The Leader’s Dilemma
Simple Ways to Overcome the Pitfalls and Get the Results You Want

By Carolyn Campbell, MA, CPPC

Leadership can be a dangerous place. You have to put yourself out there. People judge you. They talk about you, sometimes in surprisingly mean spirited ways. And, when it’s around election time and it’s open season for political criticism, the challenge for everyday leaders can be even tougher.

So why be a leader?

Over the last fifteen years, when I’ve asked people if they want to be a leader, most say no.  When I ask them why not, many simply say, “I have no idea what that even means.” Others are really clear, “It’s too much work.” And then there’s this one, “Put myself out there so others can criticize me—no thanks!”

And then there are the people who can’t help but BE leaders even when it’s difficult. Since the challenges are so great, I thought I’d share a few tips for how you can be a leader while taking care of yourself. (And, yes…dear leaders, taking care of yourself is key.)

1) Do what you’re passionate about.
It continues to astound me that often when people come to see me, they begin by trying to figure out the work they “should” be doing. Or, they work with organizations that exhaust them. When they stop trying to be something they’re not and begin to trust in the value of doing what they love, the path becomes so much clearer.

2) Trust your gut.
This is where things start to get tough for many people. How do you choose? Whose voice do you listen to? How do you know what to trust, especially in the midst of so much change? No matter what level of leadership you’re at, these questions still arise. The truth is, more often than not, you can trust your gut.  It’s so challenging when there are so many opinions (whether your own or others) but nine times out of ten, once you’ve assessed the incoming information, it’s appropriate to take time and “feel what feels right.” At the end of the day, I find that the gut is almost always right.

3) Know your boundaries.
Oych! This one is so key. A leader without clear boundaries is asking for trouble. People will push your limits—not because they’re trying to be disrespectful, but because they’re just trying to get their own needs met. Your job is to know your limits or risk facing immense overwhelm and massive burnout.

4) Have a group of people who support you.
Risk is inherent in any type of leadership. Without a doubt, there will be times when you put yourself or your ideas out there and well…they fail. Yup, that word. Failure. It can be tough, that’s for sure. As one great Dr. Seuss-ism puts it: “And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed).” When you take that tumble it makes such a difference to have a support team. And when you’re nervous about a talk, a product launch, a company sale…or a myriad of other things, having support is more than helpful. It’s essential.

5) Admit when you’re wrong.
How many times have you had something negative happen to you when someone else messed up? And how many times would things have gone smoother if the person had quickly apologized for their mistake? It can feel quite vulnerable and exposing to apologize. Recently, I have been stunned by the number of business owners and leaders who fail to take responsibility for their actions. It’s too bad. Perhaps it’s because they’re afraid that in a down economy, people will go elsewhere. But, in fact the opposite happens. When you couple a sincere apology with swift corrective action, you build immense rapport and support.

This doesn’t mean that the customer is always “right” or that you should apologize willy nilly. But it does mean taking responsibility for your actions quickly and swiftly.

6) And finally, make your decisions on purpose.
This is the absolute greatest challenge for leaders—knowing what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.  Powerful decisions in life, business or art can be quite perplexing. Often there is no “right” answer. On a recent trip, I stumbled upon The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. In one of the chapters, author Michael Useem reflects on the lives of two different men after each had made a tough decision in a challenging moment. One man struggled with his decision years later because his choice did not reflect his own core values. The other man never questioned his choice even though his critics had their “go.”  The difference was that his choice was made from a clear, internal life directive that drove his decisions…however difficult they might be.

In authentic and effective leadership, there is no formula. There are successes and failures. There will be times you’ll feel at the top of the world. And there will be other times when you’ll get mired in confusion and doubt your choices.

But for those of us who can’t help but blaze a new trail, for those of us who find ourselves again and again in the terrain of change, having a few guideposts can help you navigate your way in good times and in tough times.