It always seems to fall in the final hour of the workday. It’s a Thursday afternoon, approaching 5:00 p.m., and I am once again envying my staff for their work schedules. Nearly all have left for the day and I’m beginning to wrap things up with my sights on departing the office by 6:00 p.m. to make it home for dinner.
Then the fake crisis hits.
An important project is suddenly urgent, according to my boss. I should have seen this coming. Resigned, I find myself resentful of my boss. With limited options, I delegate portions of the project to my remaining subordinate supervisors to meet the close-of-business deadline.
In the process, my irritation cascades to those below me. Is there any way to stop this chain of discontent? In such situations, I pause and remind myself of one choice. You should do the same.
With a pen and a sheet of paper, try the following exercise:
Imagine the best leader for whom you ever worked. What are three qualities that defined that person? If you’ve been so unfortunate that you have never worked for a strong leader, consider what your ideal leader would be like. Think of three descriptors and write them down.
Conversely, consider the worst leader you ever endured. You would never work with him again, and heaven forbid he ends up working for you. What was it about him (or her) that made it such a difficult experience? And if you have been so fortunate as to have never worked for a bad leader, imagine what the worst leader would be like.
When considering the strong leader that had a positive impact on your experience, I would guess you wrote he was an individual of high integrity and energy. She inspired you and helped you understand the value of your work and your place in the organization. He encouraged and enabled you. You trusted her. He modeled strong performance.
The poor leader was likely someone you found demeaning, self-centered, maybe even dangerous and hostile. She may have claimed your victories, but not shared your defeats. He lacked integrity and couldn’t be trusted.
Good and bad leadership has little to do with background, years of experience, and quality of education. Did you write about any of these factors in describing the good or bad leader? Probably not.
What separates good and bad leaders is how they choose to be and the values they embody. You too can choose to model the values you see in strong leaders.
Do you always inspire and only sometimes deflate those around you? Do you always model strong leadership behavior or only when others are looking? Are you kind, present and available to your staff and only occasionally distracted? Are you always encouraging and only occasionally discouraging?
How would others describe you?
Awareness is a matter of perspective. Recognizing that no leader is perfect, ask yourself, “What values do I stand for and is there a gap between my values and the way I behave?” Generally we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviors.
Think of the earlier situation—the important project that is suddenly urgent. In my frustration I was judging my leadership negatively for creating such urgency at the end of a workday. But was I being a strong leader? Or was I allowing my discontent to further cascade?
Before you justify upsetting your subordinate supervisors, pause and recognize your choice. Choose to be a strong leader.
Maybe that project is not that urgent. Maybe you should handle it yourself. Maybe as a leader it is more important to maintain a positive work environment where people are motivated and challenged free of false urgency. Maybe the answer is as simple as defining what kind of leader you are in the eyes of your subordinates.
Randall Trani, a career civil servant at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army veteran and former diplomat, attends Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Connect on Twitter @randall_trani. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of DIA or any other government agency.