Leadership and Disappointment

I noticed this morning that someone reached my blog by searching on the terms “leadership and disappointment.” No doubt they found my page on Lessons from a CIA Manager, where Lesson 12 quotes Ron Heifetz on his insight that leadership is disappointing your followers at a rate they can tolerate. But I think there is much more to say on the subject. (When I searched on leadership and disappointment, I ran across this blog by a pastor who is also writing about the Heifetz leadership principles.)

Heifetz of course is talking primarily about the disappointment caused when leaders take their followers in a direction they may never have thought of going and, even harder, to a place they do not want to be. But being a leader is also about constantly and personally dealing with the emotion of disappointment. Being a leader–and I’m talking specifically here about the role of the leader as the agent of change–means living through long periods of disappointment which, if you’re lucky, are punctuated by occasional moments of giddy success.

What are the different types of disappointment a leader is likely to experience?

The Kneejerk Negative: I know you’ve lived this innumerable times. You start explaining an idea you have about how to see a situation from a different perspective or change a process and several people in the audience immediately start shaking their heads and tell you that’s not right and you’re wrong. Now you know, given the time you’ve devoted to this idea, thinking about it, considering the pros and cons, that it’s almost certainly impossible the nay-sayers are basing their comments on anything but immediate and visceral reactions. Once those reactions occur, however, good luck in trying to return the discussion to a more measured approach.

The God, You’re Brilliant: The opposite of the Kneejerk Negative but really just as bad. Again you’re recommending a change or improvement agenda, and the sycophants immediately accept it just because of your authority position. Those you can handle, but the more problematic group are the naive enthusiasts who underestimate the implementation and acceptance hurdles, disrespect the thoughtful concerns of others–“I don’t understand how they can be so stupid,”  and turn off fence-sitters with their excessive euphoria.

The I Was a Coward in that Meeting: Unless you bull rush your way through organizations, which is, I would contend, just about impossible given the physics of change, you will, as a leader interested in facilitating change, always be carefully trading off when to be aggressive against when to be conciliatory and/or indirect. You will mess up that calculation on a regular basis and walk away from many a meeting knowing you could have done more to advance your argument if you had been aggressive with your convictions.

The I Blew It: The existential disappointment: when you realize you’ve been wrong. You will be wrong; change is a risky endeavor. Even if your ideas are structurally correct–and they won’t always be, just the challenge of implementation will inject messiness and error. This is why the Kneejerk Negative reaction of so many of your colleagues is so damaging to the health of your group and its mission. A considered conversation on what to do next always gives you the best odds for improvement.

The I Never Thought You’d Disappoint Me: I had a colleague, technically someone who worked for me, say that to me once. Although disappointing your followers is tough, disappointing the individuals in your organization who are actually your allies, now that hurts. And it’s guaranteed that you will come to that point, particularly if you’re nailing down the last couple of compromises with the skeptics that will allow the change effort to go forward. The successful leader of change in an organization will never be radical enough in her implementation to satisfy the true believers.

The Someone Else Takes the Credit: This requires no additional explanation and is the cousin of…

The This Certainly Didn’t Help my Career: I hosted an intern at work one summer, a very intelligent fellow, who asked me why I was always suggesting ways of improving the work of the CIA, or at least things I thought would help. “Does it benefit your career?” he asked. Cue Hollow Laughter. This disappointment has the potential to turn into bitterness and cynicism. You must fight this tendency with all your mojo, because it will in fact kill your motivation and sour your intentions.

So what’s a change agent to do? I once got a piece a advice from someone I consider a guardian angel of sorts, a total stranger, who told me at a function that, as a reformer, I needed to understand I was always going to feel uncomfortable in an organization. For my own health and sanity, I needed to accept that feeling of discomfort. And in fact, the best scenario would be to come to actually like feeling uncomfortable, because that feeling indicated fidelity to your convictions.

The guardian angel was correct. There is no other way to survive.

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