Closing the Leadership Gap

Why Am I Working Harder and Smarter Than Everyone Else?

During leadership training and coaching this is a common question from my most successful leaders. They notice a widening and troubling gap between what they are willing to contribute and what others are willing to contribute. Sometimes it’s a matter of sheer hours and effort, and other times it pertains more to a difference in skill and ability. It’s often both.

In either case, the widening gap creates feelings of fatigue, isolation, and animosity, and can lead to staff or executive burnout.

Some of this makes perfect sense, and in some ways, is unavoidable. Top leaders are often where they are because they have simply been willing to work harder than everyone else and do what it takes to achieve their goals.

But, sometimes the gap between what they are willing and able to do and what others are willing and able to do reveals a fatal flaw in the key leader’s game plan.

My Mom was amazing at arts and crafts. She was very skilled at creating things like displays or centerpieces. She was an expert painter and decorator and had the patience to sew a suit from scratch. So, when I would bring home an assignment for a school project, she was all in!  Many times, she would even let me collapse in bed while she stayed up and did the “finishing touches” (AKA completely remake my project). And, much to my elation, I would carry to school a masterpiece — sure to win a blue ribbon.

The problem is that none of her drive for detail or patient creativity transferred to me. My children didn’t get the same help from me. I just didn’t have the great ideas or patience to figure it out. In fact, often they would bypass me and enlist Grandma to assist.

We could say that Grandma failed to close the gap between what she was willing and able to do and what I was.  But because it was only a school project now and then and we weren’t making a business out of it, she didn’t experience much feeling of fatigue, isolation or animosity.

How can top leaders respond effectively when they find themselves in this kind of situation?

Own your part in creating the gap

It has been your choice many times to take a project over, burn the midnight oil, or be the “answer giver.”  You have swooped in and “saved the day” because it had to be done and it was easy for you. You’ve told them what to do but sometimes failed to take the time to tell them how to do it or why. So, no surprise it often resulted in an inferior “product.”  Leaders will often exclaim, “How can they not know that…it’s so obvious!”

Really understand the gap

  • Do you have the wrong person for the role?
  • Are they lacking in skill or initiative? This distinction really matters.
  • Are the “targets” clear and agreed upon up front?
  • Do you dump or delegate?
  • Have you provided them with access and exposure to the tools and experiences that you have had?
  • And maybe the hardest question: What have you gotten out of being the top performer? The truth is, we only suffer such a thing when we get something out of it.

Start now to close the gap

Often when I hear the leaders lament about the gap that they face, they’ve been ruminating and suffering with it in isolation for far too long. They are at the breaking point where they are either ready to burn the place to the ground or walk away…or both in sequence. Therefore, it’s tricky to begin communicating about the gap with those on the other side without inducing a lot of shame and/or defensiveness. It must be more of a “rheostat” than a “switch.” The leader must begin with the realization that “others” have been operating in a way they may view as “normal.”  They have not been thinking about or suffering with the gap. They may have even marveled at the heroics of the leader and bought into the same illusions that the leader is under.

Reach across the gap with compassion

We must begin talking about it in order to begin identifying changes in self-management and making organizational change. Then, we have to realize it may take as long to close the gap as it did to create it. (If you are one of those top leaders I’m talking about, you may have just cussed out loud!) It won’t happen all at once. But through clear and consistent collaboration around new and emerging expectations, the gap can begin to close. This kind of change can breathe new life into many areas of the organization but, as change often does, it will also bring its own exhilaration and disappointment. We do better and then we regress. Thus, the necessity for compassion in the call for something new.

This all brings to mind one of my favorite axioms of leadership — true leaders make others better. Oh, and it’s also the hardest thing a leader will ever do!

That’s why the gap is there in the first place.