How to Know It’s Time to Stop Acting Like You’re Permanently #1

In my first true supervisory job, it was very important to me to have all the answers so I could answer my team’s questions and direct them properly. I desperately wanted to be worthy of respect and not to be found weak or wanting. But I was operating from an old-fashioned model of leadership: the leader controls all power, resources, and even thinking, and the employees are all somewhat helpless, possibly immature, and definitely not to be trusted on their own.

To my young mind, it seemed like a leader always had to be above reproach and a few steps ahead of everyone else. Otherwise, I thought I would be perceived as irresponsible or ineffective. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to realize that there needed to be room for the team to participate, not just be commanded, and that you can accomplish a lot more when everyone—not just you as the leader—is giving their best. 

But not all leaders have figured this out. Whether they believe the worst of other people or are simply trying to mask their own sensitivities, leaders often exhibit ego, arrogance, and hierarchical force—an ineffective combination that I recently helped one client drop by characterizing it as a habit of presentation rather than a character flaw.

The Habit of Being #1

Parading your power and superior knowledge, as if you’re unassailable, can become a mindset of assuming your own rectitude and excellence and downgrading everyone else. Usually this habit is meant to avoid looking weak or making a mistake. It’s as if everything has to be all about you and only a little about them.

Thinking of yourself as #1 might come from trying to protect an old wound, but it isn’t always easy to assert yourself when you don’t actually have enough confidence. Sometimes people choose—not necessarily consciously, but through practice—to emphasize how declarative and authoritative they can be so that no one challenges, bullies, or ignores them. Nobody wants to look like they don’t know enough or can’t command.

My client got used to being the “can do” guy—untouchable thanks to his results, knowledge, and competence. But over time, it began to look like he didn’t care what others thought or what their needs actually were. His way was the right way. It didn’t matter that the way he was coming across wasn’t how he actually felt. His habit of presentation was to be #1.

Notice How Others Respond

How we present ourselves is a choice that can be adjusted. In some ways, the more power a leader has, the less they need to wear it like armor and the greater leeway they have for sharing it.

Think of people’s reactions to you as data. Are they willing to collaborate or do they avoid you? Do they  agree with you all the time, or do they challenge you and share alternative ideas? No matter how great your results or how long your track record, no leader is right all the time. So if no one corrects you, offers alternative opinions about how to get things done, or expresses concerns about why and what is happening, they may not believe they’re allowed to do those things. 

People always have questions and concerns, whether they express them or not. It’s highly unlikely that everyone thinks exactly the way you do, even if they don’t explicitly express their differences. Look for faces tightening or wincing when you speak, which means people are slightly uncomfortable but are sucking it up, soldiering on because they must, not because they want to.

If you intentionally wonder about what people think, you may feel more comfortable asking and making room for their opinions. When you ask what they think, watch for smiles or slight relaxation in their faces  and acknowledge the merits of their position even if you disagree or can’t take the desired action. Your very recognition of other people’s views lets them shift from a tight, stressed relationship with you to a more expansive one. 

When my client recognized how colleagues were subtly resisting him and complaining to others about him, he began asking what they thought instead of assuming they were off base. He encouraged others to share their opinions before giving his own, which led to more perspectives being aired. Best of all, he noticed that people seemed happier to see him, even when they disagreed.

No One Needs to Listen to You

Team members always have a choice about whether to follow you. They can quit, of course, or transfer to another group. They can silently resist by not sharing crucial information or creative ideas and go along with you because it’s not worth it to invest any emotional energy in trying to change you.

But when it’s okay for team members to question their leader and share differences, there’s more room for mutual appreciation, innovation, and even fun. And wouldn’t you rather be a leader who’s known for that?

Onward and upward—

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