Hello, my name is Andrea, and I’m a recovering leader-in-denial.
I’ve spent much of my life stepping (usually reluctantly) into leadership roles, while also eagerly looking for someone else who could lead better than me — so I could stop being in charge! And that rarely happened, much to my surprise and chagrin, but only recently did I realize that was because… I am actually gifted at leadership.
“I smell imposter syndrome!” you’ll say — and you are correct! But having my own imposter syndrome pointed out to me… was not the thing that helped me get past it. The lightning bolt for me, was when I realized that my unwillingness to embrace a leadership role was causing me to screw up the actual work of leading.
Read on for my observations on how leading without admitting or realizing that you’re in charge… is really inefficient and hard!
You’ll probably avoid doing *all* of the job. Many times I have stepped into a leadership role because I was in a group of people who had no direction. I would wait for someone to step up and take charge, and wait some more, and wait some MORE, and finally it was too much for me. So I would speak up and say, “Hey everyone, let’s go this way!” and then shut up again. Little bursts of leadership and strategy are usually better than nothing, but having a consistent and engaged leader is WAY more effective.
You are more likely to undermine yourself and confuse others. If you think you shouldn’t be doing something, you are more likely to do that thing in a half-hearted or apologetic manner. Alternately, you might act passive aggressively, resenting that you’re in a position that you find uncomfortable. I don’t endorse an authoritarian approach to leadership, but you can lead collaboratively without apologizing for holding people accountable or setting limits.
You probably think you’re failing if everyone isn’t happy all the time. Now, I like making people happy, and I think that leaders should care about the health and welfare of the people on their team. As a leader, you have a duty of care, but that duty does not always extend to “please all of the people, all of the time.” Leaders have to make choices, and some choices aren’t crowd-pleasers. Reluctant leaders or leaders-in-denial tend to stay in reaction mode — which is frequently conflict- and tough-decision averse.
You are more likely to get in the way of your people. There’s a leadership adage that says, “when the conductor picks up an instrument, the orchestra falls apart.” The conductor doesn’t grab the violin when it’s time for the solo, or when the violinist is off key. If you’re laboring under the assumption that your primary value to the group is not that of leading, then you’re going to be looking for any excuse to put down that work and go back to individual contribution, sometimes by taking over the work of someone who might just need a little (or a lot of) support to do a better job.
You won’t work on improving your skills. Good leadership is learned behavior, and learned behavior benefits from study and practice. By rejecting the fact that you’re a leader, you immediately cut yourself off from opportunities to get better at leadership in an intentional way. And when you do something badly, then you reinforce the idea that you’re not well-suited for it…. it’s a catch-22!
You exempt yourself as a role model. People from marginalized groups don’t have a long list of excellent leaders to model ourselves after. That might even be one of the reasons you don’t see yourself as a leader — because you don’t look/sound/work like many of the leaders you saw while growing up. When people from traditionally marginalized groups courageously inhabit a leadership role despite all their misgivings, they change the very face of leadership.
I’ve learned a lot about myself on this leadership journey so far, which I love to do. I may have started out by accident — and I won’t say it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done — but it’s a lot easier and more rewarding now that I’m bringing intent and awareness to the work. If any of this resonates with you, I’d love to hear about it!
I’m reading the book Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and really enjoying it. Here are some of my notes on the chapter about lessons that can be taken from the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, specifically around his work on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Anticipate contending viewpoints.
Lincoln has my full respect for creating a presidential cabinet full of people who frequently opposed him. Dissent from his advisors was something he cherished, because it allowed him to “stress-test” his ideas and decisions before taking them out into the wider world. Many leaders, in a misguided attempt to reduce conflict, surround themselves with people “smart enough” to agree with them all the time. Lincoln’s cabinet served him as a group of powerful “beta testers,” and by the time they were done discussing and railing against the Proclamation, he knew how he would need to convince the country to come along with him.
He had deliberately built a team of men who represented the major geographical, political, and ideological factions of the Union. For months past, he had listened intently as they wrestled among themselves about how best to preserve this Union. At various junctures, diverse members had assailed Lincoln as too radical, too conservative, brazenly dictatorial, or dangerously feckless. He had welcomed the wide range of opinions they provided as he turned the subject over in his mind, debating “first the one side and then the other of every question arising,” until, through hard mental work, his own position had emerged. His process of decision making, born of his characteristic ability to entertain a full carousel of vantage points at a single time, seemed to some painfully slow, but once he had finally come to a determination to act, it was no longer a question of WHAT—only WHEN.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 218). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
But how did he keep this critical, dissenting group of men engaged, and working together with him, even when he was determined to do what they disagreed with?
Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.
Lincoln took the time to really understand the men in his cabinet, to find out what they needed to feel effective and engaged, and then he tended to their needs. He also recognized when a cabinet member was struggling, and made time to talk to them or just spend time with them outside of work. He carved out time to spend one-on-one with each member of the cabinet, careful to avoid the impression of favoritism.
Not only that, but he sought out opportunities to praise his people:
“Every one likes a compliment,” Lincoln observed; everyone needs praise for the work they are doing. Frequently, he penned handwritten notes to his colleagues, extending his gratitude for their actions. He publicly acknowledged that Seward’s suggestion to await a military victory before issuing the Proclamation was an original and useful contribution. When he had to issue an order to Welles, he assured his “Neptune” that it was not his intention to insinuate “that you have been remiss in the performance of the arduous and responsible duties of your Department, which I take pleasure in affirming had, in your hands, been conducted with admirable success.” When compelled to remove one of Chase’s appointees, he understood that the prickly Chase might well be resentful. Not wanting the situation to deteriorate, he called on Chase that evening. Placing his long arms on Chase’s shoulders, he patiently explained why the decision was necessary. Though the ambitious Chase often chafed under Lincoln’s authority, he acknowledged “the President has always treated me with such personal kindness and has always manifested such fairness and integrity of purpose, that I have not found myself free to throw up my trust . . . so I still work on.”
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 224). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Combine transactional and transformational leadership.
If these terms don’t make a lot of sense to you, don’t despair! Goodwin explains:
Transactional leaders operate pragmatically. They appeal to the self-interest of their followers, using quid pro quos, bargains, trades, and rewards to solicit support and influence the behavior of their followers. Transformational leaders inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves—the organization, the community, the region, the country—and finally, to the more abstract identification with the ideals of that country. Such leaders call for sacrifice in the pursuit of moral principles and higher goals, validating such altruism by looking beyond the present moment to frame a future worth striving for.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (pp. 234-235). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
What was fascinating to me about Lincoln’s brand of leadership is how he combined both approaches, adapting to the group he was trying to convince to get behind the Proclamation. In a public letter read aloud at a rally in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, he argued that by freeing the enslaved people of color in the South and enlisting black men in the Union Army, the Union would gain an advantage in the war: a fundamentally pragmatic approach. Once having secured the agreement of his objectors that black troops would help their shared cause, he switched to a transformational argument:
“If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motives—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” — Lincoln
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (pp. 235-236). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The proof was in the pudding. By the end of the Civil War, the majority of soldiers saw “emancipation and the restoration of the Union as inseparably linked,” says Goodwin.
Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.
One of Lincoln’s favorite ways to relax was by going to the theater. (I know, right?) He was apparently drawn to Shakespeare’s darker, more tragic plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. How relaxing, sir! But when the stress got so bad that he couldn’t sleep, he would wake up his aide John Hay and read aloud from Shakespeare’s comedies.
His appreciation of tragedy was matched by his appreciation of silliness, anecdote, burlesque. The narrow seam between tragedy and comedy afforded Lincoln what he called his “literary recreation.” When engaged in a comic tale, his laugh, the artist Carpenter noted, resembled the “neigh of a wild horse.” A friend observed that Lincoln’s laugh served as a “life preserver” for him. Hay recalled that only when “my heavy eye-lids caught his considerate notice would he stop & sent me to bed.” Recitation was Lincoln’s way of sharing in a common humanity during an uncommon, inhumanly isolating time.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 229). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 came into effect on January 1, 1863. Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, at a time that the Union’s victory was in serious doubt, and opposition to the Proclamation was still very strong. Lincoln’s party suggested to him that the only way he would be reelected, would be to start peace talks with the South and not push the emancipation issue with them.
“I confess that I desire to be re-elected,” Lincoln acknowledged. “I have the common pride of humanity to wish my past four years administration endorsed,” and at the same time, “I want to finish this job.” Nonetheless, he rejected Raymond’s plea that he dispatch a commissioner to Richmond to meet with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. To sound out conditions for peace without demanding the end of slavery Lincoln considered “utter ruination.” He would rather face electoral defeat than renounce emancipation. He “should be damned in time & in eternity,” he vehemently declared, if he abandoned his commitment to the twin goals of Union and freedom. Moreover, those who accused him of “carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition” must understand that “no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever.” The word firmness is insufficient to connote the iron will with which Abraham Lincoln now stood his ground.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 239). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
In the end, Lincoln won reelection in a landslide, owing much of his success winning 7 out of 10 of Union soldier votes. These were the men who were most at risk in a continuing war, but they overwhelming showed their support for the cause that Lincoln had inspired them to believe in, too.
I’m really enjoying this book, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my favorite takeaways from the Lincoln chapter. Next up: how Theodore Roosevelt did crisis management! I can’t wait.
It was a pleasure to present my conflict de-escalation workshop at today’s CMX Global online conference. If you signed up for the conference but missed my session, I think all sessions will be available to anyone who registered. If you didn’t register but are interested in the topic, I have published the script, bibliography and slides on this site. Enjoy!
The event used a platform called Hopin, which was quite interesting to try out. There is a “green room” tool that worked pretty well, and an “Expo” menu item, which allowed the event to offer online “sponsor booths” of a sort. There is also a Networking feature, which is straight-up video call roulette. While the one networking chat I did was quite pleasant, I can’t see myself using that feature very extensively in the future. It was anxiety-producing, not knowing who I was going to be dropped into conversation with. Unfortunately, the tool doesn’t seem to be accessible to keyboard-only users, so it’s not something we would seriously consider for online WordCamps.
The conference organizers tried a LOT of cool ideas, including live demos, networking, lunchtime stretching, an after-party DJ session, and after-conference mixology class. I’m sad I missed the Calligraphy 101 session at the end; that showed a lot of imagination.
It was great to participate both as a speaker and attendee, seeing people try out things I wouldn’t have attempted or hadn’t thought of. Kudos to the CMX team for carefully crafting this event, and to Beth McIntyre and Ann Marie Pawlicki for their attentive care of speakers! If you are looking to polish up your community organizing/management game, I recommend checking out CMX — they have some great resources (both free and behind the membership paywall) and plenty of helpful people.
Have empathy. Loss aversion is a very real thing. Even if simplifying something is the best thing for users by all other accounts, taking something away still hurts. And this impacts not just end users, but the people who originally worked on a feature. You can have empathy by understanding how they use the feature and asking about the historical context around its original creation.
I think technologists in particular — because we are so fond of innovation — tend to look down on people who express aversion to loss. That disparaging attitude isn’t very respectful, and thus doesn’t lead to very respectful or productive conversations.
Certainly, change is a part of life, but likewise every change is a kind of a death — perhaps the death of something that should die, but any loss can cause deep sadness… and even a crisis of belonging. When innovating, it’s worth asking yourself whether you can find a way to give people the space to grieve the loss associated with the change, holding space for their pain, rather than just brushing them off as short-sighted enemies of progress.