But that doesn’t mean it should be thankless or unfulfilling. Or for that matter, always lonely. When humble, well-intentioned leaders convince themselves that they are supposed to be completely without needs, they create big problems for themselves and their organizations.
Let me explain.
Even the most mature, humble and unselfish leaders are inevitably going to find themselves in a position of need from time to time. What I’m talking about are genuine feelings of disappointment, frustration, under-appreciation, burn-out.
Most really good leaders, believing they are doing the right thing, tend to deal with these feelings on their own. Maybe they have a spouse who is good at listening, or perhaps they have a reliable executive coach.
Other good leaders do what my school football coaches used to tell us when we were tired or a little injured: “suck it up.” Essentially, they ignore their feelings, reminding themselves that their job is a difficult one and that they should be tougher.
But neither of these strategies is completely sustainable. Eventually, even the toughest, most emotionally durable leaders must address the legitimate feelings they have with the people who are most directly involved with the issues that are causing those feelings. Because when they don’t, they inevitably put themselves in a position to harm their organizations.
When human beings allow genuine feelings to ferment without resolution, they eventually, and often unconsciously, let those feelings leak out in one unproductive, unresolvable way or another. In most cases, they end up behaving in ways that are slightly passive aggressive, autocratic or unnecessarily critical of team members.
Team members, who don’t know what is going through their leader’s mind, can’t possibly understand where this is coming from, and so they’re left to either acquiesce to the sudden autocracy, or to resist the leader’s arguments and criticism. Essentially, they are blind to the real issues at play, which leaves them incapable of responding in a productive or useful way.
The only way for leaders to address this kind of situation effectively is to openly admit to their team that they feel frustrated, or disappointed, or over-burdened, or under-appreciated. Then they’re going to have to let their team members digest that information, and begin the messy process of working through those issues with honesty and humility.
Most good leaders who are reading this are probably thinking, “The last thing I want to do is tell my direct reports that my feelings are hurt.” They’ll be afraid to come across as weak, or even worse, needy. As noble as that may seem, in reality it is a subtle form of pride and invulnerability. Leaders are just as human as the people they lead yet they often refuse counsel from their team. Worse yet, it deprives staff members of the information they need to figure out what actions they can take to alleviate those feelings.
The truth is, when humble leaders acknowledge their humanity, even when that humanity is not necessarily pretty, they are giving their people a chance to understand what is really going on in their leaders’ hearts and minds, and allowing them in that moment to be the stronger party in the relationship. Not only will that allow them to address whatever issues need to be resolved, but it will make the team stronger and more resilient going forward.
This same principle applies to the job of leading children and families.