February 24

Is Leadership Easy or Hard – Which is it?

When you think about ‘leading others’, do you think that it is easy or hard to do? Every day on LinkedIn, a lot of leadership principles are posted and seem to suggest leadership is simple. However, simple is not always easy. Could it be that leadership is simple to understand but hard to do well?

To answer the question, let’s quickly examine three important aspects of great leadership: listening, empathy, and curiosity. All three are simple ideas and powerful tools of extraordinary leaders but often not fully practiced by leaders.

Listening for this article is hearing what other people are trying to communicate by listening to other’s words, tone of voice, and observing their nonverbal communication.

Psychology Today states: Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person.  Can you fully grasp what the other person is experiencing through their mental and emotional state?

Curiosity means having a strong desire to know or learn something. It’s related to inquisitive thinking.

Easy concepts but how many leaders do you know that do all three at a high level? From my experience, it’s the minority! Evaluate yourself based on my ‘coach’s observations:

1. Listening

It is not only ‘hearing’ others and most people stop at hearing. The big challenge with gaining a full understanding of what the speaker is trying to say is that we don’t effectively listen to what is not being said. We don’t clarify to see if our listening filters are misconstruing the intended message. Therefore, we miss the fullest part of the message. Additionally, most people have bad habits that get in the way: listening for our turn to talk, listening with preconceived and unchecked bias, listening without clarification, listening to solve a problem before understanding, interrupting, getting distracted with our own thoughts – especially what we want to say next, etc.

2. Empathy

Often sub-optimized because we don’t listen well and don’t experience what it truly feels like to be in the other person’s shoes. The listener may think they know what the speaker is feeling and experiencing, but because they think they know it, they don’t confirm with the speaker how it feels. It is good to be quiet and make eye contact, but it does not mean that the listener has empathy in the eyes of the speaker. It is not until empathy has been demonstrated does the speaker feels like the listener has empathy. Having empathy by itself is not enough. A speaker wants to experience empathy by it being demonstrated to them.

3. Curiosity

It is the mindset and skill a great listener uses to demonstrate their empathy to the speaker. If a listener is only interested in getting the speaker to do something or get something from them, they will not come across as fully listening or demonstrating empathy. The authentic energy of curiosity focuses the leader to make an emotional connection with the speaker. It naturally enables them to ask curious questions that fully engage the speaker.

Back to the question; easy or hard?

Easy if you have been doing it well your whole life and have good habits. Hard if you have some bad/old habits that need to be changed. And, almost impossible if you’re focused on getting what you want. No amount of skill training on listening, empathy, and curiosity will help if your mindset and psychology are focused on you.

I have had people say to me that they don’t understand why others feel like they don’t have any empathy. Having empathy versus demonstrating empathy are two different things. I have seen leaders who think they know more about the topic being discussed. And are unable to be curious because they know the answer or the right way to do something. It’s a big trap for leaders who are smart. It takes emotional intelligence to see that intelligence is minimizing curiosity, empathy, and listening effectiveness.

Easy or hard?

From my experience, leadership skills are hard to do consistently with an authentic outwardly focused mind and heart. Our mindsets, psychology, habits, personal orientation, intelligence, can compromise our ability to be great at leadership.

It is tempting to believe we don’t need any help developing simple leadership practices. This is a slippery slope! It is misguided to think simple ideas are easy to implement. It takes a couple of things that most leaders are not good at:

  • The practice of ‘unlearning” by dramatically raising self-awareness
  • Practicing new habits as we observe the old habits.

Old habits don’t just run away because we are noticing them or because we are working on a new habit. It’s at this stage, that most people quit because ‘it’s not working’. Habit formation is hard. Be intentional about your leadership development and get help to create new habits of extraordinary leadership.

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