Stop Accepting Mediocrity

Dave McKeown

The new year is well under way by now and whether you set resolutions or you didn’t. Whether you’ve stuck to them or not, one thing is almost certainly true. By now, you’re back in the weeds at work fighting the day-to-day emergencies and solving the next crisis that pings on your phone. 

All of which is perfectly normal in our faster-than-fast world but which also affords you the chance to do things differently this year. You see, getting pulled into the weeds tends to bring with it a negative pattern of heroic leadership. 

Your team has a problem; you tell them the answer. Somebody screws up; you fix it. Someone’s not pulling their weight; you take up the slack. All in the name of speed and efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong; those acts of heroism are fodder for the ego. They make you feel wanted, needed, useful, and valuable.

But let’s be honest; being the hero for your team is exhausting. All those diving catches, the extra work, the stress, the burnout. Wouldn’t it be great if they could take some of that off your plate and do it to the same standard you would?

In most cases, they probably want to, but over time you’ve built a sense of learned helplessness within them. Every time you step in to save the day, to refuse to delegate (“’cause you’ll just end up doing it anyway”), to have a difficult conversation with another team member on their behalf, you build a negative mindset for them. 

Specifically, you teach them to believe that you’re there to relieve them of anything that seems too difficult. Over time that mindset solidifies, and the barrier for what they consider to be ‘difficult’ lowers.

Eventually, they develop an automatic behavioral response; an issue comes in, they ask you what they should do, and either you tell them, or worse still you do it for them.

The more you lead through heroism, the deeper their learned helplessness, the more you need to take on until something cracks or breaks. 

You’re caught in a cycle of mediocrity.

When you’re stuck here, it’s hard to break out of the tactical nature of your role and to spend time on what you should be thinking about; the long term direction of your team and the development of your people.

My hope for this year is that more leaders move away from this negative pattern toward a cycle of excellence. Here are three things you can do to make that happen.

1. Adopt a new mantra

The first thing to do is to make the conscious choice to move away from heroic leadership towards excellence. Like all good behavior change, it starts with a new mantra. 

For 2020, I hope you’ll adopt this one:

“My focus is to help those on my team achieve our shared goals and, in doing so, become the best version of themselves.”

There’s no room for heroic leadership in this mindset. Instead, it forces you to consider how your team can grow and develop as they solve their own challenges and overcome their own obstacles.

2. Take the time to push your team for solutions

“What do you think?” is one of the most powerful leadership questions you can ask when someone brings you a challenge. It puts the onus back on the question bringer to think through the answer or solution themselves rather than relying on you.

You’ll likely have some thoughts or perspectives on the issue, and at some point you may need to share those. The longer you can wait for your team members to come to their own conclusions, the better. They’ll end up learning more, feeling better about the decision, and empowered to move to implementation.

3. Back your people to succeed

Finally, you have to act as if your people will succeed. Too many leaders out there put backstops in place to prevent failure like bumpers on a bowling lane. Doing so reduces empowerment and provides limited opportunities for your people to learn.

So treat them as if they have the skillset, experience, and knowledge to put into place what you just agreed and provide support, advice, and guidance along the way to help them do so. Resist the urge to be a ‘helicopter leader,’ constantly hovering over them, ensuring they never fail.

Do these three things and you’ll find your team taking more ownership over their problems and challenges, and you’ll have the headspace to think more creatively and strategically.

Dave McKeown is a coach at ECofOC and the author of The Self-Evolved Leader: Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People in a World That Refuses to Slow Down due out on January 28th. To learn more about Dave and the book go to selfevolvedleader.com

Author: Dave McKeown, Executive Coaches of Orange County, www.ECofOC.org