How to Tell if You Are Sinking or Swimming as a Leader

How can 80% of people believe themselves to be above average leaders?

One of the many challenges of being a leader is knowing how well we are doing.  Are we sinking or swimming?

It can be hard to really know, and yet knowing is the key to becoming better at it.

As I was surprised to re-learn at the local pool a few weeks ago, what it takes is the perspective of others.  Here are six ways to get the benefit of other people’s perspective without even asking.

How to Tell if You are Sinking or Swimming as a Leader

Back in the Swim

After taking a couple years off, I’m doing triathlons again this year.  What has me motivated this time around? A big part of it is my hopes of fixing the swim, my weakest event of the three.

Every year, in the effort to become a better swimmer, I’d read books, watch video, and do my best to apply what I had learned in the water.  There was some improvement.  But after a month or two, growth would plateau, and any gains came in small fractions after far too much effort.

This year is different:  I got a coach.

A few weeks ago, in a short session at the pool, he took video and then let me watch it play back.  Though I was swimming the best I knew how, the new perspective blew me away.  The areas I needed to improve became immediately obvious.

Armed with this new perspective and some new drills from the coach, I can feel strength and speed building in the water again, day by day.

It’s Not What You(!) Think

Leadership can be a lot like swimming.  We can read books and watch videos as much as we like, but at some point, we just have to get in the water and give it a shot.

And one simple metric for how we are doing is to simply ask: are we accomplishing the mission?  If the answer is “yes,” that’s a good start – we’ve made it to the other end of the pool.

Mind the Gap - Trust and LeadershipBut that’s not the whole story.  Before patting ourselves on the back, we should ask another question:  What has happened to the relationships among

our teammates in the process?  Are they stronger or weaker?  Has trust grown or suffered?

Like my struggles in the pool, getting to the far wall is not the only thing that’s important.  If going the distance leaves your team shattered, there’s something wrong.

So how else do we measure whether we are sinking or swimming?

Who’s to Judge?

As the statistic above makes clear, we have to start by realizing that we are not in the best position to judge.  If most of us think we are above average, there are a lot of deluded leaders out there.

For perspective, it helps to turn to the people impacted by our leadership.

Leadership: It’s not how YOU think you are doing… Click To Tweet

If we are getting regular performance reviews, 360 degree appraisals, or other assessments, that’s great.  We should pay attention to what they tell us.

And by all means, if we aren’t getting inputs directly from the boss, there are lots of ways to get them talking.

But like having a coach at pool-side, what we need as leaders is some direct, immediate feedback.  Who wants to wait for an annual review to find out that we have a problem right now that needs attention?

Short of getting our own leadership coach, here are six ways we can tell immediately if we are sinking or swimming as leaders.

Sinking or Swimming?

Are they bringing us problems?  As Colin Powell states in his excellent book “It Worked for Me” the day people stop coming to us with their problems is the day we should start to worry.  It means  they’ve lost confidence in our ability to fix things.  If no one else ever seems to have a problem, it might mean that we have a problem.

How many twins do we have?  Leadership by example is one of our most powerful tools of influence.  We know it’s working when we start to see our teammates imitating our actions.  From open-minded respectful debate, to communication skills, to how we respond to crisis, if we see others following our example it’s a sure sign that they think our approach must be a good one.

Though children close their ears to you, their eyes remain wide open. – Richelle E. Goodrich Click To Tweet

Are we boring?  Speaking of crisis, is every day an emotional roller coaster ride for the team?  The best leaders can ignite passions in their teammates, but do so in a stable, consistent way.  People look to their leadership for predictability and stability.  As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes for Harvard Business Review,  we have to “create the kinds of secure and supportive environments where creativity and productivity thrive.”  A daily soap opera is not a good sign; tone it down and go for “boring.”

What’s the TBA (Total Brains Applied)?  Is every minor detail up to us?  I like David Paul Carter’s point that the best leaders are those who can successfully engage the most brains around them to help get the job done.  With more brains plugged in, we increase the odds of coming up with better, more innovative solutions.  And in the process, our teammates feel that they are meaningful contributors.  If our brain is the only one in gear, it’s time to re-think.

If your brain is the only one in gear, it's time to re-think. #leadership Click To Tweet

Are they (really) listening?   In Listening Skills for Leaders, I share eight ways to improve how we listen to others.  We can turn the tables and look for these same behaviors in them.   Want to know if they are really interested in what we have to say?  It starts with eye contact; generally the more there is, the better the sign.

What does the mirror tell us?  Look in the mirror – not the glass one in the bathroom, the other one: the faces of our teammates.  As Terry Starbucker says, people are not very good at masking their feelings, and faces don’t lie.  Look at facial expressions.  How many of them are smiling? Look at what he calls the “Smile-to-Frown Ratio” – the more smiles, the better.  Our goal is not to make it like Disneyland every day, but more smiles generally means happier teammates.

Sinking or Swimming as a Leader:  The Takeaway

When our pool session was over, coach gave me several drills to use to help improve my swimming.  Subsequent workouts have left my shoulders and arms sore the next day, a sure sign that I’m slipping out of that old, inefficient comfort zone, and hopefully making some improvements.

In the same way, if the leadership feedback we get tells us there is room for improvement, we have to be ready to go to work.  It may even require us to refine your technique, break out of comfortable routine, and develop some new “muscles.”

The key is that we are open to the idea of getting better as a leader, and sensitive to all that good feedback we are getting every day.

And simply by doing that, we will already be improving ourselves as leaders; not by being perfect, but by always seeking to be better.

Lead on!

Who else would enjoy this post?
About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

Related Posts
Welcome to the Team!
It's great to have you join us!
Ken Downer - Founder of RapidStart Leadership
Please check your email
to confirm (and get a gift)
Get the leadership tools to help
2x Month * Direct Email * No Spam

They are ready to follow...

...are you ready to lead?

lead your virtual team

Subscribe now