The double bind of leadership

No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit. – Andrew Carnegie

I remember my first day as General Manager of M&S Systems.

I called all my direct reports in for a staff meeting to try to understand the business. I immediately noticed that I was the youngest person at the table.

At one point, there was a robust discussion around an issue critical to the firm’s success. I was really enjoying the back and forth. It was great to be surrounded by such smart and knowledgeable people! But then the room fell silent, and I noticed that everyone was looking at me. Now was the time for me to resolve the conflict and make a decision.

That’s when everything went awry!

You see, the team had assumed that I had been given this role because I knew what to do! But the truth was, M&S was part of a 3 businesses deal. The other two businesses fit nicely with product lines we already owned – M&S was the outlier, the one nobody wanted. So I stepped forward and asked if I could try my hand. Since no one else wanted it, they gave me the job.

But now, here I was, and everyone assumed I knew what I was doing, that I had answers to these complex business issues. (Which, to be clear, I did not!)

But I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, nor did I want to undermine my own position with this new team, so I pretended to know what I was doing and made the best decision I could.

Just like that, I’m in a double bind.

Once I started to pretend that I knew all the answers, I couldn’t stop! I couldn’t suddenly say, “Wait, I was just kidding; I have no idea what to do.” So I was left with nowhere to go, no one to ask for help.

At the same time, I walked around with non-stop imposter syndrome. I was pretending to be someone I knew that I was not.

My situation was extreme but not unusual. Doesn’t every leader collude with our team to be just a little bit special? We pretend that we have answers (when we don’t), and it leaves us alone and afraid that everyone’s going to find us out!

What would happen in your current team if you admitted that you don’t have all the answers? That you need help sometimes? What would that do for your mental health? What doors would it open for your team?

Hit reply and let me know – I’m curious.

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