The First Obstacle to Leadership

What’s your reaction to this idea?

As a leader, you may be Overvaluing Your Individual Contribution.

You may cringe, shrug, or have a different reaction. If you cringe, you may face this obstacle in leadership. If not, read on; you may know and need to help someone who must overcome this obstacle.

What is it?
“Overvaluing Your Individual Contribution” is a tendency to equate your contribution and value to the organization with the level of your individual output. The larger the number of ideas, tasks, documents, deliverables, and projects that you create or complete, the more you feel you contribute. The more things with your name on them, the better you feel. It is a mistaken belief that, as a leader, your worth comes from what you personally deliver.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t seek to contribute. We all want to and need to contribute. We need to contribute because a significant portion of our well-being at work is our sense of contribution and value to the organization. We want to because of what I call our “deeper intents”: our goals, our raison d’être, and our nature as social beings. This Leadership Obstacle is not about contribution; it’s about thinking your contribution lies in what you personally do.

As a leader, your greatest contribution is the output of others. The more the people you lead produce, the higher your contribution. Your value to the organization is a reflection of the sum of the contributions of those you lead. Sounds basic, doesn’t it? Yet many leaders, and maybe you, act as if they don’t know this simple equation. They, and perhaps you, continue to act as if they are individual contributors, not leaders.

How do you spot it?
Here are some of the signs of “Overvaluing Your Individual Contribution”:

  • You prefer doing The Work over building a team that can do The Work.
  • You have difficulty delegating effectively.
  • You micromanage.
  • You seek control and authority.
  • You don’t allow, and work hard to prevent, failure.
  • You “rescue” others and work at risk of failure.
  • You see requests from peers, bosses, and clients as personal “to dos”.
  • You don’t actually know how your organization values you.
  • You feel you have something to prove.
  • You care greatly about your reputation.
  • You care greatly about your status and/or rank in the organization.
  • You are working too hard and puting in too many hours.
  • You (perhaps secretly) want a role/career (e.g. CEO, independent consultant, business owner/entrepreneur) where you can be more in charge.

Note: For some leaders, some of these symptoms do not indicate “Overvaluing Your Individual Contribution”; they are merely signs of someone who is an Individualist. (Individualism is one of the six drivers of people. The others are Social, Utilitarian, Traditional, Theoretical, and Aesthetic. Based on the works of Spranger, Allport, and Bonnstetter, these six are the complete set of personal motivators. They describe why you do what you do and the rewards you prefer at work and in life. Generally, you rank your drivers from most influential to least. Your top two drivers/motivators dominate, you middle two occasionally motivate you, and your bottom two rarely do.) Individualists are driven to make names for themselves, be in charge of their lives and the lives of others, and to advance in life. Individualists can have some of the signs of one who overvalues individual contribution and not actually overvalue it. The bigger indicators, then, are how their teams are doing.

Here are tell-tale signs from your team of you “Overvaluing Your Individual Contribution”

  • Your team is underperforming.
  • Your team seems “lost”.
  • Your team complains about lack of support, communcation, and/or vision from you.
  • Your team is unaccountable, shifts blame to others, and leaves work undone because it’s “not my/our job”.
  • Your team wastes effort and energy on internal squabbles.

How do you clear this hurdle?

  1. Seek objective assessments of your value and strengths. Self-assessment tools, 360 assessments, and 360 interviews (where an independent agent interviews your peers, bosses, employees, and clients) are very effective methods.
  2. If you can accept them without overreacting, seek subjective assessments of your strenghts and blindspots. Instead of using an independent agent, ask your peers etc. directly for feedback. Go to (or phone or email) each person and say something like, “I am engaged in a professional development project for myself. I am interested in your opinion about my strenghts and weaknesses, value and blindspots. Would you be willing to give me some honest feedback? To help, my only response to any comment you make will be, ‘Thank you.'”
  3. Get an accurate measurement of your sense of self-esteem. High self-esteem indicates comfort and high capability in chaotic environments, like work, and an ability to clearly see one’s value to others. Lower self-esteem indicates a more fuzzy view of one’s value and can lead to mistaken (and even detrimental) approaches to increase perceived value. Pick one of several good self-assessment tools (such as the Attribute Index) that measure self-esteem.
  4. Build your sense of self-esteem. Learn to recognize your worth. Inventory the ways in which you provide value at and away from work. Work with a coach or mentor or counsellor to plan a personal way to increase your sense self-esteem.
  5. Learn what your organization really expects and values from you. Often the formal review process within companies leaves many questions unanswered. Work with your boss (or, if you don’t have a boss, work with a coach or representative from shareholders) to create a list of Key Accountabilities (KAs). Unlike a job description (which often describes tasks to perform and how to perform them), KAs say how, at the end of the day, you’ll know if you are doing a good job. You can accurately describe most roles in 5-7 KAs. Each KA should have a quantifiable or qualifiable measure.
  6. Switch your assessment of the value you deliver from what you do to how you enable others to do. Note: for many, this isn’t a complete switch from individual contributor to leader. Rather, it’s striking an appropriate balance between the two. For example, let’s say you are a vice president or director of a group within an organization. Part of your contribution comes from how well you enable your group to perform and part comes from your individual contribution to the executive team of which you are a member.

Final Caveat: take care, as you shift your balance from individual contributor to leader, not to see your role as leader as one who pushes or controls others to do or accomplish. That’s the Second Obstacle to Leadership.

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