How to Lead Yourself

I had the pleasure of talking to three close friends today, all of whom are in big leadership roles, albeit in completely different situations – a large Fortune 500 organization, a smaller start-up company, and a non-profit. Interestingly, each of these separate conversations quickly turned to a discussion of how the leaders themselves were feeling about their companies, their own roles, and the difficulty of leading in this economic downturn.

A common theme from the calls was how challenging it is to lead with optimism and enthusiasm when you yourself are worried, stressing over reduced budgets and resources, or just plain “not having much fun.” What is a leader to do?  Are there any tips to putting a smile on your face and keeping your chin up as a leader?  Without pretending to have the answers to any specific situation, here are some generic suggestions:

  1. Be self-conscious about your behavior. You’re right to be focused on this. Employees watch your every move – you’re always on stage as a leader, and you have to aware of the image and attitude you’re projecting. In tough times, it’s especially important to be upbeat and bring lots of positive energy to the office every day. Every day before you step out of the car, remind yourself that you’re a role model – tell yourself: “I need to set a positive example today.”
  2. Be realistic. If you go all Pollyanna on your team, you’ll lose credibility. Tell it straight, but be a “glass ¾ full” leader – acknowledge the challenges, but look on the bright side and focus your team on better days ahead. You can balance the two – just focus on communications more than normal in these crazy times.
  3. Seek answers. This is the time for you to be really plugged into what’s happening in the company. Attend every meeting. Read every briefing. Don’t put your head in the sand – get involved, and get active. You want as much information as you can get right now. Be a sponge – make it your job to learn what’s going on with your industry, competitors, and your own company’s strategy, product launches, etc. Then share that information with the team.
  4. Commit yourself to your team. If you can’t get excited about the company or the job, bring your A game to work every day for your direct reports and their teams. They work hard for you – you owe it to them. In the end, whether you stay or go, you’ll want to leave a legacy of being a positive influence in their lives.
  5. Find a trusted peer and vent periodically. Talking about your feelings is healthy; find someone you can trust at work (generally a peer) and share your thoughts and concerns. Make a pact to lean on each other until things improve. Keep it behind closed doors though – don’t project worry in the hallways or at lunch where big ears might be listening.It’s natural to have a few down weeks throughout the year – no matter who you are. Don’t beat yourself up too bad if you’re feeling a bit low these days. If your company is sound, it’ll come around, and there will be a lot of opportunities ahead. If it’s not, and you’re just miserable, make a decision to start looking for greener pastures. That said, you have a professional and ethical obligation to do your best for whoever’s writing your paycheck. Hang in there – and be the mature, professional leader that you are. As long as you’re playing for your current team, give them everything you’ve got. You’ll be proud of yourself when things finally turn around, or if you do move on to your next career adventure.