I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d bet that I’ve read more leadership material than most people in my position. And nearly all of it ignores a key characteristic that I’ve seen time and time again in the most effective leaders I’ve studied and worked with.
This characteristic isn’t limited to leaders either. I’ve seen it in all kinds of effective individuals. It’s just more important that leaders do this because it makes or breaks them.
It’s not that leaders who don’t behave this way are ineffective, it’s that they literally don’t exist. At least not for very long. Because leaders who don’t do this go extinct, while leaders who do tend to ascend higher and higher.
Why do some people find it monotonous being managed (because they’re bored, not to be confused with people with an authority complex), while others are totally comfortable with a manager telling them what to do?
I’m sure most people reading this can think of a few people in their own circles that fit both types. But I’d hazard to guess — unless you’re part of an extremely ambitious circle — that the people who don’t like being managed are fewer in number.
This is how things should be. For society to work the majority of people need to be comfortable being led. An orchestra doesn’t work when everyone is a conductor.
But the world also needs the difficult, disagreeable, bored by management type of people. In particular it needs them to capitalise on the discomfort they feel from being told what to do all the time. The world needs them to branch off and lead for themselves.
The fire is hot
What happens when a person who’s bored by management decides to lead? More often than not they fall flat. Then what do they do? Well, that brings us back to the point of this essay. Because what they do next defines how effective they will be as a leader.
The vast majority of people, even the difficult, disagreeable ones, don’t want to make life any more painful than it needs to be. Life is already full of problems, pain, and discomfort. Why add to it?
Falling flat, or failing at something you care about, is one of the most painful events you can go through. Not because it’s actually bad, but because you’re so invested in the outcome that it feels like a life and death situation.
The human neural circuitry that feels pain from failure evolved when failure probably was a life or death situation. It probably meant you and your family weren’t going to eat for the week, or worse. For most people today, that’s far from the reality of the failures we experience.
I like to think of this avoidance mechanism as an illusion. Our minds see fire, so we act like it’s hot. But looking at the situation objectively, it’s only the response that gives it weight. Seeing the fire doesn’t mean you’re burning…
You didn’t meet your quarterly targets? Ok, well now you can see how much they really matter.
You can’t sell your product? Ok, well there are lessons to be learned from trying to sell it.
You’re nervous about a big investor call? Ok, well of course you are. Don’t overcompensate, and if it goes badly, you’ll learn something for the next one.
It’s the ability to see fire and move towards it that defines the most effective leaders. They refuse to play the mental game of being burned. It closes what would otherwise be an open loop; when most people would give up, the most effective people reframe and push on through.
So what does the effective leader do after falling flat for the first time? She notices, reframes the situation, and keeps going. She realises the fire is not so hot. Meanwhile the less effective leader feels the heat, avoids the pain, and does something less painful instead. Perhaps that’s the smarter move, I don’t know.