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I followed leadership best practices. And failed.

It would take me a few years to come to peace with it.

Back in 2009 I was put in charge of a project with a team of 4 or 5 people.

We were to organize a 3 day conference: logistics, budget and atmosphere.

We had 3 weeks.

Some of the basics were already in place: venue, attendees, speakers.
So 3 weeks wasn't a lot but it wasn't too little time either.

I'm an only child, used to things going my way and, at that point, my only leadership experience had been the group assignments at school and college. Fortunately I already suspected that might not go well in an official leadership position.

So I looked up how to be a good leader.

I found a lot of resources about democratic leadership, an approach that emphasizes empowering the group instead of making unilateral decisions.

It sounded great.

It sounded like the type of leader I would appreciate working with and therefore that I wanted to emulate.

So I went all-in.

All the meetings and decisions we had about that project were taken as a group.

In some cases I was pleasantly surprised with the ideas that were coming up and we surely did a lot better in discussing and deciding as a group then if I were to simply make decisions and give instructions.

It was working and I was thrilled!

Then there were two decisions where I had a funny feeling.

I understood the place where the people proposing them were coming from. Some suggestions sounded really cool and others would facilitate logistics for the team.

But... they didn't seem right.

Not for this project.

Not for a project with the characteristics and constraints we had.

I knew of my limitations.

I didn't want to make a decision by myself different from the group's decision. That would have been non-democratic.

I had to get out of my comfort zone and keep the best practices.

We went with the suggestions the group agreed to.

What do you think happened?

That's right... at the end of it, those two decisions had had a massive negative financial impact on the project. One drove our costs up, the other decreased our chances for revenue generation.

After that I felt terrible.

Senior colleagues de-briefed the project with me and politely showed me how these decisions had had negative financial consequences.

I didn't know how to respond.

I knew those were the wrong decisions right from the start.

But I trusted the best practices of democratic leadership.

How could they have failed me?

Today I know about many other approaches and tools.

Looking back, I can see that maybe it simply wasn't clear how we were making decisions as a group.

But back then I didn't.

And I see many leaders, regardless of how experienced they are, going throuhg something similar:

We find an approach with which we identify, that completely translates the values that matter to us into how we can lead our teams so we decide to follow it.

Unaware of our beloved approach's blindspots.

We're so in love with how it represents our ideal way of working we fail to see its shortcomings. And so we end up having the same limitations.

The beauty of having an engaged team, sharing ideas and everyone participating as an equal blinded me to the limitation that sometimes group dynamics influence decisions and actions... in a negative way.

Think of this experiment: a participant is put in a waiting room by themselves. As they wait, smoke starts coming from underneath the door. The participant suddenly stands up and rushes out.

The experiment is done again, this time with one participant and a other people in the room who are accomplices to the experiment. When the smoke comes through the door, the accomplices don't move.
What does the participant do?

Sees the smoke, looks around, sees everyone standing still and... stays in the room.

Sometimes it's our role to let others make decisions by themselves and learn. Sometimes it's our role to see the blind spots and intervene, preventing mistakes and teaching and leading the team.

With time I've come to learn that there isn't one good leadership style or a bad one.

Every style is extremely valuable on its own.

Each style has its blind spots too.

The more approaches you know, the more tools you know, the more prepared you are as leaders. Best practices are only the "best" in specific circumstances.

A situation with a different context and you might need to do things completely different.

Wishing you a great day,


P.S.: Navigating Leadership is the only hands-on online leadership program that teaches you a system that works regardless of your leadership approach and style.

You can find upcoming dates and sign up here.

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