Real Leaders

Leaders Don’t “Have To” Anything!

Many are now coming back to routine these days with heavy hearts. Summer prepares to leave our gardens in search of southern destinations, while we lazily wake up to find all the stressors we’d happily left behind a few weeks ago. As it turns out, however, the worst stressor of all is our own excessive self-discipline.

It just might be our biggest weakness as leaders. One of my clients was complaining on a phone session about how his last week on holiday had become a nightmare. His son had got into teenage trouble and he had fought with his wife: “this is exactly the opposite of what I needed from my family when I’m preparing to take on a new company! I have to get ahead of our key Asian competitors a.s.a.p. and break in a whole new management team before Christmas…”

It’s typical to see tension building in families as the end of the holiday approaches. Nights become restless with nightmares and fights break out of nowhere over the dumbest little mishaps. Our bodies know that routine, work and school are right around the corner, and though our minds may still try to get the most out of our vacation, pressure activates uncomfortable feelings and sensations. Because we are mammal animals, we share the pressure unconsciously through sighs, snappy remarks, curt replies and an entire assortment of non-verbal cues which kids (and pets) immediately pick up on and act out in full color. No doubt my client’s challenges were big enough to keep anybody awake at night.

Still, he was carefully hand-picked by very selective shareholders to take on that job. If anybody can turn that company around it’s him. All he needs to do is reduce the pressure, and everything else will fall into place, including his rebellious teenage son and angry wife. But how?

Very often the quickest way to reduce excessive pressure is to eliminate “have to” from our vocabulary. Let’s be clear: Leaders don’t “have to” do anything. If you “have to” move or act in a certain way, then something or somebody else is leading you. This is the quickest way to identify the leader in a fish tank full of males. Who chases everybody else? The number of sentences containing “have to” we tell ourselves each day, therefore, is an interesting indicator that betrays our own excessive pressure on ourselves. Yes, we may be pursued by shareholders, we may be provoked by the speed of our competitors.

But we can choose to be rudely pushed by the situation, or become graceful pushers ourselves. It’s all about managing pressure and knowing when to send it right back to where it came from. If fish can do it, can’t we? In Spanish there’s a saying that goes “más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo”, which translated to English, means that the devil is smarter because he’s old, than as a result of his devilish nature. Board level executives are much the same.

The older they get, the smarter they are at keeping their cool under every kind of attack, patiently waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike back. They know that the first rule of leadership is keeping your cool at all times. Because when you feel cool, at ease, in perfect control of your own skills and resources, you don’t have to anything. You know you are killing it with every gesture, you can hear your own tone of voice rounding syllables in beautiful symphony, and you know exactly where the conversation is going to go: where you want it. An insecure player has to win the contest.

A cool, savvy player enjoys displaying his own talent without pressure or obligation, knowing full well he’s going to win. He just knows it in his gut. He can feel it. I’m sure you’ve felt this way at some point in your life. It’s unforgettable. When “have to” expressions pop up too often in our minds, we’re probably losing our cool and transforming into little helpless fish in a tank full of much larger, mean, bully-type fish. Yet it’s an illusion driven by our own insecurity. We aren’t fish in a fish tank. We’re leaders! We choose our battles. We can figure out a way to knock the other guy off his pedestal of certainty. We… just need a little more time.

Which is what I advised my frustrated client: “stop forcing yourself to over-perform and give yourself the space you need to regroup, relax and plan a strong, well-rooted strategy. Nobody is pushing you. Stop pushing yourself!” You should have heard his sigh of relief. I should have recorded it! I’m sure his family is secretly thanking me for that momentary shift. So, so simple. Yet so counterintuitive for us these days.

For some reason we are literally obsessed with self-discipline and effort. It reminds me of sweaty, worn posters on the walls of small gyms where unlikely bodybuilders slave away at their abs: “No pain, no gain!” If we’re not killing ourselves –rather than killing it at work – we may even feel guilty… sound familiar? All our leadership theories, our research publications and self-help books reinforce this global attitude of self-punishment in order to reach our goals. To the point that many executives actually decrease their own performance because they consume huge portions of energy in silent, often unconscious, self-recrimination and judgment: shouldn’t have said this, must improve that, have to do this a.s.a.p…. we are pushing ourselves to win instead of enjoying the test of our talent.

We will ourselves to be more like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg or Bill Gates with excessive force, and even silent cruelty at times. Somehow we’ve become shamefully violent trainers to our innocent, animal bodies. The minute they stray from the path we’ve dreamed up in our heads, we beat down on them like there’s no tomorrow.

This, my friends, is the biggest source of pressure I see in many, many CEO’s and business owners today. It’s incredible! Leadership is not about pain. It’s about flow. And flowing is one of the most pleasurable sensations in life. Forget “have to.” Trust your body to flow. It’s strong, powerful and talented. And it simply loves to show off! The rest will fall into place. Family included.

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