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The Impossible Leader (or, My Greatest Leadership Challenge Ever)

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

There have been a great many leaders who have tested me. They tested my patience, the limits of my endurance, even my values. I thought I had seen it all, until I encountered my most difficult leadership challenge ever. There are several moments that stand out, and I'll share three. I hope these resonate with you, and are helpful if you find yourself in an "impossible" leadership situation.

The office had been thrown together quickly. The staff was small. The project was high visibility, and had a beginning and an end - so time was of the essence. Another Marine I knew brought me into this small, select group. I was excited at the prospect of being included. I want to make a difference.

They rushed to bring me onboard. I expected to be busy immediately and overwhelmingly. Instead, I spent my first few days aimless and confused. Everyone was constantly on the move, and my role remained hazily defined. Pinning down one of the senior leaders, I finally got pointed in a general direction. Grateful, I put my head down and started working hard. With that smidge of guidance, I took the initiative and was off running. But I committed a fatal mistake.

My deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan hadn't seemed this busy. The office felt like an impossible crush of demands. We didn't have staff meetings. The staff had been so small for so long, they had gotten used to going directly to each other. I didn't want to bother anyone unless I actually needed something. I was confident in my abilities, understood the mission, and thought my leaders knew I was working hard.

My fatal mistake? I failed to communicate any of this.

The first moment occurred just a couple of months after I'd started. A high level meeting was scheduled, of which I was notionally the lead. However, two of the senior officers took over preparation. They did not tell me. They simply started sending and receiving emails, having meetings with the general. I was left out of virtually everything. I assume they had reasons for doing this. First, the general was highly demanding, and used to going to them. Second, they were used to doing everything themselves, and continued to do so. It frustrated me, but I hesitated to say anything because they were so busy and under so much pressure.

The day of the meeting, it became clear that the general did not feel prepared. It also became clear that he felt it was my fault. A snap of frustration ended with me getting yelled at in public (something we were taught never to do). The worst part? One of the senior officers who had taken over preparations was in the room, and just stood there and stared. I like to think he was in shock.

Later, the general took me aside and spoke with me. I took this to be his way of apologizing. But I had learned my lesson. Principle #8: Communication is critical.

My leaders were only human. They had a lot going on. I used this incident to force a conversation that enabled me to send emails directly to the general (while CCing the two senior leaders). This worked splendidly.

My emails got right to the point. They never required that he scroll down to read the entire email. (want more people to read your emails? Shorten them so that they do not have to scroll to finish reading) They kept him apprised of all the things I was doing to support him. I might have sent 1-3 emails each week. Most of the time, he did not reply. He didn't have to. Over time, I gained full control of my projects. All 3 leaders started coming directly to me. I coordinated the meetings. I led preparation. I met with key stakeholders. And I never got yelled at again.

The second moment occurred later that year. By then, the general had started coming to me with things. Working for him proved a trying experience. He was known to be a tough leader. Someone else put it well - "he'd lay your s**t out flat".

Add to that - our leadership styles were completely opposite. I found myself bending entire aspects of my personality just to build trust and confidence with him.

On this particular day, he asked me to start a research project. I disliked the idea immediately. I felt the project was envisioned with a specific result in mind, and that our precious resources (mostly, time) were better spent elsewhere.

Yet I knew I'd get nowhere disagreeing with him. His mind was set. He thought it was a great idea, and it was my job to execute. Principle #9: Sometimes, you just do what you're told.

So I did. I put everything into that research project. I was determined to make it the most professional, well-documented, thorough project I could. And you know what? It turned out to be a good thing. The project produced valuable information and new insights, which I still use to this day. Sometimes, you don't know where something is going to lead. Sometimes, you're just wrong.

In that moment, I built trust and confidence with the general. He started to recognize that I was good at my job. He started seeking my input. I finally felt seen and heard.

The last moment I'll discuss occurred more than a year after I'd started in the office. I was designing a research project, and had a clear vision. Explaining my vision for a complex project such as this, to gain the general's approval, was proving difficult. No matter what I did, I couldn't meet my self-imposed, "no scroll" limit. So I asked for help.

My colleague was known for his use of the English language. (English major and all) He intuitively knew what I wanted, but also struggled to convey the concepts more succinctly. After about thirty minutes of struggling with the email, he looked at me and said something I'll never forget - "You know, you have a lot of autonomy with the general". Excuse me? I had no idea that's how the rest of the office viewed our relationship.

But there it was. After more than a year, and without even knowing it, I'd accomplished my goal. According to my colleague, the general was likely going to let me do what I wanted.

Holding my breath, I hit, "send". The general came down later in the day, stopped by my desk, and asked about the project. I could tell I still wasn't being clear, and cursed myself for not trying harder. Finally he said, "Beth, what do you think we should do?" After answering, he said, "Ok, let's do that."

Eureka. All the communication, the personality bending, doing things I did not want to do - it had all worked. I had accomplished the impossible. I had gotten the general to say, "yes", to exactly what I wanted. He trusted me, and respected my work. I have never worked so hard in my life, and never accomplished so much.

If you are struggling with an "impossible" leader, let me know. There are things you can do.

Principle #8: Communication is critical. Do whatever you have to do to keep the lines of communication open. Even if you have to CC individuals, keep those direct lines of communication open. If you don't tell them what you are doing, they may never know.

Principle #9: Do what you're told. You don't always have to agree with your leader. By doing what you're told, you demonstrate maturity and commitment to that leader and the overall mission. Seemingly paradoxically, this will gain you freedom of action with that leader by building trust.

If you enjoyed this post, or have questions, please let me know in the comments. And if there's a particular leader you'd like to see featured, don't hesitate to reach out!

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