The Happy Trap

The best leaders don’t make everyone happy. That may sound harsh to you – it may even sound wrong. It’s not intended to be rude or mean-spirited, and it doesn’t mean that great leaders try to make people unhappy. It’s just a byproduct of leading well.

This is a lesson I learned early in my career - one I could have easily missed. Like many young leaders, I didn’t invest a lot of time reflecting on my leadership style or philosophy – I was trying to learn to lead! One day, almost 25 years ago, the president of our company came into my office. That was a big deal. I had been with the company for almost 10 years, and I don’t recall him ever visiting my office before that day.
When he entered the room, I stood to greet him. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.” I paused. “Congratulations for what?”
“You’ve figured out something many leaders never understand, and you’ve discovered it early in your career.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so I knew I needed to probe. “What’s that, sir?”
“You’ve learned that not everyone is going to be happy with your leadership, and you’ve decided that’s okay.”
Had he not pointed that out to me, I guess I could have missed it. My goal had always been to try to do the right thing. If I felt I had done so, I wasn't too worried about those who disagreed.
Let me be clear and say again, I don’t believe leaders TRY to make people unhappy; it’s just part of the role. Why is that the case? Here are five reasons – I’m sure there are more.
Leaders create change. Leaders understand that progress is always preceded by change. There will always be people who don’t like change, and they'll not be happy with us for instigating change.
Leaders make hard decisions that affect people’s lives. Sometimes we have to terminate an employee, close a business unit, stop funding for a project, or set a strategy that is not popular. These are activities leaders are paid to do that make people unhappy.
Leaders hold people accountable. To most leaders, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Unfortunately, many people see it as a huge negative. I prefer to think of accountability as a gift we give to those we lead, a gift that enables them to be successful.
Leaders stretch people and organizations. Leaders know that if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. Therefore, we often ask people to do things faster, cheaper, better, differently. But stretching creates discomfort, and many people aren’t happy to be stretched.
Leaders are unreasonable people. Leaders are compelled by a vision and fueled by the desire to see that vision become a reality. Leaders live much of our lives thinking about what could be, an orientation that often creates an "unreasonable" view of the world.
So, what are the implications for us as leaders? My advice: Don’t be surprised if there are always some people who are unhappy with you. And if no one’s unhappy with you as a leader, perhaps you should be unhappy with yourself.[GLS_Shield]


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