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2 Sides of the Leadership Coin

2 Sides of the Leadership Coin

People grow best where they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary.

It’s a rare aphorism that captures the essence of leadership in a single sentence, but that’s one of them.  It’s from Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, in In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

Support. Challenge.  Two sides of the leadership coin.

If you want your direct reports to be motivated to perform, they must feel that you support them — that  you care, that you will actively take their side (when appropriate), that you’re interested in their growth.  You can experience the truth of that by remembering bosses or teams you’ve worked for, from whom you received little or no support.  What was that like?  Share in the comment section below, if you’d like.

But support alone — without challenge — makes for nice feelings, but no competitive edge.

It brings to mind the distinction between “morale” and “motivation” that Jim makes in our book, The Leadership Platform. Support alone fosters “morale” — it’s a safe, comfortable place to work, where collaboration and teamwork lead to job satisfaction.  But it’s not necessarily a productive environment, a creative environment, an environment that motivates folks to be the best they can be.

Although it’s often easier to retreat to what’s safe and familiar, if you’re not growing — if you’re not stretching yourself — you’re not fully living. Perhaps the most profound impact a leader can have on another human is to not be satisfied with “good enough” — to not allow them to be less than they can be.

As we say in our book, “Leaders believe that a life worth living is worth living well – and living well means stretching and growing in sometimes difficult ways.  As a leader, you are an evangelist for human potential – your mission is to shine a light on it, so others can explore it and fulfill it for themselves.”

And remember, your challenge to another to live up to their potential must be delivered in a context of support.  As you challenge them, you listen nonjudgmentally, you respect their style (even when different from yours!), you respect their time, you help them prioritize, you appreciate their efforts, you follow through on your commitments to them — you do everything you reasonably can to meet their needs and to foster their success.  If you don’t do all these things, you’re not the leader you could be.  Consider that … a challenge.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: With each of your direct reports, ask yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent do I …”

  • listen nonjudgmentally to their perspectives?
  • respect their style (even if it’s different from my own)?
  • respect their time?
  • help them prioritize?
  • appreciate their efforts?
  • follow through on my commitments to them?
  • challenge them to improve?
  • demand that they keep learning?
  • encourage their creativity?
  • help them learn from failure — without undue punishment?

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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