Leadership Is Freakin' Hard

One global study of 2,422 millennials showed that less than 20% of them desire to be a leader at a large organization. Why? Because they view the traditional role of a leader as one that places too much emphasis on profits and production, and not enough on developing people or contributing to societal good.
08/18/2015 05:49 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2016

Congratulations! You've become a leader! At last, your ideas will be listened to, valued and heeded. People will finally take you seriously. Now your impact, influence, and income will grow.

Ah, the life of leader. Issuing orders. Imparting wisdom. Developing underlings. Effecting results. Reaping rewards. After all those years slogging it out in the trenches, you finally get to be in charge...where you belong.

But before you put on your leader cape and start saving people from their own destruction, there's something you need to know. Something that most leadership books gloss over or avoid altogether. Something that will shift your perspective, temper your idealism, and keep your leadership centered. Leadership is freakin' hard.

So What's the Problem?
Leadership that's hard is leadership that's unattractive. One global study of 2,422 millennials showed that less than 20% of them desire to be a leader at a large organization. Why? Because they view the traditional role of a leader as one that places too much emphasis on profits and production, and not enough on developing people or contributing to societal good. To them, launching their own venture is vastly more attractive than working in a large organization, with 70% viewing entrepreneurship as the preferred career path. The thought of leading in a large organization, from their perspective, is as sane as living in a Dilbert cartoon.

People need to believe in leadership again. Attracting and inspiring future generations of leaders will require a more grounded, realistic, and authentic view of leadership. Budding leaders don't need any more advice from celebrity leaders, politicians, or sports heroes. They don't need a toolkit for breaking into the corner office. They don't need any more cotton candy leadership platitudes. They don't need more tips for moving from good to great. The starting point for new leaders isn't "good", its "Holy crap! What have I gotten into?!"

What's So Hard about Leading?
Good leaders nearly always start out as bad leaders. They become more effective by first becoming less ineffective. Doing that requires a careful understanding of what makes leadership so freak'n hard.

  • Adults Are Big Babies: You lead people, and people are fickle, quirky, and often petty. Adults are just grown up kids wearing bigger clothes and sporting larger and more fragile egos. Yes, they can also be smart, passionate, and upstanding. But on any given day, in any given work situation, it is hard to predict which people are going to act like adults and which are going to act like whiney, sniveling, irritable babies. Some people will respond to your feedback receptively, others will stew with resentment. Many days you'll be the biggest baby in the room. Usually when you think everyone around you are acting like babies.

  • Demands Are Relentless, Unforgiving Bastards: You're only deemed successful as a leader if you get results. The drive to produce results is incessant. No matter how well you do this quarter, or with this project, or with this customer, you'll be expected to do more and better next time. Your reputation is always on the line. You'll go through a lot of antacids.
  • Making People Uncomfortable is Your Job: People are comfort-seeking creatures. But because people grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort, the harsh reality is, your job as a leader is to make people uncomfortable. But guess what? People get mighty upset when you make them uncomfortable.
  • The Cavalry Isn't Coming: You'll often feel under siege by the challenges you're facing. Regardless, you'll be expected to bring them to resolution - without the aid of a handbook. With no cavalry to rescue you, you're forced to grope your way through, often making things up as you go along. Often you'll feel like a fake on the inside while portraying confidence on the outside.
  • The Biggest Problem is Mostly You: Leaders often get in their own way by being overly judgmental, holding people to unrealistic standards, and caring more for results than people. When results suffer, leaders often resort to intensifying these kinds of behaviors, negatively impacting performance, loyalty, and morale.
  • Leadership is Crazy Good!

    So why put yourself through all the hardship and criticism? The answer is found in the most satisfying result of a leader's impact: more leadership.

    In my work as an author and leadership consultant, I've had the privilege of working with thousands of leaders throughout the world. One question I often ask leaders is this: At the end of your leadership career, what will have made the challenge of leadership all worthwhile? By far the most frequent answer goes something like this: "I will have built other leaders who themselves are building other leaders."

    When you are privileged to be lead others, your influence can impact the trajectories of people's entire careers, potentially helping them become more courageous, just and humane. When done right, the best of you may bring out the best in others. In the process, they may become inspired to lead too. The pain associated with enduring the hardships of leading others is offset by the satisfaction of making a positive difference for the people and organization you serve.

    Starting with a presumption that leadership is hard helps to mitigate over-confidence, inspire earnest preparation, and activate a deeper and more authentic commitment to lead. Ultimately, by soberly and thoughtfully assessing how freakin' hard leadership is, you'll stop freaking out about having to lead.

    Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting. In 2014 his newest book, Leaders Open Doors, became the top-selling leadership training book on Amazon. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. Bill's clients include NASA, CDC, UBS Bank, Spanx, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at www.billtreasurer.com.