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Leadership Capacity and Constraint

“Leaders are made not born”.

We must believe this, since our organizations spend a staggering amount of money every year to improve the managerial and leadership skills of their employees.

We also place a high value on leadership as individuals, treating those recognized as great leaders with a kind of cultish reverence. Inspiring quotes about leadership abound on social platforms, often in the same intense language used to describe CrossFit.

We could quibble about the definitions of leadership vs management. Leadership is often depicted as ‘an art’ related to one’s character, while management is more likely to be seen as skill-based (delegation, communication, decision making etc), but we ask a lot of both leaders and managers (and often dismiss management as leadership’s less sexy cousin).  What’s relevant here is that for all the time, money, and effort we spend trying to build better leaders and managers, we seem to be failing.

Why is that?

Capacity vs Constraint

Most of us will be lucky to encounter a few really good managers or leaders in our career. The widely-held tenet that ‘people don’t leave companies they leave managers’ speaks to the pivotal role that managers play in our level of satisfaction at work. Most sources suggest that level is not particularly high in many industries.

One explanation that occurs to me is the focus on building the capacity of managers, without considering the primary constraint on putting new knowledge and skills into practice in their everyday work. For many of them, that constraint is themselves: the fears, insecurities, assumptions, biases, triggers, and sensitivities that all of us have.

Writer and productivity thinker Tiago Forte sparked this for me in a tweet thread in September:

Screenshot 2017-10-22 19.32.27Screenshot 2017-10-22 19.32.56Screenshot 2017-10-22 19.33.25

You can memorize every great management book ever written and it won’t make you a great manager if you’re getting in your own way. What’s often invisible to us, when reading those books or inspiration leadership quotes on Pinterest, is the inner work that good managers have done to stop being their own biggest constraint as a people leader.

This is why personal development (working on ourselves) is absolutely critical to becoming better managers and leaders. And yet this dimension of development seems strangely absent from most of the traditional training for managers, often only showing up in executive-level training, if there.

I’m not arguing that knowledge and skills aren’t critical to developing managers and leaders; they are. But no amount of reading management books, or emulating the visible behaviour of revered leaders can transform us into more communicative, empathetic, trusting, and observant humans overnight. That kind of personal evolution takes hard work. And that work is not linear, or predictable, or enjoyable, or rewarded with a certificate at the end. I’m talking about work like:

  • Understanding why you resist delegating, even though you know you should
  • Identifying the limiting beliefs you have about yourself that cause you to get defensive when receiving feedback (“I’m a fake, I can’t show any weakness or they’ll find me out”)
  • Identifying beliefs you have about others that impact your behaviour (“They don’t really care about doing a good job, I can’t trust them”)
  • Exploring and accepting your fears and shortcomings

I think that people who are committed to this personal development work (whatever they choose to call it) do it because they know it removes a critical constraint to all of the capacity they’ve been building throughout their careers. It’s like opening a clogged pipe.


So why do we ignore passing on this critical lesson for the people who might benefit from it most (and benefit those around them)? Why do we continue to throw time and money at capacity, and rarely pause to consider personal constraints? A few thoughts:

1. It’s not a ‘hack’. There’s no doubt that what attracts the largest volume of interest these days is the secret short-cut. We want the results without the effort, the identity without the sacrifice.

Anyone who’s done this kind of personal work knows that progress can be illusory. You notice a pattern in your thoughts or behaviour, identify some flawed underlying belief, and suddenly start to think you’ve figured that thing out. You’re like a new person! Wise, even. Hey, maybe you should give a TED talk. Then you find yourself in a novel situation that hits the same sore spot from a different angle and suddenly you’re having an out of body experience as you watch your head spin around like the girl in poltergeist. Serenity now…

2. We don’t value introspection. I mean, people love to tell you their MBTI or DISC profile (“I am such a High D ENTP”), but ask them to take responsibility for a pattern in their life or career, and suddenly everyone is a lot less jazzed. I’d suggest that we’re socialized to place less value on this kind of reflective, self-critical exploration than on just ‘getting shit done’. This is particularly true for men, I believe. Prevailing cultural norms related to masculinity don’t encourage them to see their emotions as information that might signal something about their inner self, rather than the external environment. And they aren’t generally rewarded by others for doing work in this area. Which is related to:

3. The Great Man myth. We worship the image and legacy of (mostly male) leaders who were visionaries, and devalue the practical management (largely interpersonal) skills that are much more widely needed in organizations. Inherent in the theory of the great man is the notion that he was born this way. Why waste time working on this boring ‘collaborating nicely with others’ crap if the best leaders didn’t?

Steve Jobs

Capacity Ceiling

We’ve all worked with incredibly smart, talented people who wear their insecurities like  a magic sign, visible to others but a blind spot for themselves. This might be evidenced by outbursts, micro-management, or other anti-social behaviours. If they’re talented enough, then their antics will be tolerated as long as they deliver. Direct reports and even colleagues learn to walk on eggshells around them, and the capacity-focused high performer is never called to account. But they may also never get promoted further, much to their confusion and chagrin.

An acknowledgement of both the value and the prevalence of doing inner work from leaders who’ve have committed to it themselves might go a long way to normalizing this activity as a part of the path to becoming a good people manager. It might also provide a common language to describe and discuss some of the less concrete behavioural issues that can hold a manager back from becoming better.

This post represents a milestone for me. It’s my 100th post on Talent Vanguard. Thank you for being part of that by reading my words.

Read This Week:

How Behavioural Economics Can Help Improve Gender Diversity – Laetitia Vitaud

This overview of ideas from Iris Bohnet’s 2016 book ‘What Works, Gender Equality By Design‘ is timely and very interesting. As Vitaud points out, despite increasing interest in addressing gender diversity and equality in organizations, many initiatives and strategies seems to have had little impact, or to have even back-fired. In reference to organizations that have advanced a meritocratic culture:

“This counterintuitive idea could be due to the fact that when managers believe they can rely on company policies to promote meritocracy, they can be less mindful about their individual decisions—and be “morally licensed” to be more biased in their individual decisions. To counter what Castilla calls the “paradox of meritocracy,” more accountability and transparency are called for. Managers who are held accountable before each of their decisions will make more just decisions.”

Turning Individual Learning into Organization Wide Change – Sara Saddington,

I get a little giddy when the Actionable team comes out with better and better ways to describe all that we’ve learned from our work on applying individual habit change science to support organization wide learning and change initiatives. This infographic summarizes how we can help embed new behaviours (like a fitbit for org learning) to create system-wide changes. I am such a nerd about this stuff.

“Not surprisingly, as the community grew, it also attracted professional coaches and consultants, who were frustrated that they were delivering great content and inspiring on-site work, only to find that little or nothing changed once their engagement was over.

Even in the best case scenario—each participant is inspired and committed to applying one thing from your session—without follow-up, accountability, or support, how can you know that your work truly made an impact?”

Why Everyone Should Lift Weights – James Clear

Yes, yes, yes. As I described in my post earlier this year – Weightlifting and the Inner Game of Work – lifting weights has offered me so many benefits in life and at work. I love this from James Clear’s post this week:

“After spending more than 10 years analyzing the top regrets of dying patients, nurse Bronnie Ware said, “Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

I believe that this freedom — this enhanced ability to explore, create, connect, and contribute to the world around you — is one of the greatest benefits of weight training.

What I have gained from weightlifting — the resistance to illness and injury, the confidence in my abilities and the awareness of my limitations — has positioned me to make a bigger impact and contribute more value than I could have before training.”

Well said.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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