Intentional Leadership

Just after 5 p.m., half a dozen business leaders were heading down to the parking lot in the elevator when the CEO of the company stepped in. As they were riding down, he glanced at his watch. When they reached the ground floor, the doors opened and the CEO stepped out, but everyone else remained in the elevator, rode back up, and returned to their desks. What happened? When the leaders saw the CEO glance at his watch, they assumed he was thinking, “Hmm – that’s interesting. All my senior team members are heading home at 5 instead of working the longer hours their challenging roles demand.” And what was really going on? In fact, he was thinking, “I wonder if I’m going to make my flight.” I heard this story from a client, and it is a great example of how people read significance into everything a senior leader does. The higher you are in the hierarchy, the more people watch every gesture, listen to every word, and interpret everything you do or don’t do. This is a fact of life for people in prominent positions. Effective leaders recognize this reality and use it to their advantage. They are thoughtful about the messages they send and make conscious decisions about what kind of example they want to set. This is called “intentional leadership.” At a superficial level, intentional leaders are aware of how they dress and what their office looks like. At a deeper level, they are mindful of their non-verbal as well as their verbal messages. They are especially careful about their use of email, knowing how easily it is misinterpreted and how widely messages may be shared. At an even deeper level, they are thoughtful about how they treat people, recognizing the power of a smile or a remark that indicates their memory of some detail of the other person’s life. They know that silence is often over-interpreted or misinterpreted, so they are responsive and accessible. Of course, being aware of your impact is important at any level of the organization. But as you climb the ladder of authority, you become more visible and your actions have greater implications. Imagine you are climbing a flexible pole. Near the bottom, if you lean one way or the other, it has little effect. But as you climb higher, even a slight motion causes the pole to sway wildly. Intentional leadership means choosing when and how you will sway the pole, and to what end.

Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome

Gotta love that euphemism, “in transition.” It’s the soft way of saying “out of work.” It conveys a great message – that being unemployed is a passage to some wonderful new venture. Sometimes an out-of-work business leader feels that sense of freedom and possibility. But at other times, an unemployed leader or professional feels as if he or she is on the road to nowhere. One of the pitfalls for the leader in transition is that old bugaboo, the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is a common self-defeating thought pattern that bedevils many highly successful people. It’s that nasty little voice in your head that says, “You know, you really are an idiot. You may have managed to fool people so far, but any day now someone is going to expose you for the nincompoop you really are.” The imposter syndrome can undermine the effectiveness and self-confidence of leaders in prominent roles. Imagine how much more damaging it is to leaders who are in transition. You just lost your job – you must truly be a loser after all! So even in the face of a lifetime of success, such a leader can become paralyzed and demoralized by this normal but damaging thought pattern. So what can you do about it? Evaluate yourself from someone else’s perspective. Imagine you have a friend or colleague who has just lost his job. He shows you his resume, which parallels your own. Do you say to him, “Man, you are a dork! Don’t even think about getting another job – who would want to hire a dunce like you?” On the contrary, you would be impressed by his achievements and supportive of his efforts. So take the kind of language you would use with him and apply it to yourself. Seek out the company of people who admire you and believe in you. Listen to what they say and tell yourself, “These are smart people. If they think I am hot stuff, they must be right.” Stay away from people who bring you down. People who criticize you or are full of anxiety and gloom about your situation or theirs will sap your energy and enthusiasm. Remember you are not alone in feeling like an imposter. Most of the people you admire have struggled at times with these same feelings.