I worked with a boss who saw his role as to challenge people’s thinking.
He had a keen analytical mind and was world-class in wrong-spotting, he could unearth a gap in anyone’s thinking from a hundred paces, and tease out anything and everything we hadn’t thought through properly with a few clever questions.
Everything he touched got an intellectual kicking to check for road-worthiness, and he was rarely off base in his eternal quest to discover anything that might be wrong with everything we ever thought of.
It was a nightmare.
He probably saw his role as being a guardian of quality, an invaluable cog in the production machine, a well-respected thinker who people would joyfully seek out to test their ideas before daring to expose them to the wider world … but in truth he wasn’t illuminating us with the warm glow of comfort and joy he thought he was, he was casting a dark shadow of persnickety pessimism, deflating and demotivating with his pedantic challenges and “but the problem with that is …” response to almost anything we ever tried to do.
Maybe we were over-ambitious at times, certainly naïve, reaching for too much with our attempts to achieve as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but by the time he’d finished with us, we were just trying to get through the day.
There are many examples of leaders (not just leaders, but the focus of this article is on the impact leaders can have on those they lead) overdoing a strength, thinking they’re adding value, but instead are sucking the life out of the people around them.
If Peter Drucker’s famous quote is right …
Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.Peter Drucker
… then leaders who carelessly fall into this trap are the very opposite of a good leader.
The example at the top of this post was me.
One of my core strengths is my keen analytical mind. My brain is a pedantic and precise tool, brilliant at working out what’s wrong with everything, and I love nothing more than intellectual knockabout, biffing ideas about a bit, trying to twist them into sensible shape so they can become something that might actually happen … but the problem with that is not everyone wants their spark of inspiration to be drenched in cold hard reality and pulled to bits the moment they utter it.
Other leaders I know have been too self-confident to the point that they stop listening to others because they already have the best ideas … consultation was for show, and it soon became obvious, and our creativity and commitment drained away. In the end we were compliant, because there was nothing wrong with his ideas and we wanted to keep our jobs, but we were not enthusiastically committed.
One leader was overly directive, maybe seeing herself as providing clarity and vision and energy, but the problem with that is it felt like being shoved around by a dictator who didn’t need us. Our shoulders drooped and we soon stopped caring so much.
Another was too funny … yes, I am being serious … he was overdoing his brilliant sense of humour. It was fun, but the problem with that is we ended up avoiding him whenever we wanted to have a serious conversation or get stuff done, his constant banter accidentally relegating him to the role of Entertainer not Leader, and consequently the team drifted.
It was a painful lesson for me to learn.
The clunky and unskillful use of my analytical brain was inadvertently having a negative impact on those around me. I hope I have now learnt to turn down the volume and box clever with this skill, so I still get to make the most of one of my talents, and don’t smother other people’s creativity and drain their energy to zilch.
Leaders who overdo their strengths, thinking they are shining a bright light and bringing happiness wherever they go, need to be careful that they’re not doing the opposite and casting a shadow instead.
If they don’t, people might actually be rather happy whenever they go, not wherever they go.
(The title of this post is not my invention, it is a remembered quote from a friend who loved saying it, especially when I walked into the room. It is often (probably erroneously) attributed to Oscar Wilde, but more likely it is derived from a 1908 headline in Success Magazine – at least that’s what Quote Investigator says.)