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 you are doing.  Are you 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 hired 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.  You can read books and watch videos as much as you like, but at some point, you just have to get in the water and give it a shot.

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

Mind the Gap - Trust and LeadershipBut that’s not the whole story.  What has happened to the relationships among you and your 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?

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 you are getting regular performance reviews, 360 degree appraisals, or other assessments, that’s great.  Pay attention to what they tell you.

And by all means, if you aren’t getting inputs, there are lots of ways to get useful feedback from your boss.

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 you have a problem right now that needs attention?

Short of getting your own leadership coach, here are six ways to tell immediately if you are sinking or swimming as a leader.

Sinking or Swimming?

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

How many twins do you have?  Leadership by example is one of your most powerful tools of influence.  You know it’s working when you start to see your teammates imitating your actions.  From open-minded respectful debate, to communication skills, to how you respond to crisis, if you see others following your example it’s a sure sign that they think your 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 you 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,  you 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 you?  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, you increase the  odds of coming up with better, more innovative solutions.  And in the process, your teammates feel that they are meaningful contributors.  If your 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 you listen to others.  Turn the tables and look for these same behaviors in them as you speak to see if they are really interested in what you have to say.  It starts with eye contact; generally the more there is, the better the sign.

What does the mirror tell you?  Look in the mirror – not the glass one in the bathroom, the other one: the faces of your 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.  Your 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 you get tells you there is room for improvement, be ready to go to work.  It may even require you to refine your technique, break out of comfortable routine, and develop some new muscles.

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

And simply by doing that, you will already be improving yourself as a leader; not by being perfect, but by always seeking to be better.

Lead on!

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