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Exceptional Leadership Starts with Knowing that you Cannot make Everyone Happy

Updated: May 25, 2023

When James hired me as a coach, he was struggling as a new leader. About eight months prior, James was hired as a manager after having been in a variety of customer service positions for the last ten years.

As a customer service provider, James’ main focus was on pleasing his client base. He was used to finding creative ways to make his clients happy, keep them satisfied and focus on their satisfaction and contentment. His main priority was to be of service to them and James was having a difficult time making the transition from a customer pleaser to being an effective manager and leader.

James realized that he was fumbling in his role and needed some professional support and guidance to figure it out. He knew he was doing several things as a leader that was to his and his employee’s detriment. His supervisor was also starting to come down on him and he was concerned that his boss was not happy with his performance. James hired me as a coach to help him uncover the barriers to his success and provide him with the tools for improvement.

When James and I started our work together, I asked him where he felt inadequate as a leader and he mentioned these areas.

For instance, James noticed that he was being far too accommodating with his employees. James would approve all time off and vacation requests without exception and without any consideration of the impact it would have on day to day operations. James began encountering situations where his department was short staffed and those that were present would feel the squeeze.

James recognized that he was not holding his people accountable to their tasks and responsibilities. This inevitably starting impacting the quality of services and lost productivity.

Additionally, James was avoiding having difficult and hard conversations with employees about some poor performance issues which were now mounting into potential major problems.

I pointed out to James that these issues all seemed to have the same origin – it looked like he was wanting to make his employees happy. James began to have an epiphany. With this new insight, he realized that something needed to change and that the change had to begin with him.

The leadership challenges that James was facing are not unusual. New leaders commonly face the temptation of wanting to make their employees happy. That certainly sounds reasonable? Right?

Well, it’s not as if you want to make your employees miserable but is your goal and target as a leader to make your employees happy or is it something entirely different? Here are four leadership guidelines that James learned in our work together that will benefit any new leader.

#1 Know Your Shtick

Exceptional leadership starts with knowing your strengths, knowing your areas of “weakness” and knowing the resources around you to defer to in the areas that are not your shtick!

I provided James with some assessment tools that allowed James to do some soul searching and evaluated the talents and gifts that he brings to the table. As we reviewed these assessment reports together, James was able to truly articulate his skill set, preferences, and strengths so he could own and use those attributes to his advantage as a leader.

#2 Decide on and clarify your role

Secondly, it is important to come to terms with your role as a leader in your own head. Decide on the type of leader that you would like to be and how will you manifest your role.

In our coaching sessions, James and I reviewed various leadership styles and approaches. James decided that he wanted to embrace the areas of mentoring, coaching, and teaching his employees. We reviewed strategies that he could employ to implement these approaches.

In addition to guiding his employees, James was able to recognize that he needed to enforce boundaries, make hard decisions and set limits with his employees.

#3 Focus on development

As a leader, your job is not to make everyone happy. Your job is, however, to help support your employees to do their best and be as effective as they can in their jobs. Your job as a leader is to train, support and resource your staff so they can be the most effective as they can in their job.

As James developed goals in his coaching with me, he began to engage his employees in crafting professional development goals that were meaningful to them and that provided greater value to the organization. James would help them in the identified areas that he had expertise and would refer his employees to the “go-to” people in their company who were masters and experts in areas he was not.

James wanted to support his employees networking tentacles and relationships with other colleagues in order to best support their growth.

#4 Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Leadership requires grit. It demands your ability to have hard and difficult conversations with employees even if they make you uncomfortable. Leadership may often insist that you get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

James worked hard on developing his communication skill set to include addressing performance issues with employees in all realms. James had been a master at recognizing when people did great things. Now James was working on helping his employees by providing them feedback to assist their enhanced performance, effectiveness and impact on the organization in the areas they were wrestling and struggling in.

James and I would role play various employee challenges that involved giving critical feedback to employees. We would then review the scenarios and identify the effective approaches utilized and I offered suggestions for improvement.

These role play exercises heightened James’s self-awareness and ability to deliver difficult messages with greater ease.

Exceptional leadership is not a simple recipe. It requires self-reflection and evaluation, making decisions based on how you want to show up and taking on the hard work of your own professional development. It requires you to learn from lessons, it takes time, and of course you must be willing to take risks and make mistakes.

James worked through his need to make his employees “happy”. He came to terms with the fact that that was an impossible and unrealistic goal. Conversely, James was able to build his foundational leadership steps that led to his increased performance and effectiveness.

It was ultimately James who was the happy one!


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