Consider a married couple.
He’s spent the last 20 years working on himself. Learning, exploring, discovering. Changing. So has she. Each has been on a journey of enlightenment to become a better person. And they are, in fact, both of them, wonderful people. But they’ve each been on their own journey, and now, while each is one with the universe, they’re not in the same universe. They have nothing left in common. He doesn’t fit in her world. And she doesn’t fit in his.
This scenario came to mind recently during a conversation with a financial services executive I advise.
He is interested in becoming a more creative leader. And it occurred to me that there are really two dimensions to this challenge. Or any leadership challenge.
There’s the internal work of improving yourself. But in parallel, there must also be the work of engaging your team. When you work on yourself but not on your team, two unintended consequences can unfold.
One is that you may get frustrated because you’ve improved your capabilities and they’re no longer able to play at your level. You end up constantly feeling that the quality of their work is inadequate.
The other consequence is that the team may reject you as a leader in the way that a body can reject a transplant. It was working well for them before. You went and changed without asking them or bringing them along.
Every journey of change might mean you outgrow those around you. To lessen the risk, remember that leadership is not a solo act. It’s something you can only do in concert with those you lead. When you seek to grow and become a better leader, what you’re really doing is changing the dynamic on your team. So do it together. As you learn and develop, remember to bring your team along on the journey. Set context for them so they know why this change will be good, and coach them so they can benefit from what you learn and discover along the way.
As a leader, you can do three simple things to bring others along as you navigate your self-improvement journey, laying the groundwork for a healthy, productive team dynamic.
- Share. Show up as a full person with your team. Let them know about your journey and why you’re taking it. Imagine a marriage in which one partner is considering becoming a vegetarian, while the other is a meat lover. Marital bliss does not require that both become vegetarians — it just means that each needs to understand and accept the journey the other is on, including the values they’re trying to uphold, individually and together. As a leader, explain to your team what your journey means for you, why you’re excited about it, and even what you’re afraid of. Model the behaviors of showing up with vulnerability and openness.
- Teach. As you learn new ways of thinking, new ideas, and new skills, teach them to your team. Give them the opportunity to grow along with you. They may not choose to overhaul their own habits, but if you can teach them about the variety and nuances of vegetarian cooking, they’ll learn to appreciate it and may even join you in the kitchen once in a while. Framing what you’ve learned in ways that are meaningful to the team is a way of applying and cementing those newfound skills and knowledge. How your team responds to what they learn might also teach you a thing or two.
- Check in. Self-improvement can easily get you very wrapped up in yourself. Just as married partners might want to periodically chat about what these changes mean for them as a couple, remember to think about your team and how it affects them. Ask how they’re doing. Ask how they’re experiencing your new ways of leading. Get feedback. You don’t have to accept it all. But the more empathy you have for how you’re received, the more you’ll be able to lead not just yourself through this journey, but your team as well.
Your team doesn’t need to follow the exact same journey as you, or arrive at the same destination. But aim to involve them enough so that as your leadership style evolves, your team has the means to evolve with it.