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Self-management includes some tough challenges

People regularly ask me, “What are the most common issues you see leaders struggling with?”

All leaders grapple at times with business uncertainties, personnel issues, economic fears and personal family concerns. But the most chronic leadership struggles have to do with the leader’s self-management. Six self-management challenges stand out:

1. Avoiding discomfort
Most of the avoidance that happens in leadership stems from emotional discomfort. If leaders could learn to regulate their allergy to discomfort, they would care less about approval and perfection and make better decisions.

This is more challenging than it sounds. I wish I had a dollar for every decision I see leaders make that is driven by their need to be liked.

The odd thing is that leaders who make acceptance a priority are rarely respected in the long run. Another way to say it: Caving in to the fear of rejection often leads to rejection.

2. Dealing with enemies
I coach my clients and children to learn how to deal with people they don’t like.

One of my parenting quips is: “By the time we get rid of all the people you don’t like, there won’t be anybody left.”

I often hear family, business and global leaders perpetrating an “eliminate the enemy” mindset. I have two main beefs with seeing people as “enemies”—whether they are business competitors, siblings or war-mongers.

The first is that such an attitude guarantees a highly anxious relationship. Anxious relationships are much more prone to impulsive decisions and destructive consequences.

The second problem with an enemy mindset is that it feeds my own irresponsibility. As long as the other is the problem, I don’t have to look at myself. In fact, one way to shield myself from responsibility is to make the other the bad guy.

Instead of hyper-focusing on enemies, take a good hard look at your response to the enemies.

3. The high cost of the easy way
I’ve noticed that people who always take the easy way rarely feel good about themselves.

The most vulnerable individuals include: Young adults who are “given” jobs and opportunities based on their bloodline, students who have no stake in their college expenses, spouses or business partners who continually avoid discussing uncomfortable issues, lottery winners and anyone who takes more than they give for an extended period of time.

Traveling the easy path can be morally and emotionally costly. One of the truly noble virtues—sacrifice—becomes unavailable. Self-confidence diminishes; one never gets to taste the sweaty satisfaction of a tough job well done.

The option of relationship commitment would be off the table for one seeking an easy way.

If you’re one of those people with a history of taking it easy, and want to turn it around, here’s something I’ve learned: One of the most helpful therapies for self-absorption is becoming a contributor to a greater good.

4. The devil’s advocate
Employees widely believe that they cannot communicate difficult messages to their bosses—“because I could get fired.” In 99 percent of the cases, that’s a cop out.

When I talk to CEOs and presidents, partners in professional firms, school superintendents, or government leaders, here’s what they say: “The most valuable people who work for me are those who will tell me the truth as they see it. That includes their feedback to me, about me.”

Not all leaders are that open. But many are.

Some open-minded bosses don’t indicate their openness—that’s a problem.

But timid employees play a big part in ivory-tower leadership. We complain that bosses are clueless, but we won’t take the risk to skillfully enlighten them about what we are observing. Protecting leaders from accurate observations harms the business.

Any top leader who’s not getting honest feedback from below should consider appointing a “devil’s advocate” for one year. The job of the devil’s advocate is to report uncomfortable messages, contrary opinions and unflattering feedback to the person at the top.

A good devil’s advocate sifts important information from hearsay, gossip and whining. And they frame their feedback as personal perception only (“I’ve noticed …”)

To avoid favoritism, the “devil’s advocate” is a rotating role with a one-year term limit.

5. Deeper connections
The biggest problem I see in leaders is their inability to connect at a deeper level with their spouses, children, business partners and staff. Much of the distance and conflict that occurs in families and businesses could be greatly eased if leaders knew how to forge deeper conversations.

Leaders I interact with want to do this, but deeper conversations are out of their comfort zones, and they haven’t developed what I call connection capacities.

Connection capacities include emotional awareness, humility (“seeing oneself as one really is”), the willingness to reveal self to others, genuine curiosity about the other, an appreciation for what the other is up against, and the ability to listen.

These capacities are learned neither easily nor perfectly. Progress in these areas requires focus. Many leaders spend too much time doing what they like and are good at: solving problems, giving advice and cutting deals.

A steady commitment to prioritize connection can shift the tenor of even the most troubled relationships. It’s tough to connect with someone if you are not on the road to knowing yourself.

6. Approval-seeking parents
The same approval-seeking virus that infects business leaders has practically defined American parenting in the last two decades. Unlike many other maladies, over-functioning strikes educated parents at least as often as uneducated parents.

Worry and fear dominate the mindsets of most parents I know. What exactly are we worried about? Three objects of fret come to mind:

Parents worry about their own deficiencies and that those limitations “will screw up my children”;

  •  Parents are obsessed with their kids’ safety, despite the fact that this is the safest society humans have ever known; and
  •  Parents lack faith that their kids will figure it out, and they begin functioning as if parental input is always helpful and necessary.

Many want to normalize this: “It’s natural to worry about your kids.” Even when they’re 26? No, it’s not.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.

3/20/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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