A WHILE back, I received a distressed e-mail message from Ken, a young manager at a high-tech company.
Ken and I had never met, but he had read my first two books on leadership and had done his best to apply the ideas and practices to the way he had led his team.
When necessary, Ken told me, they would band together and work hard — 10 to 20 hours a day at times — to solve a problem or meet a pressing need. They felt like a family, he said, committed to doing great work and devoted to one another’s success. No one ever complained, least of all Ken.
And then something happened. A downturn, a re-organisation, a shift in the management structure — you know the drill.
Ken still had a job, but his position was eliminated. New management full of old ideas came in to oversee the department’s function, and the emotional fibres that connected Ken’s team members to one another and to their work unravelled.
“Now,” Ken wrote, “for the last four weeks I’ve sat at my cubicle, web surfing for eight hours a day at the same company where I once worked 39 hours straight with my team to make things right, never going home.
“I’m not a quitter; I don’t want to leave. But — just or unjust — I feel stripped of everything we’ve done. So the advice I’m looking for is this: ‘How do I get back up?’”
It has already become a cliché to say that we live in unprecedented, challenging times. But the truth is, the world of work is always challenging. That’s why they call it “work”.
No matter the industry, market or type of company you work in, you have to deal with some combination of the classic workplace obstacles, issues, and barriers to a successful leadership experience.
At some time or another, for example, you have reported to bosses or people in positions of “greater authority” who were self-centred at best, and idiotically egotistical at worst. They took all the credit and none of the blame, and could not care less whether or not you succeeded or failed.
You may have spent some amount of time and energy navigating your way through the challenges that come from trying to lead in those conditions. It is just the price you pay for being a manager.
Now, add to that the current implosion in the economy, and it is easy to see why, with all your efforts to be a positive, productive leader, you still get knocked down from time to time.
Your knee-jerk reaction in times of crisis is to hold on tighter, to be more cautious in your actions, and more protective of your resources.
There is, however, a much more powerful course of action, which — though counterintuitive in these hyper-competitive times — is based on a timeless reality of true leadership.
Your own greatness as a leader lies, paradoxically, in your ability to cause others to be greater than yourself.
Said another way, your best way out of a leadership challenge or crisis is not to focus on your own peril or rut but, instead, to reach out and try to boost someone else over your head.
So the solution I offered to Ken was this: Instead of wallowing in your own despair, pick someone at work to invest in, with the intent of making that person greater than you are.
Be a coach, guide, or mentor in the truest, most personal sense of the words by choosing someone to be your GTY (Greater Than Yourself) project, and see what that does to your own predicament, your own state of mind.
As surprised as he was by the curve ball I had thrown him, Ken took my advice and agreed to the challenge.
Two weeks later, Ken wrote to say that he had thought deeply about our conversation and had come to realise that before he could lift someone else up by sharing his knowledge and experience, he needed to be sure that he had learnt the right lessons from the recent team trauma.
So he had met with his boss, and asked for feedback on how he could have acted differently, what he might have done to contribute to the problem, and how he could be a better leader in the future.
“The 30-minute meeting turned into a two-hour confessional,” said Ken, which resulted in him learning some hard, “gold lessons” about himself.
Just like Ken, you might get bashed down from time to time.
Next time, try to resist the temptation to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps, and reach out to pull someone else up, instead. Go find someone to be your GTY project, and ask them to do the same.
And don’t be surprised if — through your example — your whole organisation, company or team rises to establish itself as the new gold standard of leadership.