Tell Me What to Do

This is the plea of many new leaders. While this may seem like a logical request, it reflects the misunderstanding of leadership and leadership development. Many of you have become proficient at what you do, even excellent, and then comes the next opportunity for leadership and growth. You’re given more responsibility, people to manage (or more people to manage), and placed in a higher position in the organization or with the team. Perhaps naturally, you conclude that you just need to continue doing what you’ve done before, perhaps doing it at a higher level in quantity or quality. You jump right in and do what you do so well – you continue to be excellent in what you’re doing – and then comes the feedback that you are not meeting expectations as a leader.

In response, you do what you’ve always done and ask to be told what to do. You know that you’re the type of person that, when you’re told what to do, will make it happen and knock it out of the park, and you falsely believe that this is leadership. In reality, this is just “doingship” at a high level. This is one of the fundamental leadership disconnects.

In most cases, leadership does not involve more doing or even different doing, but rather different being. Yes, leaders need to be in action, but sometimes that action means doing nothing. Sometimes that action means refraining or delaying your own action to allow others to step up and lead. Sometimes that action means listening and asking questions. Many times it means changing your thinking and then putting that new thinking – thinking like a leader – into action.

Let’s look at a real world example. The most basic and foundational role of a leader is to grow people, and a key element of growing people is feedback. Few people are committed to and skillful at delivering actionable, concrete, specific and timely feedback. Does that mean you may need to learn how to give feedback? Yes, with a giant BUT – before you can give quality feedback, you must shift your thinking about people and feedback. If you are truly committed to helping people grow and develop, then feedback will come naturally. If you truly care about your people, then you will make time to give them high-quality and specific feedback, both constructive and praising. If you believe that people matter and should be respected, then you will choose to speak up and say “enough” when you see verbal abuse, bullying or shaming by another team member, including someone more senior than you. In many cases, the leadership question is not what to do or how to do it, but whether you care enough to take action despite the risks. So much of leadership is more about who you choose to be as a leader and how you choose to think as a leader, rather than what you actually do as a leader.

Certainly, it’s critical that your actions align with your words. Without this integrity, people won’t trust you and will not follow you. However, most often your actions and patterns of behavior will follow and be in alignment with your most deeply held values and beliefs about leadership, people, empowerment and engagement. In simple terms, leadership is an inside-out job where you shift your thinking and being and then let your actions speak from those shifts.

Thus, the question is not what to do but who and how you will choose to be. Instead of asking others to tell you what to do so that you can “lead,” instead ask yourself who will you be as a leader when the leadership moments arise. For most of you, the deepest truth is not whether you know how to lead but whether you are prepared to step into the fire of leadership and to be the leader when that leader and leadership is most required. This is your choice as a leader.

The next time you find yourself wanting to say “tell me what to do,” ask yourself instead, “What does it mean to lead in this moment?” The answer to that question leaves only one remaining question: Will you choose to lead? And always remember, people are waiting for your leadership.

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