“A wise man never knows all, only the fool knows eveeything.” – Akan proverb
More often than not, ‘leader’ as a mentioned word lights up delightful images of power and privileges in our minds. Very rarely does the third ‘P’ which symbolises ‘problems’’ come up. Indeed, leaders have their fair share of perks. They are better rewarded and usual get a lot more satisfaction from their jobs. Above all, they are handed the mandate to influence and lead change. An honour which allows them to carve a legacy if they so desire. What we do not often imagine for our leaders are the challenging issues they have to personally battle before they can even tackle the assignments they have been tasked to solve.
Being a leader means you have to manage human beings and systems; and these to do not always behave the way you want them to, especially the former as they shift their aspirational goals with each new wave of change, which happens on a daily basis. The impossibility of knowing it all is what makes leading a job that the faint-hearted strive to avoid. The leader has to lose sleep over the things that are keeping his followers sleepless. The reason for the convergence is, that all managers must manage human beings; and human beings and systems don’t always behave the way you want them to. This is probably the reason why “unclear expectations and competing priorities” is the topmost challenge leaders everywhere agree keeps them sitting at the edge of their seats.
Quite the majority amongst us have never bothered to tell our leaders in exactitude what we expect of them. We all sing the “lift us up” chorus, and literally expect to be lifted up. And the worst part is that we as followers are not too sure what that “lifting up” means; can you then imagine the headache of the leader? These “unspoken” expectations place a heavy burden on many leaders who really desire to do a great job but simply do not know how. Too many times this leads to unnecessary relational rifts between the leaders and their followers, eventually leading to loss of trust and regard for one another.
In trying to deal with the frustration of not fulfilling the unspoken and unclear expectations, many leaders take the easier route. They act according to the whims of a few influential individuals, hoping that by pleasing them, they in turn will strive to quell the agitation of the crowds who look up to them. The better way would be to clarify with followers what their aspirations are and how these can be met. That way everyone knows where they stand in relation to the goal. Followers do not have to speculate and feedback can be more focused on what has been done, what is next, and not what is wrong. Creating clarity about expectations should be the number one task for any leader in any organisation or community.
Coupled with unclear expectations are ‘competing priorities.’ Functionally, a leader is a task manager. He or she is saddled with tackling multiple challenges which need urgent attention. As one author sums it, “they don’t just compete for the leader’s time (which is bad enough), they actually fight each other, i.e. accomplishment of them would be counterproductive.”
Dealing with competing priorities is an integral part of being a leader. Your daily battles involves choosing between satisfying the present demands and building the foundation for the future; between excellence and mediocrity, between instant fame and timeless legacy, between family time and business progress; and between ethicality and legality. It creates an environment where it becomes almost impossible to determine what matters most and what is really expected of them.
Should the present become the focus or the future. And leaders have to do this knowing it is impossible to cater for these priorities at the same time. But knowing this truth and acting accordingly are two very different things.
One of the ways to navigate this challenge is for the leader to provide a contextual explanation as to why a particular action is being pursued. Simply walking ahead on a path without communicating why that path has been chosen give room for all kinds of speculations to take place. Leaders always have to engage their followers by sharing the contextual basis for their decisions in order to help reduce any negative feelings. With this, even the aggrieved parties can appreciate why their expectations had to be put on hold. More importantly, the tone of communication should be composed with respect and delivered with humility.
Kodwo Brumpon is a management consultant and a life coach who inspires individuals, groups and corporate bodies to think and pursue that which is true, practice goodness in their interactions and create a more beautiful world with their products and services. Comments, suggestions and requests should be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org