Results. Every leader is driven by a desire for results from themselves and those they lead. I know I’ve spent many nights lying awake thinking through certain situations, coming at problems from different angles, exploring opportunities in my mind where I can overcome obstacles and see us succeed in a certain area. Leaders who reach a certain level of seniority are generally quite skilled at producing results in their own areas of accountability, otherwise you wouldn’t be promoted to the position where you are now! Your boss has given you a project, you’ve created a plan, executed on the deliverables, and made sure the person you report to understands the part you played in the positive outcomes.
Reaching more senior levels of responsibility means your personal success is less about the results you produce and more about the success which comes through your team, your department, your area of oversight. How can you identify, motivate, and develop the people you lead to produce the kinds of results you know your organization needs? If you don’t take time to intentionally recalibrate where you invest your time and energy as a leader, you’ll soon discover your team is over-worked, under-inspired, and eager to find another place to work where they can be part of a winning team. Seeing your team as gears in the machine which will drive your own success will lead to failure – for you, for your team, and for your organization – sooner than you might imagine.
So how do you recalibrate this? How do you refocus your leadership energy toward developing your team rather than simply executing on your own at the high level of expectations you carry? Let’s use a tool to help you think through the kind of leader you can be and how you can get there.
First, take a moment and consider the different circles of influence in your life: how you lead yourself, your family, your friends, your community, your workplace. The way we show up in each of those areas may shift depending on our history, our role, and our relationships in each of those circles.
Second, in each circle of influence, are you a leader who tends to show up with more support or more challenge? Are you encouraging and cheering on, or are you finding faults and continually raising the bar? You’re likely not exclusively one or the other but think about each circle of influence and see if you can identify if you tend to be a high support or high challenge leader in those relationships.
Third, take out a piece of paper and draw a graph with an X-axis and a Y-axis. Let’s call the horizontal axis challenge and let’s call the vertical axis support. You should now have four quadrants which describe different leadership styles: high support/high challenge in the top right, high support/low challenge in the top left, low support/high challenge in the bottom right, and low support/low challenge in the bottom left. Take some time and plot yourself in each quadrant for each circle of influence. For example, you might put Self in high challenge/low support, Family in high support/low challenge, and Friends in low support/low challenge. It’s okay to have multiple circles of influence in the same quadrant. The goal here is to get a quick snapshot of your current reality. After you’ve done this, take a moment to look at your graph and reflect. Is this more or less accurate? Would the people in each circle of influence say this is true? What behaviours do you recognize in yourself as high challenge or high support within different circles of influence?
The goal for leaders in every area of our life is to grow to the point where those around us are better because of our leadership. People who are growing, inspired, motivating, producing results, and looking to you as the kind of person who is helping them achieve more than they believe is possible. You get this kind of leadership when you bring high support AND high challenge to your interactions. We call this liberating leadership because it sets people free to be all they’ve been created to be. Liberating leadership happens when we consistently lead with high support and high challenge. Believe me, very few leaders show up as liberating leaders in every area of their life, but it is 100% possible to grow to become this kind of leader. Would you say you are a liberating leader right now in any circle of influence? What kind of results do you see in the people you lead in this area? Is there a circle of influence where you think liberating leadership is possible? What steps can you take to get there?
The top left quadrant of high support/low challenge is known as insulating or protecting leadership. Sometimes leaders are reluctant to bring challenge, wanting instead to cheer their team on to success. Of course, on the inside the leader is feeling the frustration of where the team could do better, where they missed the mark, and how they could improve. By insulating the team from the feedback which could help them grow, you actually disempower your team and create an environment of uncertainty. People generally know they don’t get 100% success every time so when there is a reluctance or an inability from the leader to challenge and confront the team on how they can grow, your team ends up walking on eggshells and will even hide their failure from you to make sure they don’t disappoint you. Does this sound familiar in any circle of influence for you? Rather than dialing back your support in this area, how can you begin to bring the right kind of challenge to move from an insulating leader to a liberating leader in this circle of influence?
High challenge with low support is when a leader dominates their team. Remember this is about tendencies and less about identity but a consistent message of high challenge with low support creates a culture of fear and manipulation on your team. Competition becomes very high and everyone ends up looking out for themselves. Your leadership is undermined since your team knows they can never deliver to the level of expectation you have for them. People quickly lose any kind of emotional attachment to you or the work they are doing, and they’ll take the first opportunity they find to leave for something else. It’s not fun to consider you might be a dominating leader in any circle of influence but does that ring true for you? Are you aware of the expectations you are placing on those around you? In what ways can you being to move from a low support to a high support leader in this circle of influence to become a liberating leader?
The fourth quadrant is likely not a reality for you as a seasoned, executive leader but there is still value in being aware of the outcome of a low support/low challenge environment. A culture of apathy and low expectation is created where every person simply does their tasks without any expectation of being rewarded or critiqued. This is a leader who is mailing it in and simply will not see any results from their team. Is there any circle of influence in your life where this is true? Or perhaps do you see an area of your life where you are sliding toward abdicating leadership rather than moving toward liberating leadership? If this is a bit of a wake up call, how can you address this?
Understanding your own support/challenge matrix is a great way to quickly assess your leadership effectiveness across different circles of influence. Let the tool be a lens you can look through to give you and your team new understanding in to how you lead and generate results. Begin some conversations with people you trust who can tell you honestly where you are today, where you have opportunity to grow, and how you can take some steps toward being a liberating leader in every area of your life.