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The Biggest Obstacle to Becoming an Emerging Leader: Playing It Safe

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The Biggest Obstacle to Becoming an Emerging Leader: Playing It Safe

I’ve spent a great deal of the time in the classroom working with some extraordinary emerging leaders. 

If they are our future, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the direction we’re heading in, and yet many of them haven’t cultivated a belief in themselves that will take them where I know they can go. Their ability won’t hold them back – they’re all very talented, smart, and hungry to learn. Their desire won’t hold them back – most of them want to make a difference. Their work ethic won’t hold them back – they’re doing what it takes and putting in the time.  What I see as their biggest obstacle is that they don’t trust themselves. They’re playin’ it safe.

Our biggest obstacle is that we don’t trust ourselves. We play it safe.
 

So many of us move up in our careers because we’ve done a good job executing what our bosses ask of us.  We absorb feedback from our managers and mentors, and work hard to be what we think is expected of us (often replicas of the people at the helm).  We learn the right things to say (and maybe more importantly, what not to say).  We learn how we’re “supposed” to carry ourselves.  We learn how to play the game. And we get quite good at it.  We move up the ladder.  We get bigger, fancier titles and more responsibility.  As more and more people begin reporting to us, we pass down the rules of the game and reward the players who follow the rules.  And so the story goes on.

What I’ve come to discover is that there’s so much more to all of us than this story allows us to see. In our quest for success, we often mask off the best of who we are in order to fit an automaton-image of what we think is expected. And while that may serve us up to a point, as Marshall Goldsmith would say, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

We often mask off the best of who we are in order to fit an automaton-image of what we think is expected.
 

There comes a time, as we mature in our careers and move into positions of influence and leadership, that require us to do more than follow the rules that have been laid out before us like a prescription to success.   When our jobs shift from executing tasks to leading people we can no longer afford to play it safe as the stakes are too high.  If we need the people we lead to want to follow – to invest their emotional energy (passion, excitement, loyalty, creativity, trust, etc) into being and bringing their best – then we need to put more skin in the game.

If we want people to invest their emotional energy, we need to put more skin in the game.
 

In the theatre, when an actor on stage is worrying about what others think, trying to impress, trying to be perfect, they cannot focus on igniting action in the scene that is unfolding. They are not fully invested in the moment. It’s incredibly scary to be all-in on stage. You have to trust yourself. You have to trust that if you go there, the by-product will be an electrifying performance. But if you play it safe, if you don’t go there, you can be sure that what you’ll deliver is milk-toast at best. For an actor, anything but 100% commitment to playing full out is the most dangerous thing you can do.

I believe that’s true for leadership as well.

Playing it safe is the most dangerous thing you can do.
 

I’m not suggesting that you say whatever you want to say and do whatever you want to do with abandon, it’s critical to pay attention to the impact you’re having. But I am saying that playing it safe will only get us so far.  If when you’re presenting you’re more worried about the right way to hold your hands and if your PowerPoint slides are perfect than you are in connecting to the hearts and minds of your audience, then don’t be surprised if their hearts and minds aren’t engaged. 

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If when you’re at a meeting you’re holding back your opinions and ideas to not rock the boat instead of finding constructive ways to get your opinions and ideas heard, don’t be surprised if you find yourself disengaged. And can we afford that? Can we afford the people we lead to not engage? Can we afford our own disengagement? As a leader, isn’t that the most dangerous thing we could do?

Can we afford the people we lead to not engage? Can we afford our own disengagement?
 

Ask yourself, where in your life are you not playing full out? What’s the price you’re paying for playin’ it safe?

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