If you've read our Guide to Inbound Leadership, and you’re fired up and ready to get after it -- that’s great. However, if you read it and are still a little skeptical -- like, "This sounds great, Chris, but where can we get tripped up?” -- that's also totally understandable.
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(And if you haven't read it yet, that's OK, too. Just put it on your to-do list.)
Here’s the deal.
Whichever end of the spectrum you’re on -- from "Let's do this!" to "Huh?" or "What’s the catch?" -- we need to dive into some of the most common hurdles or struggles you are definitely going to encounter while you are on your journey as an inbound leader.
Some will happen at multiple times, while others you may only encounter once.
So, that's what we're going to do today. We're going to discuss those challenges to inbound leadership, and review the tools and techniques that will help you overcomeand accept them.
The Most Common Inbound Leadership Challenges
When I say "hurdles," I'm talking about those moments where it's just hard to be an inbound leader. And those hurdles can be internal or external -- you may see them manifest in yourself, your team, your boss.
The idea here is that the more aware you are of when these hurdles come up, the more armed you are to deal with them and return to the principles of inbound leadership.
But rest assured, everything you'll encounter is normal.
Hurdle #1: Reverting Back to Short-Term Focus
This is first for a reason -- it is going to happen unless you’re business is immune to market fluctuations and changes in the economy.
So, pretty much all of you will have to overcome this.
We all have to make payroll, pay the rent, pay our taxes, etc. This means at times we are going to need to focus on the short-term financial results out of necessity from time to time.
When this happens we need to be mindful that we don’t revert back to transactional leadership -- where we do whatever it takes to achieve our short-term financial results at the cost of our long-term organizational health.
Even though we are required to prioritize our focus on our short-term financial health for a period of time, we must never forget about our long-term goals.
We make decisions to meet our financial needs while ensuring that we continue to nurture our long-term success.
Hurdle #2: Lack of Buy-In (or Ownership) from Senior Leaders
This is a unique hurdle, as it is different depending on our role in the organization. Before we unpack some of the more specific topics based on role, let's talk about some commonalities experienced across all roles.
A lack of buy-in from senior leaders -- or anyone for that matter -- is most commonly due to their lack of knowledge on the topic. Don’t be discouraged here; simply seek to gain an understanding of their issues and what they don’t understand and educate away.
Another thing that will naturally occur over time is the folks who aren’t bought-in will see the results and energy you and your team have.
Now, let's discuss how this challenge evolves, depending on your role.
You're a C-Level or Other Senior Leader
The issues that you are likely going to face are from two areas -- subordinate leaders and your board (or owners/shareholders).
The latter will likely be focused on financial results and, frankly, may not care how you achieve them. The former is likely going to be resistant for the same reason above -- a lack of understanding.
For both, the key is to put on our teacher hats and educate our naysayers, so they understand how we are leading and why.
You're a Mid-Level Manager
This is where it gets rocky. If you don’t have senior leaders who lead this way, it can be really discouraging.
You’re doing all this great work to develop your team, you’ve gotten them engaged in the work you all are doing, and the senior leaders don’t care. Talk about a morale killer.
Still, don’t get discouraged.
Remember you’re not in this for you, you’re the leader because you are obsessed with your people’s success. Focus your energy on your team, on what you can control.
Eventually, senior leaders are going to see what you’re doing and realize its working.
Being an inbound leader isn’t easy. You have to be present for your team, understand their issues, underwrite their decisions, hold them accountable, be their coach, teacher, and mentor… and that's only a few of the things you'll be doing.
So, yeah. It's going to feel overwhelming sometimes.
One of the things that will likely increase feelings of burnout is how we use empathy in our interactions.
Here's a story of something I experienced at IMPACT, which shows how this can be triggered and how you can work through it... although, fair warning. It's a bit like INCEPTION, with a story within a story:
It was late in the afternoon on a day in the third quarter. I noticed a member of my team (senior leadership) was in one of the back rooms. He had just finished up a 1:1 with someone from his team and I could sense he was struggling.
I walked in and sat down, looking at him to see what was going on. After a moment or two, I asked, “What’s going on? Everything okay?”
His response -- and I’m paraphrasing here -- was, “I can feel and taste the pressure my team is feeling. I remember what it’s like to feel that way and I hate it.”
He showed classic signs of fatigue and burnout.
His 1:1 had obviously been tough. His folks were under a lot of pressure to make things happen and he was feeling every ounce of that pressure along with them.
I’m pausing real quick to highlight that I’m sure some of you are saying, “Isn’t that the type of empathetic response we should have as inbound leaders? Shouldn’t we feel the pain of our team so we can lead them better?”
The answer is no.
When we have this type of empathic reaction, it is that -- a reaction. We are not leading in this moment, we are letting our emotions lead us.
OK, back to the story, so you see what I mean:
I paused, took a breath, and then said something like, “That must be really hard. I’m sorry you’re feeling like that. Here’s the deal though, I believe you are looking at this from an empathetic position, and we may need to switch to a compassionate one.
It reminds me of this story I read somewhere.
You’re walking in the woods and finds a person with a boulder on their chest.
The empathetic response is to lie down on the road beside them and “put a hypothetical boulder” on your chest and feel the exact same pain and suffering.
A compassionate response is to see that they have a boulder on their chest, know it is causing a ton of suffering, and then go get help so you can get the boulder off their chest!”
I let the story sink in for a moment, then it hit him.
“I need to work with them to relieve the stress and figure out how to set the conditions for their success rather than feel the same way they feel.”
And with that, I could sense a ton of weight being lifted from his shoulders knowing he now knew what he needed to do to move ahead.
(David Gelles shared that boulder story in Mindful Work, originally the story was published by Jeff Weiner in an article called -- Managing Compassionately, where Jeff tells the story as told by the Dalai Lama.)
As leaders, we need to take the compassionate approach.
We need to do our best to understand what our people are feeling and work towards setting the conditions for success.
Don't let well-intentioned empathy burn you out.
Hurdle #4 Potential for Dependency
This is a hurdle you are going traverse a ton as a leader. There are going to be times when it is more efficient to simply answer a question rather than dive into a coaching session to help your teammate arrive at the answer themselves.
Fight this urge as much as you can.
If you create a relationship with your team where you are providing answers -- especially when your team has all the knowledge and ability to get there themselves -- you are enabling a situation where they become fully dependent on you.
This leads to teams that don’t do anything without their leader’s approval, in essence killing any initiative they’ve built.
So, remember -- you are there to set the conditions, to identify the problems, and provide the purpose behind the initiatives.
You are not there to tell your team how to do their work.
Hurdle #5: Your People Say, "But There's Too Much Ambiguity"
Some people are going to thrive in the environment developed by inbound leaders and some people are going to struggle. Those that struggle may find the idea of transparency and autonomy to be too vague -- at least some of the time.
For those that struggle we need to understand how our people are feeling and work through their actual issues. At the core of their feelings will be some unmet need or value that we need to help them understand.
In these moments we need to be super-communicators.
We need to uncover what the actual issues are and work with our folks to resolve them. In some cases, people simply won’t be a fit for the demands that will be placed on them.
We as leaders must help them recognize that and help them transition to a role in or out of the organization that is better aligned with their needs.
Hurdle #6: Feeling Like You've Arrived
Now we get into some of the very personal hurdles you may encounter. As we’ve discussed, being an inbound leader is more about the journey or path than it is about arriving as an inbound leader.
Why is this?
The answer is that if we believe that we’ve arrived, we are going to be more prone to presenting ourselves in a way that goes against the thought processes and principles of inbound leadership.
We may be inclined to lose our sense of “student” our growth mindset approach that is necessary to remain humble and open to new ideas.
That said, there are going to be times when we feel like we’ve achieved some new found skill or that we completely understand a topic and now can be seen as “master” of the topic.
This is where we need to remember that there is always something else to learn.
There is another perspective that can be taken.
When we start to feel this way, we need to reflect and ask ourselves, “Do I really know everything about this topic?”
We need to remain curious. We need to remind ourselves that our minds are not fixed, but rather that we have the ability to continually grow and add new skillsets…
If we get stuck here believing that we’ve arrived, our journey as an inbound leader ends and several of the hurdles from above will come flooding in…
"OK, I Understand the Hurdles; What's Next?"
Here are the tactics that should live in your inbound leadership toolbox:
Solution #1: Find Your Tribe, Talk About Leadership & Life
Surrounding yourself with others who are experiencing the same things you are is a critical piece to dealing with the struggles that come with the journey.
This can take many different forms -- online groups, formal groups, or simply a group of friends who get together to talk.
The key piece here is sharing your experiences, getting an outside perspective, and hearing the other’s stories. This allows you to see that you’re not alone.
I’ve been lucky throughout my journey to always have a few friends that are “part of my tribe,” meaning they are also students of leadership who are on the path of always getting better.
Both from the Army or today, I still meet with some of these folks to talk about the struggles I’m facing, to hear about what they’re dealing with, and to see how we can help each other.
If you’re worrying that you can’t think of anyone to get together with to talk leadership, it's going to be OK.
Reach out to other leaders in your organization or industry. Look through social media for folks that talk and write about leadership and see if you can make a connection with them.
Another way to find some like-minded folks is in IMPACT Elite -- I hang out there quite a bit.
They weren’t coaches by title -- they were usually my boss, but they were leaders who led in an inbound way. They focused on my development rather than on simply pushing me to get results.
In my post-Army career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few executive coaches. My first experience was as a part of my boss’s coaching, so I wasn’t the primary subject.
Even in that experience, the outside perspective they brought was critical to my growth as a leader, specifically in understanding where some of my blind spots were and how I needed to be more self-aware.
Over the last three months, I’ve been working exclusively with an coach. We’ve done a bunch of assessments and we recently conducted a 360-degree qualitative review with 20 or so members of my team, and a few folks from my past.
Working with a coach directly has been one of the most enlightening things I’ve done.
Our sessions help to focus my own growth and development as well as serve as a place for me to discuss what’s on my mind to really help me understand what’s actually happening.
Solution #3: Get Feedback from Everyone
This is a tough one. While we all know intellectually that feedback is very good for us, we are all (in some way) reluctant to hear it.
Here is the secret -- a lot of the struggles we may face could be located in our blind spots, places where we aren’t looking. If that’s the case and being aware of our struggles is a key to overcoming them, then we we need to get other people’s feedback to be able to see!
As I said above, I recently received a 360-degree assessment from a bunch of people. I asked my superiors, my direct reports, my direct reports' direct reports, remote employees, in-office employees, past coworkers…
The idea was to see how people saw me from all different perspectives. The result was an amazing document of feedback that is helping me understand myself better.
If you are truly going to work to become a better leader every day, you need to be open to and embrace feedback.
Solution #4: Make Time for You
Inbound leadership is so much about having focus on other people, you might forget how important it is that you take time out each day to take care of yourself.
This time is for reflection and self-care. This can mean many different things. Some folks reflect while exercising, some reflect in the bath. However you choose to take care of yourself, make sure you do it as regularly as possible.
(Potential) Solution #5: Meditation, Which Isn't for Everyone
This one isn’t going to be for everyone, and I’m not going to try to force this down your throat.
Without going to deep into the pool, here is one major thing this practice has allowed me to do -- I have been able to become incredibly aware of the feeling in my body.
(This may not sound like something that belongs in an article about leadership, but stick with me.)
This awareness allows me to truly connect with my emotions as they present themselves. Whether it is a tensing in my chest, elevated heart beat, or butterflies in my stomach, I can now mentally become aware of how I’m feeling and not simply react to what’s happening.
Through this practice, I am better at avoiding those moments where I simply react. I have created more space to think and respond.
This has led me to become more open to differing thoughts, to feedback, to dealing with bad news. I tend to judge less and focus on what actually happened or is happening, rather than let my mind tell me some story that I react to.
Like I said, I know this isn’t something that everyone here is going to adopt. But has been the most beneficial thing I’ve done to improve my overall life.
Be Aware & Know You're Not Alone
I know that reading through the hurdles you may encounter as you walk the path of an inbound leader is an exhausting endeavor all by itself.
However, the mere act of understanding and recognizing what may occur will make handling those moments -- or even side-stepping them entirely out of self-awareness -- much more like.
The Jedi trick here is to not judge yourself as you fall into a hurdle.
Instead, I challenge you to become aware and simply adjust your behavior back to where you want it.
We are all going to have to navigate a ton of hurdles and they are all going to be the same. All we can do is be aware that this is going to happen. Do the work. Set the conditions for yourself to be able to identify and overcome these struggles as they present themselves.
Most of all, when you struggle, don’t keep your armor on. Reach out to your friends, mentors, colleagues, and other folks from your tribe to help you work through whatever it is your working through.
We are all on this journey together. Know that you’re not alone.