Want to be a better leader? Face your demons first

Let’s be honest. There are a number of small business owners — and we know who we are — who were driven to set up our small business by our own demons. Fears, a need to control, an allergy to authority, whatever the reason, or circumstance, it became clear to us that towing the line in someone else’s shop was not sustainable. And so we blazed our own trails, became captains of our own ships. While it was our demons who drove us to take big risks and make big investments, it does not automatically follow that those demons pave the way for true success.

My clients work hard. Really hard. Harder than is reasonable, or, oftentimes, healthy. And many of them are convinced that they need me to help them whip their staff into shape. Or teach them how to manage a budget, or develop a better strategy…or how to do something. The idea that turning around and facing their own demons is actually on that to-do list is furthest from their minds. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

As I begin my 14th year of a journey to help business owners to build healthier, more vibrant and more profitable businesses, I’ve been tempted to think I have this down.

But I’m wrong. And, at the start of a new year, very uncomfortable. You see, I’ve been avoiding the issue of the demons. If I’m honest with myself, I realize that I can’t avoid it anymore, for me, or my clients. But facing it will change how I see, do, and go about my business in practically every way. Facing it for myself will change not only what I do, but who I am.

I have tried to keep the focus simple for my clients: do the right things in the right way. Here’s how to attract, retain and engage the best talent! Here’s how to identify, attract and “wow” the clients that love what you do and will pay you well for it! And let’s not forget how to use the numbers in your business to make better decisions and get better results! These are all important things. Doing these things right will absolutely yield big improvements for most businesses.

Call it timing. Call it logic. Call it a confluence of event and perspective in my personal and professional life. But, however it has come to me, I have stumbled on the realization that you can do the right business things, in the right way, and still not get the outcome you are working for. From a professional standpoint, you can keep a deep talent pipeline, focus your business development, charge a good price. You can watch your numbers, make good decisions, and still, your business can falter. I started noticing businesses that I thought were doing all the right things, and yet, not growing. I started to see a link between demons and the dynamic that Jim Collins first told us about in Good to Great. The impact of leadership.

Leadership matters

If your organization is solid with their numbers, hires great talent, does amazing work that knocks your clients socks off and you cannot lead that team, your organization won’t grow.

You need to do more than attract great talent. You need to be able to cast a vision that engages their hearts and minds. You need to be able to set up goals and measurements that help each team member to see how their efforts contribute to that goal. You need to define roles and responsibilities, hold people accountable, celebrate successes and deal with short comings. That’s the job of the leader.

You need to know what your team is good at, identify a target market that values that, and tell an engaging story that attracts those prospects. That’s the job of the leader.

You need to know which are the key numbers (out of the many that your business generates) that really drive results. Then you need to show your team how their efforts can influence those numbers. You need to acknowlege improvement and also provide accountability when those numbers don’t improve. That’s the job of the leader.

A leader has real authority and uses it wisely. A leader is insightful and inspirational. A leader is a teacher and a coach. More than this, a leader acts (leads, makes decisions, speaks) out of a heart that is filled with: gratitude, appreciation, courage, self awareness, humility, curiosity, and an appetite for excellence.

As an outsider, I can help you with any number of tasks. I can give you some pointers, and suggest things that have worked for other teams, but I can’t lead your team for you. And I can’t give you the heart of a leader.

But that’s not the bad news.

The bad news is that leadership is hard. Being a better leader (and growing your business requires you to be leader) means not just learning, it means changing and growing. You. You need to change. You need to grow. And real growth involves facing those demons.

If I want to embrace the path to better leadership, I need to identify those demons, and vanquish them. This is no easy task. My fears, my need to control, my bogus convictions about myself and other people — this is the shape that some of my demons take. I see them in my clients as well. I know that they create deep problems that cannot be solved by the best employee or the right numbers. I have needed to face my issues, and keep facing them, in my own life. It is not easy. It isn’t even something I want to do. But I want to see the benefits of healthy leadership in my business; I am convinced that in order to see those benefits I need to commit myself to that grueling and sometimes ugly work. And so do you.

You need to do the hard work of recognizing your shortcomings, your weaknesses, your blindspots — things that have been holding you back since you were young — and facing them head on. Being a better leader means growing up, maturing (even if, by measure of years, you are already mature) and getting over yourself. For all of us, there are experiences that are hard, painful, things that we avoid. Leaders don’t avoid these things. Leaders don’t work around them, or pretend they don’t exist. If we are going to meet this challenge we can’t avoid them, we have to face them.

I recognize that this is the kind of post that business coaches tend to write at the start of a new year, and it’s a lot easier to talk about it than actually do it. How do I commit myself to being a better leader? What does that look like on a practical level? What demons are in my way? I’m too exhausted to even THINK about this! Don’t worry. This is exactly what we’ll be talking about in the coming weeks and months. So buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Are you in? How are you growing this year? Who’s pushing you to grow more?

Photo credit: @boetter (Flickr)


  1. What I learned, in big part thanks to your help, is that somewhere along the line I thought leading should get easier. It doesn’t. The hard work of accepting and driving change, the hard work of gaining consensus, the hard work of getting up when knocked down, that never ends. It’s not supposed to be easy. We have to put in the work. There is no shortcut to success.

    • Wish I could tell you different, but you are right.

      The silver lining in that is that all that work also makes you better able to handle challenges in other areas of life. I find that as leadership takes me to the end of my self I get the chance to “do my inner work” and come out the other side a person that has more capacity.

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