Leading in the Gray

A few years ago, in one of my leadership programs, we had invited representatives from several different ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) to come and talk to the class. For those of you who are not familiar, ERGs are employee-driven and voluntary groups that provide support to members of various marginalized communities. It was a good opportunity to bring in diverse perspectives on leadership, as well as to familiarize our participants with resources that could help with their development.

One of our speakers was the founder of the Black employee ERG. Another speaker was a leader from the LGBTQ resource group.

Both men shared their perspectives on the organization and the levels of support they’d received while forming their groups. One man shared that when working on the development of his ERG, he’d received very personal mentoring and support from a high level manager. He’d felt incredibly valued by this manager, and was extremely appreciative of his experience.

The second man then proceed to share that he’d also had an experience with a high level manager when forming his group, but it was an extremely negative one. He’d felt that this manager had been dismissive and disrespectful, and he was clearly still emotionally impacted by his interaction.

They didn’t know this at the time, but both of them were both speaking about the same manager.

So often when we talk about good or bad leadership, we hear the extreme examples. Humans love to categorize things. We want to be able to place someone in either the “good” or “bad” category. We want it to be black and white.

But in reality, most of us are not going to be at one extreme or the other. We exist in the gray.

When I was a manager, I was proud that I would always take the time to listen to my staff. I was quick to respond, and would always seek out an answer even if I didn’t know it myself. I genuinely cared about them, and would support them when they sought development or applied for promotions.

But the truth is also that at times I was overwhelmed, and didn’t give them the individual attention they deserved. I kept moving performance appraisals to the bottom of my to-do list, because with all of the demands on my time, it was just easier to not worry about them. At times, I prioritized the current organizational emergency (of which there was always at least one, usually more) over the care of my staff.

Some of them would tell you I was a great manager. Some would not. Neither view would be wrong.

So many articles on leadership like to talk in absolutes. And I’m sure I’m also guilty of this. “Just do A, and you will get response B!”. Just be authentic. Just be compassionate. Just be supportive. Just be direct.

And there is a lot of great advice out there. But from time to time, I think it’s also important to remember that it’s not just a team that you’re leading. It’s a collection of individuals. And each of them has a unique perspective on you.

If you google “how to communicate as a leader” most of the top articles will give the advice to be a direct speaker. They may frame it as being concise or to-the-point, but the end result is the same. “Leaders should be direct”.

Except that’s not true. The truth is you should be direct with employees who respond well to direct communication. If they don’t like direct communication, then you need to be more indirect.

I taught classes on feedback, and I can’t tell you how many employees insisted they liked direct communication. Until we asked them about receiving “constructive” feedback that might be challenging. And which point, about ninety percent of them changed their preferences.

So it’s not even just about individual preference. It’s individual + situational. Who am I talking to, and in what context.

At this point, I know it’s tempting to throw up your hands and argue that being this aware is impossible. And you’d be right. Or you would be, if you were in this alone.

So often we portray leaders as being these isolated figures, off alone on the top of the mountain. But leadership is a relationship with others. You’re not in it alone. Your people can teach you so much, if you’re just willing to engage and listen.

And that’s the best part about being in the gray. If it’s always black or white, just one way or another, you’re stuck. There’s no place to grow or change. But being in the gray is an amazing thing. It means that you have room to move.

Being in the gray means that you sit down with each member of your staff, and talk about what works for them and what doesn’t. And that’s where you set the standard that if someone gives you feedback that you need to change your approach, or that you have a blind spot, you listen and adjust your behavior accordingly.

You can learn that what you’re doing is amazing for someone and works great for them. You can learn that you’ve been unsupportive or ignorant to someone’s needs, and you can change. You may even learn that you have some trust-building to do before you ever really hear the truth.

Being in the gray is accepting you will never be the perfect leader. Just a leader. And that’s enough.

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