The Burden of Leadership

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Many people I speak to, from little kids to professionals in their 50s, want to be “in charge.” They want what they perceive to be the perks of being in a position of authority.

What most don’t recognize is the BURDEN that comes with leadership.

When there’s an uncertain environment, it is the leader that absorbs the bulk of that uncertainty — creating a simplified, more structured environment for her team to operate within.

When a major decision needs to be made, and there is no obvious decision, it is the leader that bears the consequence of choosing incorrectly.

When a difficult decision needs to be made, choosing between a bad choice and a worse choice, it’s the leader that has to live with deliberately making a bad choice — solely to avoid an even worse choice.

For my clients, when things are going well, they can’t tell their employees — lest they all immediately ask for raises.

When things go poorly, they can’t tell their employees either — lest they all start looking for work elsewhere.

Sometimes a leader must make a wildly unpopular decision. Even though the decision is sound, that’s not how everyone else sees it. To stand alone in the face of hurricane level criticism and even ridicule is not easy to do.

When a leader makes mistakes, the results are often very public — for all to see first hand.

This is the burden of leadership.

If despite all this, you still want to be in a leadership position, the solution is simple.

Assume the BURDEN before you are actually formally placed in a position.

When things go wrong in your company, you personally accept the burden and responsibility for correcting the situation — even if you were not the one who made the mistake.

When you’re the leader, the final responsibility lies with YOU.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

To understand leadership is to realize that you can’t have one without the other.

That is the burden of leadership.

 

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23 comments… add one
  • Chris Nicholas Sep 9, 2014, 12:29 pm

    Victor,

    Very salient points. We’ve heard it said that there are no born leaders. Well, no one, not even POTUS or the Pope can anoint themselves leaders. To be a leader, you must have followers that understand and embrace your vision and have the ability to carry out that shared vision. Leaders aren’t made – they are followed. They lead upfront – and they have a vision that rings true with those committed to following them.

  • Jon Sep 9, 2014, 12:29 pm

    Hi Victor,

    What you just said can be summarized as “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

    Did I miss something else? I’m used to more insightful writings from you. Please let me know.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 11, 2014, 9:42 pm

      Jon,

      Although I do agree with your statement, my point is that leadership is both hard and at times grueling. Most people want to be in charge because it’s THE thing to strive for, not realizing how at times it’s quite burdensome.

      And it is those who are willing to shoulder the burden that become leaders.

      -Victor

  • Siddhartha Sep 9, 2014, 12:30 pm

    Hi Victor,

    It is almost serendipitous how I got this email at the same time when I was thinking if I even want to be a leader , the thought of taking the burden and being blamed for things even when they are not your fault seems to be ever unappealing, but it is something I enjoy doing as it makes me be accountable. Nothing is a better experience than taking a decision and living through it as then you see the consequences both good and bad of your decision.

  • Matt McCleary Sep 9, 2014, 12:31 pm

    I agree there’s a burden of leadership, but I don’t agree with this statement:

    “For my clients, when things are going well, they can’t tell their employees — lest they all immediately ask for raises.

    When things go poorly, they can’t tell their employees either — lest they all start looking for work elsewhere.”

    I’ve found leaders who are transparent to be the most effective at motivating employees and generating results.

    A good leader should share the rewards with their employees when things are going well and ask employees to share the sacrifice when things are not going well.

    You’re assuming that there is no trust between the employer and employee, and that each is only making decisions based on pure economic self-interest. Is that the current state of business in America? I hope we can do better.

    • Frederico Catalão Sep 11, 2014, 6:29 am

      Hi Matt,

      I understand what you say, and I agree almost 100%.
      I think the employees have the right to know that this are going fine because of their good work. I just think that in the very beginning of any project you should wait a little bit before you start complimenting everyone, putting “exigency” on everybody’s work.

  • k.Ramachandran Sep 9, 2014, 12:48 pm

    The burden of leadership is much more . You have to sacrifice a lot in the personal front . To implement your your plans/decisions you need the support of people at all levels . It is a real burden to involve people and sell your ideas and implement exactly the way you want . You have to give your life out to establish your leadership and seamless implementation of your ideas. At times it will make you feel whether it is worth for all the sacrifices you made. If the plan fails your reputation and the position will be at stake . Of late only business decisions are alone welcome by the top management ; in other words all the ideas and decisions are measured in terms of commercial value . People are not ready to wait for long term and want to see the results instantaneously . In the process you may have to dilute your ethical standards and value systems . At times, it may lead to losing peace of mind and individuality . The package for leadership is always result oriented and there is always a risk of not only losing the position but also will make it difficult to get a suitable opportunity else where. This risk may be a big hit in the family and also in the society .Though leadership seems to be lucrative and powerful ; it got its own burdens also and one need to evaluate the glamorous role in the light of associated risks and burdens.

  • Leo Sep 9, 2014, 1:24 pm

    Hi Victor

    You started your piece broadly and interestingly but you lost me here:

    “For my clients, when things are going well, they can’t tell their employees — lest they all immediately ask for raises.”

    1) If things are going well, they SHOULD get raises. Shouldn’t they? Raises are an extra cost but also an investment to reward employees and keep them motivated.

    2) I’m not sure that companies can work as black boxes. Regardless of the size of a company, the resonating noise generated from both poor or good performance permeates through the ranks and may affect morale. You can’t really hide the fact that things are going well and you must, instead capitalize on it as opposed to running the risk of poisoning the environment.

    In essence, I feel that the points you picked as supporting arguments may be very small to offer any good ground to your overarching theme.

    The Burden of leadership does lie with the leader himself but accountability and transparency are not mutually exclusive philosophies.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 11, 2014, 9:46 pm

      Leo,

      I don’t know any CEO that is fully transparent all of the time. In a public company, there are issues of insider information. In private companies, the salary information for all employees is generally not public information.

      If a leader faces a difficult decision, he or she often does not make transparent his or her insecurities or indecisiveness. Yes, you want to share the bad news — but preferably just a few minutes before you share what you intend to do about it.

      To announce that the business is burning to the ground financially as we speak, I have no idea what to do about it, have a nice day may be transparent, but hardly qualifies as leadership. It’s a good way to get all your employees to start working on their resume over the weekend.

      -Victor

  • Venkatachalam Sep 9, 2014, 1:36 pm

    I believe leadership is not a position but way of life. You either have it in you or don’t, forcibly bringing the decision making capability in a person would stifle the otherwise natural abilities that he or she is bestowed with.

  • Jennifer Sep 9, 2014, 2:15 pm

    Thank you Victor for these great insights on leadership. Many times we aspire to be leaders without much thought about the burdens associated with leadership; thank you for making it more visible through this article.

  • John Sep 9, 2014, 2:58 pm

    Victor,

    Spot on leadership missive!

    Several years ago, I read in the HBR , a leadership article written by a Yale graduate who was drafted into the Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant during the Vietnam War.

    His first bout with combat was frightening, but a lesson of superb leadership learned while watching a senior non commissioned officer, a Gunnery Sergeant on his 2nd or 3rd combat tour, while leading his men during the blistering fire fight.

    The three leadership axioms the young lieutenant learned – which I frequently use in my personal and professional life.

    1. Shoot
    2. Move
    3. Communicate

    First, be decisive before you shoot. – but BE DECISIVE!

    Second, move around the field, assessing your decision.

    Third, communicate up and down with clear, understandable and simple to apply directives.

    Leaders are to lead, not necessarily manage. He was leading his men from the front. We do not mind being led if the leader is decisively clear, while gaining additional insight to communicate – the simple to apply directives.

    John

  • Francisco Sep 9, 2014, 3:14 pm

    What about the narcissistic – type A “good looking” leader?

    As far as I have experienced, they never admit in private or publicly when they have failed, cause they are too perfect and they tend to think that are above anyone with their high standards and fancy crednetials.

    This kind of foolish leaders want just the status and privileges, but not necessarily the responsibilities that come along the route with the position in the organization.

    Not to mention that they are not even willing to deal at anytime with the burden of leadership.

    There are many mid-level to C-Level employees, particularly in the consulting and IB industry with these ego and vanity issues that prevent societies to progress.

  • sally Sep 9, 2014, 7:55 pm

    I agree in most part that many people only see the glamour associated with leadership, however, I would be a bit hesitant to use the word ‘Burden’ to associate. ‘Burden’ for me contains negative connotations, in the sense that it is unwanted and it is bad.
    Leadership for me is a combination of someone’s actions and their state of mind. While it is true that leaders have to take on more responsibilities, that is a choice they make. I think good leaders choose to take on that responsibility and not view it as a burden. Instead they make a series of well analysed choices and are aware that all actions have consequences and they are willing to take responsibility for their decisions.
    In summary, I’d say great leaders take on responsibilities, while everyone else take on burdens.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 11, 2014, 9:47 pm

      Sally,

      In principle I agree with you. At 3am in the morning, it feels like a burden.

      -Victor

      • Francisco Sep 12, 2014, 11:13 am

        Burden = Pursuit of Passion 😉

  • James Sep 9, 2014, 11:33 pm

    I think this is a thoughtful insight, Victor. I would add one point to accepting responsibility for a situation and the effort to correct it. There is the alternate outcome of not moving to a leadership position because you are recognized as too valuable of a problem-solver at the position and level you currently hold. This is a situation I am currently dealing with.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 11, 2014, 9:49 pm

      James,

      If you are too good at solving every hard problem thrown your way, and your current employer doesn’t give you an opportunity to take on more challenges within the organization, the solution is simple.

      Leave.

      Great leadership is VERY short supply. Given the choice between giving your more responsibility vs losing you, either they will give you more or you will get more elsewhere.

      Either way, leaders end up finding a way to lead one way or another.

      -Victor

  • Volha Sep 10, 2014, 12:15 am

    The true leader does not strive to be the leader to gain perks and powers and therefore, bear unpleasant ‘burdens’ like the necessity to get rid of people.
    The true leader does not strive to be in the light of glory and does not strive for trophies.
    The true leader simply sees far things as if they were close and simply goes there, and other people choose to follow because they trust. Whatever comes on the way, does not have label as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is just a necessity – to get THERE.
    The true leader is brave and it costs him, but he is not concerned with the cost. Because he knows the value of getting THERE.
    The true leader bears loads of personal costs too. In fact the true leader is sensitive and fragile like no one else, but just because of this – he can feel and see far things, so his personal integrity does not allow to deviate from the path her has chosen.
    With great power comes great responsibility, we know. So, responsibility is something not to be afraid of, or to ‘bear’ , but something that comes naturally into a leader’s role.
    And, I think the true leader shall seek first responsibility and never – perks and glory. True leader looks for responsibility not just for the sake of it, but in order to get THERE.

  • Ivan Sep 10, 2014, 3:58 am

    If one calls it “the burden” then he/she should stop from pursuing a leadership role. Because that’s exactly what makes a difference: to stand out and enjoy being alone in a crowd.

  • Nduka Sep 11, 2014, 12:26 pm

    Well articulated, Victor. Thanks for the article.

    One important way to reduce the burden of leadership is for the leader to be OPEN to his leads. OPENNESS helps the leader to always elicit supports even when things get sour.

  • Darryl Sep 16, 2014, 6:06 pm

    There are a number of descriptors that I would associate with leadership, but “burden” would not be at the top of the list. Leadership is a series of overlapping decisions and consequences that emit from intuitive, visionary, intellectual and communication skills.

    I think leaders are born but they are also developed by being placed in positions of greater and more challenging responsibilty and trust. They fail, learn and adjust course at inopportune and difficult moments. The best leaders have expectations of their people and provide them with the guidance and tools to be effective. And the very best reward and acknowledge the contributions of others.

    For examples of the failing, attenuated leadership see the President and US Congress.

  • Lukas Sep 28, 2014, 6:51 am

    Hi Victor,

    great article.

    With the sentence: “When there’s an uncertain environment, it is the leader that absorbs the bulk of that uncertainty…”, you have just caught the essence of leadership for me.

    I remember about my first years in Management Consulting and that I was often wondering: “How come my more senior colleagues can be so certain that these are the steps we need to take?”

    Now, after 4 years, I know they were not certain either – they were just good enough leaders not to burden a green analyst such as I was with all the uncertainties – and gave me pre-structured vision of reality, so that I could work on my tasks.

    And now it’s up to me to do some of the reality structuring 🙂

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