Leadership Is Often Letting Your Friends Down At a Pace They Can Absorb

As a kid, my parents used to drag the three of us boys into the city (a 9 hour drive) to get our annual physicals. Though I didn't think too much of it at the time, I remember how the exam rooms always smelled of cigarette smoke: the doc's clothes, his hands, and even the furniture. Though I've never smoked cigarettes, I've always liked the smell, and this olfactory memory is branded in my brain.

Later, when we came to think of smoking differently as a public health threat, I was always struck at the dissonance of my doctor being a heavy smoker. In his brain there was certainly a push-pull: "I love this right now." But also "I wonder what the long-term implications will be."

ST vs. LT

That, my friends, is a core element of good leadership: balancing the seeming demands of the present with a concern about where this might take you long-term:

  • My key person wants and probably deserves more money, but that's going to skew our overall salary spend and I wonder where this is taking us.
  • We're on an exhilarating growth curve and our thirst for funds is crazy. Leverage, lower pay for myself, less profit: these can all be sacrificed in the short term, but I wonder where this is taking us.
  • My team wants a very strict interpretation of "purpose" as we consider which clients to take on, but they also never want to miss a paycheck, and I wonder where this is taking us.

It's pretty well known that humans are distinct in how they are capable of processing the present through the eyes of the future. Yes, squirrels gather acorns for the winter...but they also run right in front of cars. The very best humans, though, delay instant gratification, sometimes, because they can see the future and they care about it. (This doesn't apply to young kids, who only see the present. All parenting is opening their eyes to the future.)

I have 2-3 drinks most days. No, they are not good for me. You have to "do your own research," as they say, to believe that some alcohol is good. I know my life will be somewhat shorter, but those last few months aren't all that great, anyway. I've determined that a few drinks a day are a tradeoff I'm willing to make.

These 2-3 drinks, for you, are:

  • Your team's demands.
  • Your client's demands.
  • Your bank's demands.
  • Your partner's demands.

"Leadership is often letting down your friends at a pace that they can absorb."

That quote (by Tom Perez) keeps taking up space in my mind. Leadership is a steady stream of disappointing people who have a shorter-term view than you do. It's not all bad, though, because those immediate voices also keep you honest. If you have a rigid long-term goal that requires more of the present than your team wants to give, well, you're going to have to learn the ins and outs of recruiting on LinkedIn. But if you listen to the immediate voices indiscriminately, they're the ones who will have to be better at job hunting on LinkedIn.

Just remember that leadership is a healthy tension between the present and the future, and the balance should never be resolved. There are times when you should shift toward one and away from the other, and the true impact of your leadership decisions will never be unassailable now—it's going to take some time to determine if you were right.

I think this is why it's so important to make principled leadership decisions. These revolve around money, teamwork, impact, work/life balance, and so on. It's a delicate balance that quickly spins out of control unless you monitor it.

Mainly, I want to plant this seed: your job leading the firm is to make sure that decisions in the present don't cripple your options in the future. The shrill voices in your ear are yammering on and on about the present—you must listen, but you must contextualize the demands, and that, my friends, is why your role as a leader can feel alone. The only people who understand this, too, are other leaders, so make sure you're friends with a bunch of them.

Existence vs. Essence

Another way to view your role as a leader is to balance existence (will the firm still be around) and essence (what does the firm stand for). I don't like to think of this as a zero sum game, but it's also really naive to think that you can have all of everything.

But whenever you are trying to balance short-term demands with a long-term vision, just think of a) what'll ensure your viability b) without more tradeoffs than you're willing to accept.

The leadership stories I hear from you are inspiring. Keep it up.

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