To Become A Better Leader, You Have to Raise Your Mental Game

Posted July 16th, 2013 in Be a Better Leader, Fear Your Strengths

If you are serious about becoming a more effective leader, you can’t just work on your behavior. You also have to work on your mindset. However in our experience, most executive clients don’t know what subterranean forces impede their effectiveness.  One of the most debilitating forces—anxiety—can trigger a dysfunctional tendency to control too much.

Certainly, control has its uses. Even at its most inclusive and enabling, leadership is essentially about influencing others. But dysfunctional control—gratuitous intrusions into other people’s space where little is gained and much is lost—is counterproductive and disabling.

You know these leaders. They fill their own space and yours too. They have a lot to say and feel free to say it. Up to a point it’s justified—they often have a lot to offer. But when conversational space gets dominated, the energy goes out of the room. Team members stop speaking up and stop listening. What over-controlling leaders think of as helping, team members experience as meddling. Their power has been usurped.

What triggers such a dysfunctional level of over-control, and what can be done about it?

Mindset is at the core of behavior. Who you are is how you lead. A senior executive once revealed to us in a feedback session that he operated on the assumption that, as the leader, he should know everything all the time. He kept saying the word ‘should.’ It hinted at the constant pressure he put on himself to demonstrate his worth. Leaders who fall prey to that kind of emotionally-laden, erroneous logic are compromised in their ability to perform.

The feedback was ugly. In their ratings and comments, his direct reports called him out for gross violations of their space. Despite being credited with big intellect, business acumen and relentless drive, he was rated only average on overall effectiveness. In meeting his own need to prove himself, he was quick to speak rather listen, jumping right in anytime a question or problem came up in a subordinate’s space.

In the first feedback meeting he took the hit with minimal defensiveness. By the next morning he’d concluded, “I need to give other people space. Let them speak, let them lead.” He meant it, but what are his chances? Not good. Let’s get real: the forces that have grossly distorted his form won’t suddenly go away.

If you are serious about improving your way of leading, you have a much better chance of success if you don’t just work on your behavior but also on your mindset. For example, to rein in over-control, leaders must fight through instinctive defenses and admit to a motivation they wish they didn’t have, such as anxiety, and then to form a new mental habit (I don’t have to prove myself because my team knows I’m smart) to go with the new outward habit (give other people space to lead).