Leadership: The Hardest Thing

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I had a rough night. The baby fussed and cried all night and I didn’t get much sleep. Right before I left for work, I had a spat with my wife. Then, there was the awful traffic. To top it off, I spilled coffee on myself. I figured I had reasons to be a little grumpy.

About mid-morning, my boss came into my office and closed the door. “You seem a little touchy this morning,” he said. I told him about the baby and the awful traffic and spilling coffee. He listened. Then he spoke.

“You know, Wally, a year from now, those people may remember how you acted. They won’t remember that you had good reason.”

Leadership by Example Is A Double-Edged Sword

Leadership by example is the most potent part of leadership. That’s great when you’re setting a good example. It’s not so great when you’re not.

People are always watching you for clues about how to act. That means what you do is especially important. The example you set turns out to be the behavior you get.

George Patton put it another way. “You are always on parade.” In my mother’s words you must always be, “on your best behavior.”

The Hardest Part of Leadership

There are a lot of hard parts to leadership. Talking to people about performance and behavior is hard. Firing someone is viciously hard. But the hardest thing is that you must set the example.

You are on parade all day, every day. You must set a good example when the baby cried all night and you spilled coffee on yourself.

You Can’t Do It

You can’t do it. Whenever we try for perfection, we come up short. That’s part of being human. You can count on the fact you’re going to have days when you’re grumpy, when you set a bad example, when you do things you’re not proud of. You can count on the fact people will remember.

You’ve only got one option. As I wrote in Become A Better Boss One Tip at A Time, “If you mess up, fess up and fix it.”

There’s more. Remember that the people who work with you aren’t any better at perfection than you are. So, practice forgiveness. Cut them some slack.

Bottom Line

The hardest part of leadership is setting a good example all day, every day, even when it’s hard. In fact, you can’t do it. You’ll come up short from time to time. When that happens, apologize. And remember, the folks who work for you aren’t perfect, either. Forgive them. Cut them some slack.

We all need grace.

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