Leadership: Challenges and Rewards

Webinar presented for PLAN – March 4, 2020


Welcome to the March PLAN leadership webinar series.  My name is Doug Crane, and I serve as Director of the Palm Beach County Library System.  In my role I oversee an organization with over 448 permanent employee positions and approximately 100 student positions.  My system has a budget of $68 million dollars to allocate across 17 library locations, a support facility, and a bookmobile. 

Are You a Leader?

Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com

Today we are going to start the first in a series of talks about leadership. How many of you consider yourself to be a leader?  How many of you are currently in a leadership position?  What is your comfort level with being a leader? The truth is that we all lead at least one person, ourselves!  We also lead people in teams and projects, even when we are not their direct supervisor.  We may also have to take the lead in resolving situations that arise at work and make policy based decisions on the fly.  Leadership then can happen anytime, anywhere regardless of our formal position.

What is Leadership?

What do we mean by leadership?  Let’s start with a definition of leadership, provided by our friends at Merriam Webster:

  • 1 : the office or position of a leader
  • 2 : capacity to lead
  • 3 : the act or an instance of leading
  • 4 : leaders

Most people when they think of leadership probably start with the positional definition.  However, according to author John Maxwell in his book, The Five Levels of Leadership, position is the weakest form of leadership.  Deeper leadership seems to dwell more on the level of capacity, influence and action. 

Let’s Be Frank – Leadership Is Not For Everyone

“Leadership has long-since subscribed to the belief that the best way to reward and keep the keepers is to give them other people to keep watch over. It’s just the way the weird world of work works.”
– Jodi Wellman, Forbes Article, What If You Don’t Want To Be A Leader

Before I take any more of your time, let’s me do something that few other courses deliberately do – persuade you to give up right now!  To be blunt, there are many reasons why you do not want to become a leader.

1/ Leaders are Exposed

A leader assumes responsibility for the team’s actions and accomplishments, but there are many factors they have no control over.  Often, leaders have to make decisions in the face of limited information.  Whether it is bad luck, environmental conditions, mistakes by team members, or just simply running into more talented and eager competition, the leader often gets more of the blame for their decisions than is warranted by the actual circumstances.  A leader’s mistake are often out there for the whole organization to see.

2/ Leadership is Isolating

Leaders can become socially isolated from their colleagues, especially when they take on a positional leadership role.  The leader may not be invited for a coffee at Starbucks, or given an invitation to a staff after hours party. This can be especially painful if the new leader was promoted over their current work group.  Colleagues who were once friends may be careful that the new leader is now their supervisor.  Some might be bitter about missing out on the promotion themselves.  With the new level of authority comes a new level of separation.

3/ Leadership is Extra Work

Quite often leaders not only have to do their regular job, but by default take on extra work.  For example, the project leader needs to report to upper management, resolve disputes between team members, and work with other divisions to resolve problems.  This leads to time pressures and lots of stress.  Leaders need to stay until the work is done and must resolve any negative consequences that occur.

4/ Leadership is Psychologically Tough

Being a leader means making decisions that affect the welfare of the group in the face of organizational objectives.  This is especially true when a leader must make an unpopular decision. Think of cases where a leader must lay off good employees and old friends in order to keep the company afloat.  There is no way to soften the blow when colleagues feel betrayed and relationships are destroyed by a tough call.  Often leaders take the weight of these decision home with them, so they never quite leave the office mentally.  This can lead to restless nights.

5/ Leaders Must Work With Challenging People

Leadership means that people are being overseen.  Quite often the leader is working day in and day out to overcome mundane hurdles that really try their patience.  For example, few leadership training courses prepare leaders to manage:

  • People complaining about their schedule because they have to work an unexpected weekend.
  • Staff upset about the coworker who always burns the popcorn in the break room.
  • The passive aggressive colleague who thinks all bosses are the enemy.

It often seems that foolish and silly things take up a leader’s valuable time and energy.  When all is said and done, leading others can be thankless, tiresome, and taxing work. 

Did I scare you away from leadership yet? To be honest, many people would stay happier as a follower since the higher pay rarely compensates for the psychological burden of leading others.

The Government Difference

As well, here’s another thing to consider. While many aspects of leadership apply no matter what the organization, leaders in government and non-profit sectors such as education, often face their own set of challenges different from the private sector.  Here are a few examples:

1/ Employee Retention

Oftentimes, government employees have job protections well beyond the private sector.  For example, in my County new employees who pass their one year probation period immediately gain merit rights that prevent immediate dismissal.  Employees have a grievance process, pre-term hearings, and appeals to a labor board before they are fully terminated.  This means that poorly performing employees can remain in an organization for a long time.

2/ Open to Public Inspection

Most government documentation is subject to public record requests. This means that all correspondence, memos, and reports can be requested by the media or staff themselves.  While a private company can hide disagreements from the public eye, governments must supply these records upon request.  With the extra scrutiny, problems may be sensationalized very quickly through media attention.

3/ Limited Compensation/Reward Options

While the private sector has a lot of flexibility to provide bonus and raises based on performance, most government payment plans are based on seniority and fixed pay grades.  This may lead some employees to see little value in giving it there all, since they get the same pay as the employees who are sub par.  With pay set by elected officials, making it a political question, leaders may have almost no ability to provide financial based incentives to employees doing high quality work.  

It’s Not All Bad – Reasons to Be a Leader

So should we end the webinar now?  If you are still watching, it might be that you are aware that leadership has rewards, otherwise no one would do it.  So let’s identify some key benefits now:

1/ Financial Rewards

Leadership positions typically pay more money or provide improved benefits.  However, one should be careful about moving into a leadership position simply for a bigger pay check.  When people with limited skill and awareness take leadership positions, it can often end in frustration for both the leader and the followers.  

2/ Growth Opportunities

Leadership offers opportunities for personal growth.  Many times this happens on the job as challenging and novel situations appear and must be resolved.  However, a good leader should create a strategy to hone their skills through focused development opportunities, from webinars to workshops to courses.  Leaders who have a growth mindset tend to make the most out of their experience.

3/ Leading Through Purpose

When an inspired leader is matched with an organization that mirrors their beliefs, it creates a powerful dynamic.  Anyone who feels like they are living on purpose receives internal rewards greater than any pay check can deliver.  When on purpose, leaders can bring their visions to life and inspire others to join in.

4/ Leaders Set the Culture

While culture is the sum of the beliefs and behavior of everyone in the organization, leaders have an amplifying effect.  A leader’s tone and style provide guidance for everyone in the organization to model.  A powerful leader helps create an environment where innovation, excitement, and kindness can thrive.  So leaders who in their hearts care about the people in the organization and those who they serve, it becomes natural for them to want to lead.

Six Tips for the Leadership Path

So if you are still interested in starting the leadership journey, or you are already committed to the role beyond the point of no return, here are six simple starter steps for the leadership path.

1/ Take a Personality Test

The first step for any aspiring leader is to become more self aware.  One way to learn more about your preferences and viewpoints is by taking a personality profiling test.  Some examples of these tests include Myers-Briggs, The Big Five, and True Colors.  Take more than one test to give yourself a broader perspective.  Some tests cost money while others are free.  Whichever you do, understand the results may reflect your default ways, but they are not destiny.  A personality test is a starting point for self examination, not an end in itself.

2/ Clarify Your Leadership Style

Why do you want to be a leader?  It could be to bring a big vision to life, resolve an organizational need, or simply to make your community a better place.  What are your strongest leadership skills?  Where do you need to grow as a leader?  Why would anyone want to follow you?  It may help to write the answers down and create your own leadership manifesto.  There are many free tests to give you insight on your leadership style.  One example is from the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

3/ Reflect on Favorite Leaders

We have all had personal experience working with people who are strong leaders.  Select one or more people whom you have personally worked with and reflect on their leadership qualities.  Then write down answers to these questions:

  • How do they solve problems?  
  • How do they interact with people?  
  • What skills did they possess that help them succeed at work?

Since everyone is human, you can also note if they have any obvious short comings?  

While this exercise is best done with people whom you have personally known, it can also work with famous leaders both past and present.  Take time to read the biographies and leadership lessons of successful folks such as George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., or Sheryl Sandberg to pick up new insights.

4/ Talk with Current Leaders

There is no faster way to improve your knowledge of leadership than to talk with active leaders.  When I became Library Director, I reached out to other Directors across the country to talk with them about the job.  The amount of knowledge gleaned from these conversations proved greater than the sum of any leadership course.  Connecting with current leaders builds your network and may lead to a mentoring relationship.  It also can provide valuable lessons on what worked for others and what didn’t.  I ended up producing two articles on these conversations that were published in Public Libraries Magazine.  Links are available on my web site articles page.

5/ Learn to Listen

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

While we often think about leaders in terms of sweeping oratory or gritty perseverance, but quite often the true value of a leader comes in their ability to listen.  Listening impacts on many levels.  It creates connections with your colleagues, it helps when identifying solutions to problems, it resolves tensions and facilitates deeper understanding.  Years ago I participated in a spiritual retreat called an Enlightenment Intensive, where participants spent a whole long weekend taking turns communicating and listening in a dyad setting.  Taking the retreat multiple times deepened my listening skills.  When people know you are listening your impact as a leader is magnified.  A good summary of listening tips for the workplace can be found in this Forbes article.

6/ Don’t Be a Jerk!

Above all else, an aspiring leader should avoid a decent into narcissism.  Leaders who see themselves as standing above those whom they serve may be moving along a path to ruin. 

Simon Sinek summed it up in his book, Leaders Eat Last:

“The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.” 

Leaders who are jerks may be feared, but are rarely loved.


So now that you have decided to be a leader and have taken your first steps on the leadership path, what happens next?  As a leader we work with many different types of people, so the next stage resolves around building a diverse team.  Tune in next week to learn more.