There’s a lot of advice available for leaders these days. Some is good. Some is less than good. But, even bad leadership advice can teach us valuable lessons, if we’re open to learning.
When I stepped into my first (and last) middle management position, I was green. I had a lot of enthusiasm, a few too many opinions, and minimal experience. Nearly a dozen team members reported to me — a few younger than me, but most were more than a generation older than me. My Executive Director and our board were accustomed to high turnover in the organization and in my role particularly. As I stepped into the roll, they were supportive, invested in my success, and relieved to have a warm body at my desk.
The first few months were stressful, but I slowly grew into the position.
Logistics, policy and procedure, and day-to-day operations came easily to me. Managing people did not. And that surprised me. After all, I’m a “people person.” I’m extroverted. I enjoy a crowd – parties give me energy. However, there were times when my team felt less like a party and more like an angry mob.
It became clear, after a year, that one member of the staff was not a good fit on the team. I’d exhausted my (very short) list of ideas to make the relationship work and needed help. Thankfully, my Executive Director’s office was always open, so I went to her for advice.
When Leadership Advice Doesn’t Fit
She listened, she validated my concerns, and she admitted that there had been signs of trouble with this employee before I’d started. I was relieved and asked her how she thought I should handle the situation. She advised me that I need not do anything. She assured me that when the situation became untenable enough, the employee would leave on her own and the problem would be solved.
That wasn’t what I expected to hear.
I was asking how to proceed along one of two roads – improve the situation or terminate the team member. She offered a third path. When I expressed concern with her suggestion, she assured me that this approach had worked in the past and was confident it would again. She believed that with a little bit of patience, I could wait out the employee and the problem would solve itself.
I listened, and nodded, and returned to my office feeling unsettled.
It was the first time I’d gotten advice from my Director that didn’t sit well with me. The approach she suggested seemed passive-aggressive and didn’t fit the picture of the leader I wanted to be. In business (and in life) I appreciate transparency, authenticity and directness. I’d rather slog through conflict and fight for a solution than spend days (or months, in this case) in discomfort waiting for a “problem” to resolve itself.
I gave it much thought and I decided to trust my superior. Perhaps she knew something that I didn’t about the situation. Perhaps she was conflict averse. Perhaps she didn’t agree with my assessment of the situation. No matter what her reasoning, she had much more experience than I did. I’d gone to her for advice and so I felt I needed to take it. I didn’t address the problem and instead I sat back and waited.
The next few months were uncomfortable for me, for the employee in question, and for the rest of the team. But my Executive Director was right. Eventually, the resignation came. When it did, I didn’t feel relieved, I felt like a failure. In fact, I felt a little sick to my stomach.
Learning Leadership Lessons
My Director’s advice may have helped solved my problem, but at what cost? It felt as if I’d let myself and my team down.
Leadership is a tricky business. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. That’s why there’s so much leadership advice out there. Not every piece of advice fits every person or every situation. As leaders, we’re compelled to use discernment and wisdom as we wade through advice we’re given. It’s a balancing act. When do we follow advice that doesn’t feel right and when do we trust our gut and ignore it? What do we do when follow advice that in hindsight feels like a mistake?
The real trick is not to let our mistakes discourage us, because in the midst of the “mistake” there is a lesson. Don’t waste time beating yourself up – take the opportunity to recognize the lesson instead.
After this incident, I became much clearer about the kind of leader I wanted to be. I recognized that while my Director had good intentions and was a good person, we had different needs. For me, how I feel and how my team feels as we achieve a goal is almost as important as reaching the goal. I let the experience teach me what kind of work culture I wanted to help create and, even more importantly, what kind of leader I wanted to be.
Leadership advice that doesn’t fit can be a gift if you’re open to learning the lesson it provides.