Years ago I heard John Bradshaw, the relationship guru of the day, say something that even as a single guy then stuck with me: he said that no matter how long you were with another person, there would be issues that two of you would bump up against only after you got married, and that’s why they are called “marital issues.”
Certainly if you’re married you can appreciate that concept. The dynamics of the relationship change when two people go from uncommitted companionship to making a lifelong promise in front of God and a few of their closest friends. It often doesn’t take very long before newlyweds find that there are indeed “marital issues” unique to the new arrangement.
I was reminded of this concept recently while reading about Jeff Immelt, the person who followed Jack Welch as CEO of GE. Immelt said that as soon as he became CEO, his communication with colleagues changed. They no longer talked with him as a peer. Like marriage, the dynamics of the relationship had changed. Now the communication was less open and more carefully considered.
Likewise I’ve encountered many leaders who express profound loneliness that they feel was created by their position rather than their own actions. Like Immelt, they were bumping up against what I call “leadership issues.” These are issues that a typical manager or follower won’t encounter until they start to truly lead.
The good news is that leadership issues are evidence that one is indeed leading. If you are a leader and don’t notice any change in the relationship with your organization, you might begin to wonder if you’re really leading.
The downside, of course, is that you must learn to navigate these new and usually unanticipated challenges. Some do and others don’t.
Where can anyone go when vexed by “leadership issues”? Marriage counselors are easier to find than leadership counselors. While many would claim to be coaches not all have the experience of leading an organization. Therefore, they haven’t been able to experience the leadership issues. Some may have insights that are helpful, but as a leader, the advice I need about the tough issues is usually gained from men and women who have been there.
Here are some of the thornier leadership issues I’ve encountered or observed:
- How does a leader get the unvarnished information they need to hear?
- Where can a leader find a safe confidant?
- How does a leader talk about sensitive issues that affect the organization without betraying confidences?
- How does a leader know what people within the organization really think of him or her?
- How does a leader deal with a potentially debilitating personal problem that affects his or her performance at work?
- How does a leader (who is supposed to motivate others) stay motivated?
- Is there a way to opt-out of leadership without disgrace?
- How does a leader balance relationship needs against results-needs?
- Are all problems solvable? And if not, what does a leader do about the unsolvable ones?
These are classic leadership issues and, like Bradshaw pointed out, there are interesting but quite abstract until you become a leader. And it won’t matter how much experience you’ve had in other areas.
That’s why they’re called leadership issues.