Relief for Leaders–Understand What Keeps You Up at Night

lipkin book 17987524I couldn’t resist the invitation to write a post about Nicole Lipkin’s new book with this irresistible title: What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues. Having spent my own share of sleepless nights over the years, I could relate.

You’ve made it. You’re in charge. The lead is in your hands. It’s exciting and challenging, an opportunity to set direction, form a productive team, and impact the company.

Leaders set the tone and establish workplace culture. Their decisions affect employees individually and collectively along with the company’s customers, investors, and suppliers. It’s a big deal being the leader, sometimes bigger than we can fully grasp.

As leaders we get our real education about the scope and challenges of the job when things start to go wrong…not when things explode but when they start to erode.

Nagging concerns

As leaders we often get a sense that something isn’t quite right, but, gosh, if the work’s getting done, it can’t be that serious, right? But somehow we just can’t stop thinking about something we’ve done, observed, or heard that was unsettling. Whatever it is, it’s ours to handle.

In her new book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night, corporate psychologist Nicole Lipkin lipkin 6e4120eb91d40a7e9d9ac5_L__V388068734_SX200_targets eight of the most significant management issues that trouble us as leaders. Her focus is on the behaviors that drive both employees and leaders, building understanding through anecdotal situations, psychological studies, and remedies that we can adopt.

As leaders we make mistakes, some big and some small, some consciously and some unknowingly. To that Lipkin writes:

You can’t change what’s already happened, but you can change what you do next…I’ve learned that the solutions always begin with raising my self-awareness and helping others raise theirs.

So instead of self-flagellating, we need to step up to the plate and turn things around. Lipkin covers eight big issues that often plague leaders.Since I’ve written before about bad bosses,  I was drawn to this chapter:

I’m a Good Boss, So Why Do I Sometimes Act Like a Bad One?

Lipkin boils this issue down into three digestible bits. As the leader ask if you’re:

  • Too busy to win…Have I gotten so lost in the trees that I can no longer see the forest?
  • Too proud to see…Letting yourself get so tied to an idea that you won’t let it go.
  • Too afraid to lose…Question and second-guess every step along the way.

The consequences of failing to resolve this management issue are major, so facing your contribution to the problem is key.  Lipkin writes:

Self-awareness begins with admitting that you are human…your natural neurological and psychological make-up must cope with huge pressures….You see what you want to see.

Just pausing to cast an objective eye on your maladaptive or unproductive behavior or asking a trusted ally to tell you the honest truth…can get you back on track.

I have also written about the importance of managing expectations in the workplace, especially by bosses, so I was especially interested in her chapter on this sleep-threatening issue:

What Causes a Star to Fade?

Whenever we take a job or get a promotion, we start with great expectations of what the opportunity will contribute to our careers. In this chapter on the importance of employee engagement, Lipkin writes:

Every company and every boss enters into a psychological contract with their employees…an individual’s beliefs about the mutual obligations that exist between the employee and the employer.

When promises are known or perceived  by employees to be broken, they choose actions, as Lipkin notes, that fall into four broad categories:

  • Exit: Leaving or planning to leave the organization
  • Voice: Speaking up to address the breach with superiors, co-workers….
  • Loyalty: Suffering in silence and hoping the problem will solve itself
  • Neglect: Making a half-hearted effort to do the work

Each of these can negatively affect the business and induce a leader’s sleepless night.

And there’s more. Nicole Lipkin covers these questions too:

  • Why Don’t People Heed My Sage Advice?
  • Why Do I Lose My Cool in Hot Situations?
  • Why Does a Good Fight Sometimes Go Bad?
  • Why Can Ambition Sabotage Success?
  • Why Do People Resist Change?
  • Why Do Good Teams Go Bad?

Bedside reading.

I like a book that I can turn to easily when an issue jolts me into wakefulness. Lipkin’s book is an easy reference for her eight knotty problems. The psychological concepts are written in lay terms and posed in practical situations. Reading adds to our awareness and gives us tools to solve the problems unique to us.The right book and a handy nightlight can be trusty aids to restore our sleep.

Is There an Invisible Leader in You? | Examples from the Egyptian Protesters

Leadership is first about caring. That’s what the good leaders do. They care about us, the customers, the product, our community, and doing the right thing. 

Leadership is also about power, particularly the power to influence and create change. When leaders use power in an uncaring, self-serving way, we’re put off. 

Power is a byproduct of leadership.  

That’s because when we lead effectively, people follow. The more followers the greater our influence, impact, and leverage. Willing followers entrust their leaders with the power to do right things. 

A follower’s role, however, can change in a split second. 

Especially when crisis hits 

What do you do? Every day company crises are in the news:   

  • A building collapses from tons of snow on its roof
  • A disgruntled employee shoots his coworkers
  • The computer system crashes, cutting the company off from customers 

This is when rank and file employees rush forward to take charge. They assess the problem, organize a fix, lead people out of harms way, and mobilize resources.

It’s not the “big wigs” that do this. They’re likely in another building or simply too far removed from the situation to jump into the fray. This is when the “invisible leaders” show up. 

The origin of invisible leaders 

Situational, frontline leaders are everywhere. We’re focused on them now, in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square in Egypt, where peaceful anti-government protesters are seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.   

This protest is considered a leaderless movement that came together through electronic communication. 

What we’re aware of but don’t see are invisible leaders who operate within the throngs of protesters.  Whoever they are, these everyday, caring leaders have stepped up to organize: 

  • Medically trained people to set up treatment units for the injured
  • Groups of people to form security check points to make sure no one comes into the square with a bomb
  • A communications office to keep protesters informed 

Then there were the ad hoc efforts from invisible leaders like: 

  • Butchers in Cairo who sell meat on credit until citizens can get back to work
  • Grocers who’ve slashed prices to help their customers pay for food and even delivered staples to those too afraid to leave their homes   

Other amazing things happened. Helen Kennedy from the Daily News (February 7, 2011) reported: 

“On Friday, the holy day for Islam, Christian protesters in Tahrir joined hands to form a protective cordon around their Muslim countrymen so they could pray in safety.

 Sunday, the Muslims returned the favor.”

Some caring invisible leader(s) organized that initiative.

Then there’s Wael Ghonim, a reluctant leader within the protest, made invisible for a while. As Joshua Norman writes in his NY Daily News article, Ghonim “was Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa when he was secretly taken by police and held in detention just after protests began.”

According to Norman, “While no official reason for his 12-day detention was given, Ghonim has admitted to being the administrator of the Facebook page ‘We Are All Khaled Said,’ dedicated to the memory of a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by the police….” He also used Twitter to help organize and energize the protesters.

If and when Mubarak would step down, the movement will need to surface visible, caring leaders that Egypt will follow.

Followers that make leaders and can also unmake them.

Great leaders make sacrifices for their followers even as they ask for sacrifices. They rely on invisible leaders and followers to be the backbone of the company or the cause.

Great leaders realize that their ability to lead effectively comes from us. When leaders forget that, they place the security of their positions at risk.

As you think about your work, ask yourself what would propel you to take the lead when the chips were down. You might surprise yourself.


When the Boss Is Out to Lunch, Share a Dish of Calamity.


Bosses are supposed to avert workplace calamity not cause it by being indecisive, indifferent, or disinterested!

Too many bosses insulate themselves from the real work their employees do, believing that it’s somehow not relevant to their job. They would be wildly wrong.

The price of neglect 

There’s nothing pretty about arms-length leadership. It frustrates employees and leads to problems. Employees pay up front and the bosses later, if at all.

I saw this firsthand when I spent a day in the field with Ed, an electric utility company serviceman in my department. At the time I was the new director of customer service where overdue accounts receivable were through the roof. I was supposed to fix that. “Really?” I thought.

For starters, the company needed to terminate electric service for accounts seriously in arrears, particularly businesses, in accordance with regulatory and fairness standards.

Part of Ed’s job was to collect or cut service, and I needed to see how the process worked. That day we had a cut order for an Italian restaurant that had defaulted on its payment arrangements several times.

We arrived to discover the owner was not there, even though he knew we were coming. It was about an hour before the lunch crowd was expected, so employees were scurrying to get things set up.

We told the restaurant supervisor what we were there to do. Once the employees heard, they started pulling out all the stops to get prepared.

To locate the meter, Ed and I had to walk through the kitchen past pots of marinara sauce and down a rickety staircase into a dark cellar divided into eight storage cages. That made me pretty nervous!

When Ed had found the meter, he yelled upstairs, “Are…you…ready?”

“Wait,” someone yelled, “we have to get the fish back into the freezer.”

A couple minutes passed before we got their okay, and everything went black.

We followed our flashlight back upstairs to find employees still doing what they could to protect the food and figure out how to handle things over lunch.

The supervisor knew we needed a check from the owner to restore service. He was making frantic phone calls trying to reach him. We explained that we’d be back early afternoon and hopefully he’d have a check for us.

When we returned, the owner still hadn’t been reached. The supervisor handed us a signed check for $500.00 made out to Sal’s Seafood. He’d crossed out the fish store’s name and wrote in the electric company’s. I really felt for him, but that wouldn’t fly.

It’s about being there. 

When that restaurant owner heard this story, he likely shrugged it off, making the utility company the bad guy. He wouldn’t be able to relate to how stricken his employees felt when the lights went out. He won’t have heard the complaints from his customers or seen them leave.

He might, in fact, have blamed his supervisor for being unable to talk us out of cutting the power. He probably wouldn’t praise his staff for saving his food inventory or finding a way to appease his customers.

When leaders aren’t in the thick of things, seeing them firsthand and internalizing their impacts, they never really get it. For proof of that, one episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss should be enough.

Frontline employees are the business.

The people who do the work are the business. Executives and managers direct. First-line supervisors and frontline employees deliver. When things go wrong, they’re the ones that execute the fix.

Arms-length leaders and owners are a liability to their companies. They drive employees out, discourage engagement, and compromise the health of the business.

Every owner and manager needs to get out from behind his/her desk and spend time with employees, seeing what they’re seeing, understanding what they’re doing, and finding ways to remove obstacles.

How about scheduling a day a month with one or two of your employees starting now? Or invite your boss to see what you do? You’ll never regret it!

Has there been an arms-length boss in your work life? I’m all ears!


It’s Scandalous! Leaders Who Don’t Lead | Taking Issue

Why does this happen?  Career-minded people knock themselves out to achieve positions of leadership. But when they get there, they don’t lead or just get it very wrong. That’s the scandal!

We expect our leaders to lead, not just sit in their offices waiting to be addressed as Your Leadness!

Leadership isn’t a crown.  

There’s a big allure about “position power.” Why? Because it comes with more money, a better parking spot, a private office, and more employees. This makes us feel important. It’s like getting a spa treatment for our egos!

Our employees want to see how we’ll use our “power.” They’re waiting for their leaders to do things that will inspire them to dig deeper, perform better, excite creativity, protect and benefit them.

We want leaders who respect us as followers not treat us like subjects!

Leading is real work!

Leadership is the actual job! With or without a swanky title, when other people look to you for direction, then your job is to lead.

Considering all that’s been written about leadership, simply speaking, here’s what it takes to be a good leader:

Define reality for your employees—Explain the good, the bad, and the ugly about what’s impacting them from inside and outside the organization. Don’t sugar coat and don’t create panic either. Build balanced, fact-based understanding.

Remove obstacles—Listen to what employees say about impediments to their performance. Clear away that debris. Deflect outside requests that will interfere with their work, especially knee-jerk ideas from upper management that can throw things off course.

Be there—Show up. Learn your employee’s names and something about each one. Ask for their ideas. Participate periodically in group and individual dialogue.   Let them know you’re their ally, working for them!

Communicate relentlessly—Talk to employees about the challenges you’re dealing with, issues you’re trying to balance, information you’re trying to get a handle on. When employees understand how decisions evolve, they’re better able to accept changes that affect them.

Make decisions—Take a position, intervene, and resolve things expeditiously. Don’t waiver and don’t delay. Be willing to change your decision when you’re wrong. Leaders need to keep the ball rolling.

Good leaders are a gift. Bad ones are an albatross. If it were easy to be good, every leader would be.

How do you stack up?

If you want to know if you’re a good leader, look around. Are employees following you because they want to or because they’re stuck with you?

Here are a few leaders who missed the mark:

The new CEO of an intensely mission-focused, non-profit reorganized, displacing a number of employees. He took off for a global business trip one week before the affected employees were notified, making him unavailable for any questions. It was clear he didn’t intend to “be there” for his employees.

The vice president of a financially strapped, non-profit had been fully involved in decision-making with her CEO to save the agency. The VP typically hid in her office, avoiding interaction with her employees. When she had to communicate the changes, instead of owning them, she blamed the decisions solely on the CEO.  It didn’t take long for the truth to come out.

The senior leadership of a major corporation routinely promoted “favorite sons and daughters” to lofty positions. When their leadership didn’t deliver expected results, they pointed the finger at their department managers, making them scapegoats. This is all it takes to crush a band of followers!

Leadership is a moral obligation. 

If no one is following, you aren’t leading. It’s as simple as that! If you’ve never read, Leadership Is An Art by Max DePree, now’s the time. 

Taking the lead is a business fitness smart move—a public one. When you lead, everyone sees what you do and who you are. Let your legacy as a leader be an exemplary one and not scandal. Go on…make yourself proud!

What’s been the worst example of scandalous leadership that you’ve experienced? What was the outcome? Thanks for sharing, as always!