Rats Who Can Swim Will Leave A Sinking Ship First

I consult with leaders all day. Not about leadership, but about the decisions they want to make. Currently I'm working with firms in Minneapolis, Dubai, Portugal, Philly, Wyoming, Australia, London, North Carolina, Chicago, Kansas, Tennessee, Austin, Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco.

What do all these leaders have in common?

  • They are asked to make decisions before the fog lifts, trying to get as much clarity as they can but compelled to act before everything is certain.
  • They have to do what's in the best interests of the organization, even if that means inflicting pain on an individual who comprises part of that team.
  • They struggle with loneliness and self-doubt: the people they spend the most time with are not all objective. They aren't in the same position of leadership and they each bring their own agendas to the table, which is exactly what you would expect.

When a decision needs to be made, everybody kind of knows it, and the stopwatch starts, measuring the interval between when that's apparent and when you muster the courage to make the call, whatever that is. Sometimes the team knows that a decision is required without knowing what that decision should be. They wait, and wait, trusting that you'll take everything into consideration and make (what you believe to be) the best choice. At other times, they know what your decision should be and they are just waiting to see how long it takes you to arrive at the same realization. When you act, they mutter: "finally".

I'm talking here about decisions around:

  • Staffing levels.
  • Hitting performance targets.
  • Changes to your positioning.
  • Disciplined lead gen planning.
  • Service offering expansion/contraction.
  • Dealing with a difficult client.
  • Moving someone into or out of another leadership position.

What happens if you wait too long to make one of those decisions? That's kind of what I want to talk about.

Leadership vacuums do not remain unfilled. In the absence of strong leadership, other people are going to make those decisions for you, and that is seldom ideal.

Let me illustrate that with how your team feels about working for you. They want:

  • To be noticed and heard.
  • Opportunities to learn.
  • A clear indication of how they will be evaluated and the degree to which they are meeting that standard, in your eyes.
  • Defined, shared culture around collaboration, mutual support, and the right mix of encouragement and guidance.
  • Meaningful work that makes a difference.
  • Solidly run organization so that they don't worry about missing a paycheck or no extra money to recognize their extraordinary efforts.
  • Steady leadership where you, as a human that experiences ups and downs, still bring a predictable evenness to your role.
  • Growth, an exciting future, and a commitment to kicking the asses of other firms who pretend to be as good.

If something begins to slip in that social construct, and they view your leadership as insufficient or wavering, they will take things into their own hands. They will:

  • Build unholy alliances to consolidate power.
  • Undermine your leadership further by injecting a common language of protest.
  • Spit out the undesirable team members by isolating their influence, withholding cooperation, and a dozen passive-aggressive hints every day.

When you let others fill that leadership vacuum, you are failing your people. There might be something going on in your life that would cause all your detractors to be more empathetic with how difficult your life is right now. But leadership is what you signed up for, and abdication doesn't mean that leadership stops--it means that someone else is going to lead, and you will probably not like that result.

When the ship starts taking on water, who do you think will be the first to abandon ship? Typically it's going to be the most qualified team members who are confident in their abilities and who will easily find some other place to work where leadership is strong. The rats you'll be left with are the ones who can't swim, cowered in their angry corners, nursing every perceived slight and adding to the chorus of complaint.

Lead, please.

Your instincts are probably better than you think, there are many peers to help you through things, and there are good advisors everywhere.

The people whose lives you are impacting for good will be forever grateful that you did your best, even when it wasn't always enough.

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