CFO Magazine: Leadership is a choice - Michelle Gibbings

As published in CFO Magazine, Michelle asks the question if you’ve ever wondered if you’re a bad boss? Read on.

Fictionalised in movies, but all too real in offices, factories, and worksites worldwide, we’ve all worked for one — the bad boss. But have you ever wondered if you’re someone else’s lousy boss?

No rational person wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘My goal today is to be a crap boss and make the working day for my team members hell.’ Yet it frequently works out that way. Why?

As a boss or a leader, you may be:

  • ill-equipped for the role
  • working for a boss who puts unreasonable demands on you
  • hampered by a low level of self-awareness
  • blind to the impact you’re having on your team and colleagues
  • struggling to handle the pressure
  • working in a toxic environment
  • oblivious to what good leadership is.

I learned this the hard way, discovering through feedback that I could make life hard for my team. I was often relentless with expectations and workload, keeping my team members at a distance and not having enough time for them.

Here’s what I learned.

You need to get real

The expectations of leaders these days are enormous. You work long hours, are always on call, and must sort out complex problems and juggle competing demands while knowing you face permanent job insecurity. Throw in an overly demanding boss or non-supportive stakeholders and the pressure rises.

Most of us have an image of our ideal ‘self’. We picture how we respond to situations or what we might say or do when presented with problems. Sadly, however, we don’t always live up to our expectations, and we can be blind to our impact on team members.

To be an effective leader, you have to open your eyes to what is going on by turning your ‘unconscious’ self into a ‘conscious’ self.

Take care of you

If you are working in a job you don’t like, in a toxic culture and for an over-demanding boss, you will likely struggle to be a good leader. Similarly, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll struggle to have the capacity to cope when things go haywire, and unproductive leadership behaviours will surface.

Academics Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, experts in building adaptive leaders, note that when things get busy and challenging, and the adrenaline is pumping, it’s easy for leaders to convince themselves that they won’t succumb to the normal human frailties. However, the “…intellectual, physical and emotional challenges of leadership are fierce”. To manage, they recommend leaders “…regularly step into the inner chamber of your being and assess the tolls those challenges are taking”[i].

When you are stressed, you are not at your best, and those around you will likely suffer the fallout. Staying in peak physical and mental condition is not just a nice to have; it’s essential. So set aside time to meditate, exercise, eat well and do other activities that help you unwind and recharge.

Change starts with you

You can’t expect others to effectively lead if you aren’t willing to role model the desired behaviour.

Harvard academics Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey studied why many crucial change efforts fail, finding that one of the core problems is the gap between what is required and a leader’s level of development. As they write in their book, Immunity to Change: “…it may be nearly impossible for us to bring about any important change in a system or organisation without changing ourselves (at least somewhat)…”

Achieving this requires you to delve into the meaning driving your behaviour, the mental models you apply to your decisions, and knowing your leadership moments of truth. These moments are the actions that define how colleagues, peers and team members view your leadership. It may be the gap between what you say and what you do and how you promote, recruit and reward people.

Ask yourself: What are people saying or not saying to you? Are you the last person to hear bad news? Is your team functioning as a high performing team with psychological safety?

Respect tops the charts

When leaders mistreat their direct reports, this dysfunction cascades through the organisation.

In a joint study, conducted by Vanderbilt University, Cornell University and the University of Illinois, of 1527 full-time employees at 94 hotels across the United States and Canada, researchers found a positive correlation between middle managers’ satisfaction with their senior managers and the line employees’ satisfaction with their middle managers.

Employees are motivated when they are valued and respected.

Georgetown University’s Associate Professor of Management, Christine Porath, found that respect tops the charts for employees. Her survey of 20,000 employees worldwide, conducted in conjunction with Harvard Business Review and Tony Schwarz, found being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, having an inspiring vision, receiving feedback, and having opportunities for learning and development. Their research found respected employees reported: 56% better health and well-being, 1.72 times more trust and safety, 89% more enjoyment and job satisfaction and 92% greater focus and prioritisation.

Learning never stops

Leadership is never one size fits all. Be clear on your operating context, how it is shifting, and consequently, how your leadership style needs to adapt to the changed circumstances.

Leadership development is an ongoing journey of discovery. The learning never stops as you develop your leadership playbook filled with strategies and tactics that put you in the best possible position to lead with integrity, authenticity and courage, ultimately creating a healthy, thriving workplace.

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