The Challenge of Frustration

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss leadership with a group of mid-level managers. At the end of my presentation I was approached by a significant number of the attendees who all had the same question.

 

The questions, while asked differently all had the same theme: what do I do when my “leader” isn’t a real leader at all?

 

The answer to that question is simple and complicated all at once. I’m assuming (I know that’s dangerous) that the people asking the question are truly leaders. That means they care about the people they lead, they understand that their own success is completely dependent upon the success of the people they lead and that they get as much pleasure from their people’s success as they do their own. 

 

If that is the case then the answer to the question is this: Lead Up.

 

Lead your leader the same way you lead your followers. Realize that your leader is a person too, realize that they, like every other human being on the planet, have their faults and limitations. 

 

The most Authentic Leaders lead in every direction, down, across and up. That means that instead of criticizing the person above you, which accomplishes nothing, you should be trying to help them overcome their faults and limitations. You can coach them the same way you coach others, you can demonstrate that you care about them the same way you demonstrate that you care about others. You can invest yourself in their success as if their success was your own…because for an Authentic Leader it is.

 

But…and this is what makes it complicated, before you can do any of that you must earn the right to lead up. 

 

Earning the right to lead up requires that you lead yourself exceptionally well. You must have the trust of the person above you to lead up. You earn that trust by being completely transparent with your leader. You don’t say one thing to them and then something else to your followers. You do what you say you will do 100% of the time. You display the same integrity upwards as you do across and down. (just an aside here, you either have integrity all the time or you don’t have integrity any time)

 

You must lead yourself in such a way that the person above you does not feel as if you require much help from them. You control your own attitude and keep it positive as much as humanly possible. You choose your words well and seldom just spout off the first thing that comes to mind. 

 

And then there’s this…you let them devour your ego food!

 

You allow them to sometimes, often, or even frequently take your success as their own. (I told you this was complicated) You take on assignments that your leader may receive credit for doing, you do more than you are required to do knowing full well that “others” may never know it was you who accomplished so much. 

 

I know from personal experience how truly challenging and frustrating that can be but here’s a question for you: are you leading to lead or are you leading for some type of personal glory?

 

If you’re leading to lead that means you lead because you want to make a difference; your motives are not selfish they are selfless. That’s a huge difference that allows you to feed your own ego even after giving much of your ego food to someone else. 

 

YOU know what you did and if you’re truly leading to lead, if you’re truly leading for the benefit of others and not yourself, then that is enough. More than enough actually. 


Leadership comes from many levels within an organization, it also goes in many directions. If you’re experiencing the frustration that comes with following a leader who doesn’t lead then do what real leaders do, stop complaining and start leading…today.


True Leaders Lead Everyone

Most often we tend to think of the term leading as someone “higher up” in an organization leading people at a lower level of the organization. 

 

Too often we would be right.

 

True leadership is multi-directional. True leaders lead down, across, and sometimes up. True leaders even lead themselves at times. Because they know that a title or position doesn’t make them a leader they know that they can lead in every direction.

 

Leadership, at it’s core is influence. If you have the ability to influence others then you have the ability to lead. It doesn’t mean you will be a good leader, it doesn’t mean you will lead with noble intentions, and it doesn’t mean you’ll be successful as a leader. It’s simply means your influence will at least partially shape someone else’s thoughts or actions. 

 

If you’re only leading down it is quite possible that you are counting on your title or position to influence others. Titles and positions may buy you some time to demonstrate your level of influence but sooner or later, most often sooner, you will have to realize that’s it you, your experience, your integrity, your “brand” which will allow you to influence others long-term.

 

If you’re only leading down in your organization, it’s quite possible you’re not really leading at all. If you only have “influence” downwards in your organization then it may not be real influence. It may be fear or intimidation that causes your people to follow your wishes and you should be aware that following your wishes or “orders” and actually following you as a leader are two very different things. 

 

On the other hand, when leading across your organization, that is to lead others at your same level, you likely have very little other than your influence to shape their thoughts or actions. To lead up in your organization, that is to lead those at higher levels than your own, you have nothing but your influence to impact their thoughts and actions. 

 

But true leaders most definitely lead in every direction. They don’t count on titles or positions. They demonstrate solid, consistent leadership characteristics that earn them a high degree of influence. 

 

If you find yourself consistently impacting the behavior of those below you in your organization but never above you then that may be an indication that your leadership is limited to one direction. 

 

To lead in every direction, to lead everyone, forget about levels. Forget about titles and ignore positions. Do what is right, say what you mean, exert honest and professional influence with integrity to everyone around you. Some of those may be lower than you in the organization, some may be above you. 


None of that really matters because you’ll be making a difference in the right direction, no matter which direction it is. 


When Your Boss is a Knucklehead

I, like many people have had the great misfortune of working for someone who just wasn’t very smart. 

Or so I thought. 

The truth is, I had the great misfortune of thinking I was working for someone who wasn’t very smart. It took me longer than it should have to realize that someone higher up in the organization had the ability to see my boss’s strengths, an ability that I had yet to develop.

The thought that you are working for someone who is not as smart, skilled or as effective as you are only leads to frustration and it’s not the boss who is frustrated, it’s you.

So stop frustrating yourself by focusing on your boss’s weakness. Understand that so long as your boss is human they will have their share of shortcomings. Understand as well that so long as your boss is human they will likely possess unique strengths that add value to your organization. 

To limit your frustration find and focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses. 

It could also be that you are in fact smarter than your boss but they may possess a quality or characteristic that you lack. Be honest with yourself; it’s unlikely that you are truly perfect and completely devoid of skill or ability gaps. It’s possible that you’re missing a quality or characteristic that your boss’s boss believes is vital for your organization. Learn what you can from your boss to determine your personal development opportunities. It’s nice to have a boss that helps you develop but it’s actually your responsibility to develop yourself, don’t expect others to do it for you.

Lead up! If your boss indeed has “gaps” then accept it as your responsibility to fill those gaps. It could be that you were hired for that very purpose. If your boss is a good leader they likely identified their own gaps and hired you to do what they couldn’t. If that’s the case then being frustrated with your boss’s inability to do everything you can is just counterproductive and downright silly.

If none of this makes any sense to you then it’s possible that your boss is truly a knucklehead. If that’s the case perhaps you should consider making a move to greener pastures. But don’t consider it for long, either move or be quiet and do your job. Don’t, do not, not today, not tomorrow, not ever, hang around and become a disruptive negative force in your organization by constantly complaining about your boss. Move along, you can do better.

One more thing….if you at your third or fourth job and in every case your boss is a knucklehead then perhaps you should take a look at what (or who) all those jobs have in common. I’d suggest you start by looking in the mirror. 

You may not like what you see but at least you will see the real source of most knucklehead bosses. I know that’s harsh but one hard look could make every other look a whole lot easier.

Can You Lead You?

Before you can lead anyone else you must be able to lead yourself. Before you can lead up you must lead yourself exceptionally well.

Leading “up” simply means extending your influence to those above you in your organization. When you lead up you have much greater impact on your organization than your position might suggest. Your influence comes not from your title or position, it comes from the value that you bring to the entire organization. 

To lead yourself exceptionally well and earn the opportunity to lead up in your organization you must first learn to control your attitude. Your attitude is entirely your choice. If you don’t fully believe that then you have surrendered one of life’s greatest assets to the whims of other people’s moods and “stuff” over which you have no control. 

Yes, your attitude, or your positive attitude, can be one of your greatest assets. Your attitude shapes almost every decision you make. It can either add to or subtract from the ability you have to tackle the tough jobs required to lead up.

While you may not be able to control all the events of your day and you certainly can’t control the attitude of other people, you DO have COMPLETE control over YOUR attitude. 

To lead up you must learn to control your calendar. You must be able to say no to the often unimportant urgent things so you can focus on the truly important value adding activities where you can make a difference for the organization.

You must realize as a person looking to extend their influence that your words matter. As your influence within an organization grows your words will carry more weight. As you work to earn the opportunity to lead up you will need to choose your words with care because your credibility is fragile and the wrong word at the wrong time can damage it. 

If you’re going to lead yourself exceptionally well you must develop the discipline to think BEFORE you talk. Great leaders know that there is no way to “unsay” something that has been said and even worse, there is no way to “unhear” what has been heard. 

Think of it like this: if your words aren’t adding value to a conversation then what are they adding?

To lead yourself exceptionally well you must find balance in your life. You must lead your life according to your core values and goals. Your core values and goals are what allow you to set priorities in all areas of your life. Knowing, truly knowing, your core values and setting goals around them, allows you to make balanced decisions that reflect who you really are.

It will look to other people as if you “walk you talk,” it will look that way because you will be walking your talk. You might be able to fool some people for a while but when attempting to lead up, frauds are discovered pretty quickly. 

To lead yourself and to lead up, know who you are, know what you stand for and work everyday to be true to yourself. 

 

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.

The Sacrifice of Authentic Leadership

One of the biggest myths of leadership is what John Maxwell calls The Freedom Myth. Basically it says that once you’ve reached “the top” you’re pretty much set. You have it made! You’re free to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. Freedom!

It’s a complete myth. The higher you go in any organization the less true freedom you have. Authentic Leaders, especially Authentic Serving Leaders, willingly sacrifice some of their freedom in order to lead. But sacrifice they do!

Life is a series of trade-offs and clearly top leaders are rewarded for their sacrifices. Their positions normally come with higher compensation and often, increased prestige. It’s the level of income and the kind of prestige that lots of people want; the problem is, they often aren’t aware of the costs, or sacrifices, associated with having it.

I hope everyone knows that “the top” is achieved through hard work. Yes, there are exceptions; people promoted because their father-in-law was the founder of the company or something like that. But those are really few and far between. The vast majority of people in key leadership positions earned their way there. That doesn’t change just because you may not like them or may not agree with them.

Here is the part where many people have a rather large misconception… being on top is no piece of cake. The sacrificing doesn’t stop. The hard work doesn’t stop. In many ways the sacrificing is greater and in almost every way, the work is harder. The stress of performing in a key leadership position has eaten up many seemingly hearty individuals.

Now, I’m not asking anyone to shed any tears for highly paid executives, again if they are in a decent sized company they are likely well compensated. But… you should stop expecting perfection from them just because they have succeeded in their career.

Key leaders should indeed be held accountable but they should also be supported. It is NOT the job of any of us in the middle to point out the weaknesses of those above us. If your goal is, as mine is, to lead up in your organization then your job should be to discover and FILL any gaps your leader may have.

That might mean sacrificing the opportunity to show how much smarter you are than the person above you. Leaders sacrifice at every level, even in the middle. When you help the leaders above you become more effective you become more effective. You earn more influence in your organization. You advance in your own leadership journey. You do the right thing and that’s never wrong.

Now, one caveat before I close out this post. While I believe that leaders should be supported there are two exceptions. If your leader breaks the law or behaves in an unethical manner then all bets are off.

As Mr. Spock once so eloquently said, “The good of the one cannot outweigh the good of the many.”

Yes, support your leader but never when it involves illegal or unethical behavior that puts the organization at risk.

Every Leader’s Weakness

I’m pretty careful when using words like always, never, and every. There seems to be an exception for most situations or circumstances. Almost always, almost.

Every leader however has this one flaw. Yes, I’m 100% certain that it is indeed every leader. Every single one. Every single leader who has ever been or ever will be, has or will have this same weakness; they are human.

Before they were ever thought of as a leader they were people, they were, and are, and they always will be, people. Just like you and me. They have the identical human frailties as every other human on earth. They love, they hate, they laugh, they cry. They are emotional, they have regrets, and they make mistakes.

It’s not until you stop to think about it that you realize that it’s those so called human “frailties” or “weaknesses” that also gives them the potential to be a leader. In fact, it’s those very “weaknesses” that provides them with the potential to be a great leader.

It turns out, this “weakness” is also likely their greatest strength.

It’s a leader’s ability to control those “frailties” that allow them to turn the supposed weaknesses into strengths. You see, it’s a leader’s capacity to love, to laugh, to cry and to regret that allows them to care. I imagine it’s possible to be an effective leader without caring for or about the people you lead but if your desire is to be an Authentic Serving Leader then caring is a must.

I don’t know about you but I find it much easier to commit to a leader when I believe they care about me as a human being.

If you follow a leader who has the capacity to care about you then you’re truly fortunate.

It’s too bad that so many people abuse that good fortune by pointing out all the mistakes and shortcomings of their leader. If you ever hope to “lead up” in your organization then you had best understand that the same human frailties that makes a human a good leader will also cause them to have some shortcomings.

If you must have a “perfect” leader then you better hope those experiments with robots work out. Because humans, even humans with the courage to lead, will never be perfect.

If your intention is indeed to “lead up” in your organization then it is not your role to point out the shortcomings of your leader to anyone who will listen. Your role is to discover the gaps of your leader and fill them to the best of your ability. Help them focus on their strengths by using your own strengths to do something they might not be especially good at. It’s very possible that if they are indeed a courageous leader that they may have added you to the team for just that purpose.

Here’s another way to look at it. If you want a leader who cares about people then be a person who cares about their leader.

Authentic Serving Leaders are great people, they are not perfect people. Stop disappointing yourself by expecting something that just isn’t possible.