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The 4 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders

#2 — They expect resistance from those they lead.


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Michael Touchton

3 years ago | 6 min read

“Learning to lead is a process of learning by doing. It can’t be taught in a classroom. It is a craft primarily acquired through on-the-job experiences — especially adverse experiences in which the new manager, working beyond his current capabilities, proceeds by trial and error.”
Dr. Linda Hill, Harvard University

A quick search on Amazon for books about leadership returns roughly 10,000 results. That’s a lot of information…

But the good news is, you don’t need to read all those books to become a good leader. In fact, you don’t need to read any of them.

But the bad news is, becoming a good leader is much more difficult than reading a bunch of books. Because becoming a good leader is about going through the sometimes painful experience of personal growth.

At twenty-five, I became the leader of an organization and very quickly realized how little I actually understood about the day-to-day realities of leading people.

But over the next years (and through lots of trial and error) I stumbled upon four real-world habits that have the potential of forming you into the kind of person that people will follow.

And yeah, sure — reading will certainly help. But without practicing regular habits like the ones below, reading those 10,000 leadership books won’t make you a leader anymore than reading 10,000 cookbooks will make you a chef — sooner or later, you’ve got to get in the kitchen.

1. They Build a Challenge Network

You can’t grow if no one is showing you where you need to change. It’s painful on your pride, but if you’re going to fix them, you need other people to point your problems out to you. It’s not fun to hear about how you’re falling short, but it’s necessary if you want to grow.

I once saw a tweet from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, where he introduces the idea of a “challenge network”:

“Along with a support network, we should all have a challenge network: a group of people who give us tough feedback and push us to improve.”

You could just wait for people to provide you with constructive criticism, but if you do, it will take you a long time to grow. Especially because the people with the most helpful, constructive criticism are often the shyest about approaching you — in the fear that you will misunderstand them and take offence.

One of the biggest mistakes I made in my leadership was assuming that I was sufficiently self-aware. And I wasted a lot of time bumping into things instead of humbling myself and asking other people to check my blind spots for me.

If you really want to become a better leader, ask a few other people to regularly give you feedback on your leadership. Set a weekly or monthly appointment with your network, take a deep breath, and remember your hearing these things so that you can change them and grow.

2. They Expect Resistance From Those They Lead

If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will. As a leader, you’re the trigger for any parental or authority issues your people have had. Many of us get into leadership to do something — build a big company, make a difference in the world, etc. — only to end up feeling buried in internal conflict.

This dragged me down more than anything else. Since I was unaware that this was a normal part of leadership, I took it personally. I wrongly assumed that if I did everything “right”, people would get on board with the vision and get to work. But that’s not how human nature works. There will always be resistance — and often it will have nothing to do with you or your ideas.

The best way to change this is to expect it.

Although it’s tempting, pretending bad things won’t happen to you won’t change the fact that they surely will. Instead, you’ll just be surprised and discouraged when they do. But if you take a realistic approach and expect people to resist you, you won’t be derailed and depressed.

When we were caught off guard by resistance, we react on the defensive. And since leadership is about proactive response, our defensive reaction robs us of our leadership.

When we’re reacting, we’re no longer leading.

This is why leading starts with expecting resistance from those you lead. When you expect resistance and prepare to respond in a way that doesn’t add to the anxiety and mistrust of the workplace, you deescalate the anxiety that’s present in every organization — leaving you with a safer, more positive, more proactive work culture.

3. They Check Out and Take Walks

Being a leader can become a daily grind of checking off tasks and putting out fires. And along the way, you can get burned out. To remedy this, you need to give yourself time to consider how you’re feeling.

My toughest leadership seasons were the ones where I overworked and over-thought. Everything changed when I started surrendering the to-do list and left the office.

I would buy a coffee and take a long walk. And I credit these times with almost everything positive that came out of my leadership during those years.

We often think leadership is mostly about learning techniques and applying them to our organizations. But it’s not. Leadership is mostly about learning to manage your own internal emotions in the midst of an environment that can often feel chaotic and anxious.

The best leaders regularly set aside time to check-in with themselves. They ask themselves how they’re really feeling and remind themselves of the reason they became a leader. As a bonus, taking time away from focusing on a problem is often the key to solving it.

4. They Jump In First

Your people want to trust you to lead the way. But over time, they won’t trust your previous experience or your education; they’ll trust what they see you do. And the best thing you can do is to go first.

If you want their trust, you need to be the first one to jump in the water to see how cold it feels. Need to cut everyone’s pay? Cut your pay first. Need to finish a key project? You make the first sacrifice.

This is one of the biggest mistakes I made. I thought inspiring people with a passionate speech was enough to move them to action. But it rarely did — at least not for long. However, when I decided that anything I asked of others I would do (first) myself, everything began to change.

The only way to become this kind of leader is to… jump in first. You’ve got to shift your mindset from convincing your people to do something to showing them how you’re doing it and inviting them to join you.

If you want people to follow you from their heart, there is no other way.

Practice Makes Progress: You Can Become This Kind of Leader

In my experience, there are four ways to become an effective leader — and they all have to do with you. Because leadership is not really about those you lead, it’s about your own heart and mind.

And leadership is not so much about learning information as much as it’s about becoming the type of person who others will trust and follow.

And this means taking information and putting it into practice in the real world and with real people. It takes humility, because you’re probably going to screw up. But if you start practicing these 4 habits, you’ll make forward motion toward becoming the kind of leader that others will be happy to follow.

To sum it up:

  1. Build a challenge network — ask other people to give you honest feedback on your life and leadership.
  2. Expect resistance from those you lead — a core responsibility of leadership is to respond instead of react to the anxiety of those you lead.
  3. Check out and take walks — regularly set aside time to check-in with yourself, remember why you do what you do, and get perspective on the problems you’re trying to solve.
  4. Jump in first — if you want people to be happy to follow you (and not just do it begrudgingly), be willing to do first whatever it is you ask them to do.

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