Leading can be difficult and lonely. Sometimes leaders need understanding.

We know being a leader can be a lonely job, but it’s also complicated. If leaders don’t always get it right, rather than criticise, think how you could help. (Artwork by Nadeem Chughtai)

The most famous scene in the 1949 film The Third Man sees Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) confront the elusive Harry Lime (Orson Welles) on the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel in Vienna. In keeping with the best cinematic villains, Lime delivers a self-serving speech in which he asks Martins to contemplate the people on the ground. As the wheel rises up and the pair get higher, the people below become insignificant dots. They cease to be people that you might care about and become objects, statistics. And as they stop being human any decision that affects them becomes much easier to make.

For a long time, being an effective leader, making big decisions that affect lots of people, was largely incompatible with being a balanced, approachable, selfless human being. In their book Snakes in Suits Robert Hare and Paul Babiak look at the likelihood that you will meet a psychopath at work, as well as how to deal with them. The competitive and frequently dispassionate nature of certain aspects of business can attract, and even reward those who, whilst not criminals or Patrick Bateman, are charming, detached, and ruthlessly self-serving.

Whilst most leaders are not full-blown psychopaths or sociopaths (despite what you might think), they can be outwardly confusing characters and their path to leadership can push them to behave in unhealthy ways. A lack of empathy may, in the past, have been a prerequisite in order to make hard-headed decisions. A lack of collaboration, a by-product of a brutally competitive environment. Plus, earlier in their career when they were learning their trade, not every leader will have been exposed to the best behaviours or the healthiest attitudes.

We are all psychologically predisposed to cling to old ways; to safe, familiar certainties (even after they cease to be certainties). Equally, we instinctively treat the new and uncertain as a threat. In times of crisis, these reactions are magnified. It takes a lot of determination, self-awareness and learning to counter these influences and embrace new ideas.

Time to Change

Many leaders have had careers that focused on the technical side of both their jobs and of management. They were promoted having largely mastered their jobs and, when combined with some management training, therefore fulfilled the criteria for leadership. Since then they have spent years working along well-established ideas of leadership, tweaking their methods slightly as they go, only to have seen that orthodoxy challenged over the last decade or so.

Few leaders can ignore the way a new generation, new technologies, new crises, new business models and ways of thinking demand a new type of leadership. How the financial crisis demonstrated a need for more openness, diversity, accountability and collaboration. How tech companies have demonstrated new ways of talent retention and development as well as agile self-management. How social media has encouraged people to define themselves through values and purpose rather than through the work they do. It would be a strange leader that was completely oblivious to these developments.

As Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren explore in their book The Infinite Leader , it’s not just professional development (thought clearly that plays a part) that has taught leaders to focus on the technical side of their responsibilities. It goes back to formal education too. Many will (and will continue to) experience cultures and systems that reward the right answers to binary questions, adhering to hierarchies, and displays of individual achievement. At the same time these environments inhibit, or are at least suspicious of human attributes: empathy and humility, creative and unconventional thinking, collaboration and loyalty to others. Traits that are vital to good leadership, healthy cultures and navigating times of change.

With a concentration on the technical — understanding the business environment, management techniques, strategy and markets - the skills around communication, collaboration, creative thinking and problem solving have been relegated, at best, covered in a cursory workshop or conference day. Some leaders will have been lucky or far-sighted enough to posses or hone these skills independently, but many others will have focused on the easier to grasp and apply technical skills.

It should also be noted that the term ‘soft skills’, so often used in this area, diminishes and damages what are essential skills. They are more valuable than technical skills, which are a lot easier to learn. Better to refer to interpersonal skills, people or human skills (the skills that demonstrate humanity), emotional intelligence or EQ.

In his new book Think Again Adam Grant outlines some of the dangerous modes of thinking leaders fall into. Based on the work of Philip Tetlock, he describes the thinking styles of politicians, prosecutors and preachers. Politicians seek favour and popularity, winning others over to their way. Prosecutors try to demolish the ideas of others whilst ignoring or glossing over their own flaws. Preachers react to challenges with heartfelt pleas and emotional calls for loyalty. These have, in the past, frequently been perfectly acceptable leadership styles. To counter these unhealthy mindsets, Grant asks leaders to aim to become scientists. People who don’t just listen to opposing views or apparently unconnected issues, but actively seek them out and encourage them. It’s something he neatly summarises with this pyramid:

Adam Grant’s illustration reveals how leaders can think and react to new challenges.

For any leader, the lower three fifths is a bad place to be, but not an uncommon one. But why are so many leaders still failing the EQ test?

As outlined, many leaders will have had to change their leadership style from that which they experienced first hand, were trained in and had become comfortable with. Some elements of that transition will be relatively easy; some will be at odds with more ingrained or subconscious behaviours. These subconscious habits are particularly likely to surface in times of crisis.

Secondly, simply, leaders have a lot to deal with — strategy, culture, stakeholders, budgets, competition, crises and a range of key decisions that demand their consideration. And whilst a more human, open approach would actually assist with many of their concerns, change is hard, especially under pressure. Furthermore, change isn’t enough. It has to be consistent. New ways of doing things have to be practiced all the time, and constantly revised. So to add to all the other priorities on a leader’s to do list, they need to regularly review, question, and seek feedback on their own leadership style.

Also, leaders are usually there for a reason. And that reason (as well as the Dunning–Kruger effect) can be enough to make them believe they have all aspects of leadership covered. It is not unreasonable of a leader to assume that, having earned a leadership role, they have all the skills required to thrive within it. They can even cite some examples of when they have been collaborative and open, coaching and supporting others, revealing their vulnerability whilst building trust and inspiring the team.

Identify and Understand the Problem

A great leader will solicit support and knowledge from others. A good leader will accept support and contributions if offered, but may not be aware they need it. A poor leader may be too great a challenge.

A great leader is likely to be both human and accessible. They’ll be technically and strategically at the top of their game, but only as much as they need to be. They delegate and seek specialist knowledge in the right way whilst trusting and being trusted by everyone around them. They will encourage and listen whilst giving everyone a clear direction and sense of purpose. If your leader is great, you are lucky and should treasure your situation. If you keep learning and keep contributing, you’ll support your leader and they’ll support you.

Poor leaders (though not always unsuccessful ones) may be technically accomplished, but will always make things about them. They believe that decisions are handed down, not discussed; that communication is a discursive email, not a focused dialogue. It’s the world that is wrong, not them, and time will prove them correct. They essentially refuse to share the burden of leadership believing they are uniquely suited to it. They will create or reinforce toxic cultures and behaviours, limiting both themselves and anyone working with them. The best that can be hoped is that they offer a cautionary example to others of how not to lead. For those working with these leaders, they may be forced to review their situation.

A good leader will certainly be comfortable with the technical side of their role. They may be making efforts on the human side. They’ll communicate regularly, show appreciation, canvas for opinions from all parts of the organisation. But it might not always be right. The whole thing might be inconsistent and not come naturally. They forget to share information; they turn a blind eye to a team that is effective, but not collaborative. They will, however, be keen to make the move from good to great. They just may not know how. And that’s where you can help.

When we know a leader needs to change but they don’t appear to realise, it can be frustrating to say the least. We tend to grudgingly accept it and vent to our colleagues on WhatsApp. After all, it could be worse. But it might help to reflect on the situation they’re in and consider what you can offer.

Culture of Influence

A leader may only be as good as those they lead. And whilst those same leaders take ultimate responsibility for who is hired and how they’re developed, it’s incumbent on all of us to believe in the organisation’s vision; to work towards it. Leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. If the culture isn’t right, you need to play a role in changing it or alternatively think about your own position. Behaviour is infectious. If you’re not positive about what you and the organisation does, you may, whether you realise it or not, be holding everyone back.

If, however, you do believe in the organisation and want to improve things. If you’ve identified where your leader is struggling, and considered what they have to deal with, then you then need to think about trying to influence them. That starts with being a positive influence generally. Make sure you guide and support colleagues. A leader is much less likely to be open to someone that isn’t respected by their own peers. At the same time, being a positive influence on colleagues will see them inform and support any attempt you make to influence your leader.

Many aspects of what you may want a leader to do or improve at will be things you yourself need to practice. Listening, or even better deep listening, is an important skill generally, but especially for anyone that wishes to lead or to influence. Again, learning and practicing listening builds influence but also ensures you’re fully informed about a situation.

Perhaps the most important element of influencing, again both generally but also when trying to influence up, is connecting. You don’t need to be a born networker — a charismatic Gatsby-type, always working the room. What you do need to do is listen, understand, and problem solve. Learn to reflect on someone’s problem, and rather than come up with your own solution, point them towards someone well-placed to discuss with them. You also need to keep an open mind about people and ignore any preconceptions around status or role. Anyone has the potential to solve a problem for someone else, whether it’s through work-related knowledge or an outside interest. Being interested in people is key to influencing, and hard to fake. The starting point is to be human and respectful to those you come into contact with. You don’t need to charm them; be polite, ask questions and listen. Don’t connect to someone because you think you might benefit, but because you think others will.

In parallel to practicing these skills, also think about your leader’s way of doing things, and about the skills you believe they need to improve. Concluding that they could communicate better doesn’t help if you don’t know what better looks like, or how to get there. Research the subject; ask people, read articles, listen to podcasts. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should know something of the subject.

The good news is that leaders are used to learning and to continually absorbing new information. They’re also given to self-improvement and development. It’s what they need to learn that you need to identify and help tackle.

Alongside trying to address specific issues, ask how else you could support your leader. If you think they’re struggling to share information or collaborate, consider how you could help. Can you take on some of that burden if it makes other work easier or if it’s a clear priority for the wider team? Is there a way things could be better organised? A key part of behaviour change is a prompt — a reminder to do something differently. If communication is a problem, is the solution a regular event, podcast or blog that your leader can be asked to contribute to or think about?

It’s believed that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions a day, most of them unconsciously, but it’s still a drain on mental capacity. If your leader has to make some sizeable decisions, don’t add to their burden. Think twice before asking for a decision from them. This is often a reflection on the health of an organisation’s culture, where leaders are asked relatively simple questions because followers are essentially disengaged from their work. That itself is a sign of leadership problems, but what about less simple decisions or those that demand input from more senior figures or a big picture perspective? Leaders that expect everyone to solve their own problems can be putting undue pressure on people. They could also be avoiding responsibility or trying to manage their own excessive workload. Better to strike a balance. Rather than feeling obliged to go to a leader with a solution, go with a problem accompanied by a direction to go in. Do a little creative thinking beforehand, think about the ultimate goals of the team or organisation and put your leader in a position where it’s easier for them to help you rather than instruct you. Where they can coach you to a solution you can implement. In this you’re not only helping their workload and mental capacity, you’re also showing them the value of collaboration and trust.

We can be quick to criticise leaders for a failure to master the human aspects of leadership; aspects we now expect to be a given. Before doing so, show them the empathy that you want from them. Consider why they might not be the fully rounded leader we hope for. That’s not the same as overlooking or indulging their shortcomings. It’s about understanding and learning about those traits and skills that are lacking, being patient, and working to help address them.

Neither is this to say that leaders should sit back and not worry too much about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. That their followers can somehow be solely relied upon to tell them where they’re going wrong. Leaders do need to challenge inherited ideas of structure, process and hierarchy; to make themselves available to everyone, and to know how a good leader behaves. Leaders are duty-bound (and well rewarded) to keep improving; to keep asking “what can I do better?” Leadership, however, is not the construct of a single person. It is something shared. The best leaders emerge with the support of the best people.

Ultimately, a culture of support will support everyone, at every level. But culture is also everyone’s responsibly. Everyone has influence so no one can say culture is exclusively the concern of leaders or HR. As a recent Stamford Social Innovation Review research suggested, “Culture persists only because people act in ways that uphold its principles and codes”. That’s true of good, healthy cultures, and of poor ones. If you want to change the way leadership is done, try changing the culture.

© 2021 Simon King.

Simon King is a manager at JLA, the speaker agency. He is the author of the book Predictability — Our Search for Certainty in an Uncertain World and occasionally writes about communication, leadership and culture.

Communicator. Consultant. Writer.