The Frustration of Being Better

Leading without a formal title or “official” leadership position can be a challenge. It can even be frustrating at times. A big source of that frustration comes from thinking we are somehow “better” than the person we report to. You know who I mean…. “The Boss!”

Being “better” can mean several things, more skilled or more experienced are two examples that come to mind but in most cases being better simply means we think we’re smarter than the person above us.

I used to work for a guy that I knew for certain I was smarter than. His name was Cecil. He didn’t even graduate from High School and I had a brand spanking new degree. He was dumb and I pretty much knew it all…..or so I thought.

I made it my mission to prove how much smarter I was. Every chance I got I pointed out his shortcomings, his weaknesses, to anyone who would listen. Actually, even if they wouldn’t listen, I told them anyway.

It took a long time for me to figure out that I may have learned more than him in school but I certainly wasn’t smarter than he was. I needed a whole lot more “seasoning” to learn the important lessons in life. They were the kind of lessons that you didn’t learn in school, the kind of lessons that made Cecil a success.

Over time I learned that if I wanted to lead from where I was in an organization, without a title or position, I needed to stop pointing out “gaps” in the people above me and start filling them. That’s called “leading up.”

Following a leader with gaps can only cause you frustration if you allow it to. That’s what most people do but you don’t need to be that type of person. If you truly want to lead in your organization, without waiting for a promotion or important sounding title, then following a leader who has gaps should give you a purpose.

As a leader from the middle of your organization you should be working to identify other leader’s gaps and working to fill them. Make it your purpose to help them focus on their strengths by using your strengths to assist them with an area where they may be weaker.

You need to know that you may not always get the recognition you deserve for filling in the gaps. Other people, even the boss, may attempt to take credit for your work. Don’t let any of that matter, just know this: Authentic leaders do what’s right for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do.

Authentic leaders work to strengthen their organization any way they can and they know that pointing out the weaknesses of other leaders in their organization does not strengthen it. If you’ve identified an area where your leader may need some help then by all means, by any means and by every means possible, HELP.

If you keep your focus on helping others be better you’ll never become frustrated because you think you’re better than them. You’ll just be happy you had the ability to help.

14 thoughts on “The Frustration of Being Better

  1. Interesting post Steve. (Meaning…there are too many contexts and variables for me to completely agree and that’s ok!)

    In my experience, there’s a difference between addressing issues in leadership where there are literally acts of deception and ‘wrong doing’ and minor human deficiencies. It’s not a subordinates ‘job’ to ENABLE the deceptions and/or dysfunctional behavior of a leader. It’s one thing to make every effort to work things out directly yet when it comes to positions of power, the less likely it will be handled fairly if things ARE addressed privately.

    And to simply ‘overlook’ deception and bad behavior in leadership is the main REASON why we have such a problem with deception in government today. People ENABLE it. For multiple reasons, yes, but the bottom line is enabling. If it weren’t for all the enablers, a tyrant (or any poor leader) wouldn’t remain in power for long.

    To switch gears though, I have a little story from back in my early twenties when I was still in the military. Long and short of it was this: I earned an E-5 (Sgt) by the time I was 21 years old. And I did so because #1) I was a good ‘student’. and #2) I jumped through every ‘hoop’ I needed to in order to make the next rank asap. Also, it DID help that I served with the recruiters to earn my E-2 rank before I made it to Boot Camp, which automatically placed me in a leadership position there simply based on rank alone. (I was a squad leader and then became honor graduate for my platoon).

    So there I was an E-5. Earned right before departing over seas for Desert Storm. Which put me in a leadership position with certain special benefits that those ranked below me didn’t have. Like a private bedroom for one! haha

    Long story short, a lesson that I didn’t ‘learn’ at the time because I was simply too young, too inexperienced to understand at the time.

    There was a man who was an E–4 who, to me, appeared to be treating me disrespectfully (insubordination) once I outranked him. This perplexed me (and bothered me to no end because for the life of me I did NOT understand why suddenly there was a problem)

    He was in his 30’s. Married with children. I was 21, a newly wed, and had NO children of my own yet. Basically, outside of being an excellent student, I didn’t have his time and experience in life. (not to discount my own trials in life up to that point but that isn’t the point to this)

    He had a problem with being led by someone so young and with ZERO experience. I don’t think it would have mattered WHO it was. (perhaps it might have been slightly different had I been a man).

    For a long time, I ignorantly decided he had no RIGHT to be ‘upset’ because I outranked him. (And according to the military that was very true) But from one human being to another? Yes, it was understandable that he would have a problem. It wasn’t until I hit my own 30’s and ran into this same man and family at church one day when I had children of my own that I recalled that whole situation in our past life and then I understood. I had a good idea of how I would have felt if the situation had been reversed.

    Needless to say, I had MANY experiences in the military to learn that rank does NOT make anyone a leader, although we’re still expected to submit to that leadership.

    Anyway, I wanted to share that story because I’m not insensitive to those kind of dynamics. And yet, I also believe there is a huge difference between having our teammates (or bosses) back and enabling lies or dysfunctional behavior. To do the latter is to become a co-creator of the problem and in keeping it going.

    And in some cases (outside of military) some issues aren’t really stemming from someone believing they are ‘smarter’ then you. It could be that if the leader believes they are ‘superior’ to everyone else below them and treats their people as such, this is more likely the problem. And certain religious beliefs added to the mix often add a huge helping of ‘entitlement’ when it comes to how some men perceive women in the work place.

    As for in general or here ‘online’ in cyberspace, I also don’t feel that anyone should have expectations to be treated like ‘the boss’ if the other person doesn’t work for them. Outside of common decency and respect, there should be no expectation to be treated ‘special’ simply someone happens to be boss or owner of a company. Yet I ‘see’ people have this expectation on occasion on the internet with people they don’t have a work relationship with.

    It’s not an appropriate expectation. Unless they want to start sending over a paycheck… 😉

    Anyway, just my perspective on a very tricky dynamic. Not always an easy one to untangle so thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.

    1. Ha, your comment has even more “contents” than the post. But let me say this…

      Leading up does not involve enabling, it does not involve covering up unethical or illegal behavior. It simply involves helping the people who may be above you on an org chart, whether they are your boss or not, be better leaders.

      There is no hidden context there and no unseemly motives. It’s just authentic leadership.

      1. Topic must be an important one then. ; )

        If leading up doesn’t involve having to babysit, enable, or ‘parent’ upper management and leadership, I agree. Otherwise, I need a raise. (grins)

  2. To be honest, Steve, I often feel happiest and most productive when working without or outside my title. Titled leadership carries responsibilities, expectations, and directives that may be important and required, but not always the best or most interesting part of a job. Titles are important when they are important, but working without or outside a titles sometimes allows for creativity and the unexpected. People clear on the mission and purpose of the organization can sometimes do exciting, innovative, and unexpected things when there are fewer rules. I am not sure if that makes sense, but I have found my best work sometimes lies outside my job description. Maybe that means I have the wrong title?!?

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.


    1. Excellent insight… Sometimes titles actually limit what we think we can …. or should do. They can be like a line we think we can’t cross. When we don’t have a title to worry about we really can often accomplish more.

      A title can certainly help get stuff done at times but I agree with you, it’s when we draw outside the lines that it’s most fun, and fulfilling.

      Titles matter but not as much as what we actually get done, it’s amazing what we can accomplish when we just decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do!

      Thanks for your comment my LeadChange compadre, I hope your doing well!

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