healthy doses of confidence and humility. Every success is built on lessons from mistakes made. You are frequently questioning your assumptions, being questioned, assessing your decisions, weighing data versus instinct, and hopefully finding time to recharge.
This balancing act is indicative of tensions inherent in leadership. Those tensions can be a source of great learning and strength. The lessons gained sometimes seem obvious in retrospect. But hindsight doesn’t mean it was obvious, it just means you now have the experience to make it seem obvious. Whether currently in leadership, or headed that way, here are three leadership tensions worth being prepared for.
Responsible for everything, but not great at everything
As a leader, you are ultimately responsible for everything, either on your team or in your organization—but it is impossible to be great at everything. So, just how good do you need to be at everything? Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and the first Black woman to helm a Fortune 500 company, once said, “A CEO is a little bit above average at everything. But you do have to be really really good at something.” For her, that something was engineering. For me, it is talent. As a leader, you need to know that about yourself. What is the area in which you have deep expertise?
Identify that area and be known for it. In most other areas accept that you don’t need to be—and can’t be—an expert. Expertise needs to reside in your teams, not in you. But that doesn’t mean you can be average in everything else. That’s a sure way to lose credibility. You need to be able to add value in all other areas. To do that, identify where you are average and start learning. Don’t shoot for expertise, just shoot to get better. To Burns’ point, be excellent in your domain and just above average outside of it.
“The right answer” vs. “the best answer”
In most roles, doing well means having the right answer. As a leader it is the opposite. If you are a strong leader, the questions you face are the ones that no one else can answer. As a matter of fact, if you are solving problems that others could have solved, it’s a sign that you aren’t delegating, are micromanaging, or need a stronger team.
If you are signing off on final decisions—perhaps because they are politically complex, or your input adds necessary weight—that isn’t a problem. But if you are making the final decision on too many things, you need to rethink your role. There are two categories that should make it to your desk. First, the things for which there is no answer. Maybe it hasn’t been done before. Or maybe your team, that is usually very capable, is stumped. Second, sometimes there are too many answers. Some decisions have a multitude of options and they all seem good, or they all seem bad. Those categories are uniquely yours.
Smart people, and smart teams get stuck. That’s fine. It’s your job to get them unstuck. But make no mistake, in those moments you won’t always have the right answer. Sometimes there isn’t a great answer, just a better option. Your job is to weigh alternatives, decide, and then work with your team on contingencies for where that answer takes you. For leaders, the right answer is often actually about deciding on the best answer and managing the outcome. Being decisive and managing what comes next is as important as having the right answer.
CEO of today and tomorrow
As a leader, you aren’t just in charge of today. You are also in charge of tomorrow. Those are two different businesses—you are the CEO of both. When I say “business” I don’t just mean the work of today and tomorrow, I also mean the organization of today and tomorrow. You need to make sure the organization is executing its current initiatives, delivering its current goals, meeting current demands, satisfying current customers, supporting current team members, etc. That is the work of today.
But tomorrow is coming. There is no stopping it. Your job is to think about the future, what type of organization will succeed in that future? What type of people will you need? What are the long-term goals? Do you have a succession plan? Leading that work is an entirely different job than what is on your plate in the moment. This commonly manifests as the “important vs. urgent” dilemma.
If something is urgent and important, most leaders know to prioritize it. If it is not urgent and not important, they know to deprioritize it. The two remaining categories, however, are often incorrectly prioritized. The CEO of today will prioritize the things that are not important but urgent. But you are not the CEO of today. You are the CEO of today and tomorrow—in which case you need to prioritize important but not urgent. Those are easy to put off because urgent is in your face and important is further away. The discipline of leadership requires working with team leaders on the important and urgent. Delegating the not important but urgent. And taking the lead on the important but not urgent.
There is a difference between having knowledge and learning. Learning comes from the tension created by putting knowledge into practice. Only experience can create that necessary tension. Absorb this article with that in mind. It isn’t the answer. It is knowledge. Put it into play, stumble, get up, adjust, and learn. In the midst of that tension, you’ll find yourself becoming a stronger leader.