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Today’s business environment can be frustrating because we all live with the widely-accepted cultural myths that “someone” can just make a decision that will clear the path for us to get our job done. And yet, the complexity of modern business often puts us in professional situations where no one seems to be able to make a decision – for example, working in matrixed groups where the responsibility for a project is spread between different functional units with “no one in charge.” Often it seems as though the people with the power to make decisions choose not to decide way too often, making our jobs practically impossible and making us feel powerless and out of control.

How can you access power in these situations? I believe that the answer to this question is both a solution to work-induced stress and career success – and it is a fundamental distinction between how managers and leaders operate.

Myth #1: SomeONE Can Decide

Some decisions really do have a single person at their center. Buying pencils for the receptionist desk, for example: someone’s usually been tasked with this basic act. But… then someone else does an analysis of purchasing office supplies and realizes that if we buy larger quantities of pencils for the 240 people in the building we save money, but the quantities need to be correctly estimated so we get the best deal and don’t end up overstocking, and only so-and-so is authorized to do that analysis, so so-and-so must be in the pencil-buying-purchasing-loop and…. you see where this is going. Before long there are no pencils at the reception desk and the CEO gets pissed off when she wants to jot a note on her business card while she greets the biggest prospect of the year.

Good ideas turn into bad execution all the time, but they’re still good ideas. Saving money is a good thing, until the CEO turns red and blasts the poor receptionist during her second day at the job. This is a process problem and the ways to fix it include improving the process, and creating situations where people who see the broken process can sidestep the process when they see it’s broken.

Managers notice the broken process and complain and/or try to fix it. Leaders don’t ask permission, they point out the problem to those in charge of the process and take on responsibility for achieving pencils at the desk, often by sidestepping the process to borrow pencils, donate their own, negotiate a quick pencil-purchasing agreement or telling the receptionist that pens will do just fine.

Managers fight the injustice and stupidity while leaders accept what is and deal with it.

Myth #2: Control Is Desirable

As Myth #1 reveals, as businesses scale, becoming more complex functionally, geographically, financially etc., there are plenty of good reasons to put processes in place to manage the larger scale needs of big organizations. Having worked with many smaller businesses and startups as well as Fortune 100 behemoths, I can tell you that this type of complexity starts at about 30 people and just gets more challenging as you go up. Even working for myself, I find situations where I’m the only one who can decide something (when to offer a webinar, for example) and yet the number of issues I have to address first overwhelms me and makes it impossible to decide in the moment I’d like to.

The secret to Myth #2 is that when a process breaks, it creates opportunity. Those who learn to take advantage of this opportunity can get ahead. Those who let it frustrate them can actually damage their careers. Here’s an example. I had a long-term contract with a large non-profit about five years ago and my job was to manage the development of a web offering, launch it and hire the team that would operate and run it. We encountered the inevitable challenges of launching any technology product, but it was complicated by the fact that the larger organization – the non-profit – wasn’t terribly tech-savvy and was heavily invested in the traditional human service way of doing things. Two of the women I hired handled these challenges very differently.

The younger took the issues head on and showed no fear walking into adjacent departments to ask for resources and support. She encountered resistance and came to me asking that I go over the recalcitrant party’s head to get the President to tell the other groups to cooperate. The other woman, spent time chatting up the others who she would need cooperation from in the future and built personal relationships with them. She also came to me – though less often – asking for help getting the other groups to prioritize our needs. In both cases, I had to obtain the support we needed through a variety of negotiations, direct asks and strategic discussions outside executive meetings. In the end we got what we needed. In the process, the second woman and I both gained more credibility while the first young lady lost it.  (It should be noted that this young lady gained many leadership lessons through mentoring and observation and is very successful today and a good friend.)

Myth #3: All Problems Have Equal Value At All Times

When stressed and frustrated with an endless todo list, or badgered by a type A boss, it’s tough to put some issues on the “wait and see” or “not worth my energy” list. And yet, this is exactly what you must do sometimes to make sure the truly important things are accomplished. Coaches talk about getting a “don’t do” list all the time and it can be really helpful to simply take stuff off your plate. But often your job, boss and sense of self-worth won’t let you do this to all the vexing challenges of your work.

Managers let this stress them out. Leaders learn that time and energy are fluid and what is most important today may not be tomorrow. Leaders practice “situational leadership” and learn to assess each issue and situation quickly and contextually, deciding where their energy (and the energy of their organization) is best spent. Sometimes this makes them appear from the outside as difficult to pin down or capricious with your time, but the good ones work to mitigate the cost of zigging and zagging on their teams and move projects to points of importance that optimize resources before changing priorities. It can be a very tough job and accepting the nature of the work as stop-start, bob-and-weave is the first step to mastering it and learning how to work with the process of fluidity, instead of against it, to achieve results.

Curious about other skills that can move you from a management mindset to a leadership presence? Join me for a complimentary webinar on this very subject and receive concrete coaching that will help you become a stronger leader.

Photo Credit: Kelly Hau Photography