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Overcoming Your Leadership Limitations
Author: Jerry R. Strom   Published

  When it comes to developing your leadership abilities, there are obstacles along the way — limiting factors that impede your progress. Since few organizations dedicate the time and resources to fully grow their people as leaders, much of your momentum in leadership will be up to you.

So what will you likely run into? And what should you do?

Those two questions were the driving force behind our year-and-a-half research study involving 472 senior leaders, managers, supervisors, and key non-supervisory employees representing a wide variety of organizations across the U.S.

We wanted to find out, "What's the One Most Important Thing You're Missing in Your Development as a Leader?" As a result, we identified the most common developmental limitations in our “Limiting Factors Leadership Study,” and determined that three primary and a dozen significant constraints were present in today’s work environment.

The First Limitation — Opportunity

  The very top concern is the lack of opportunities to lead. This singular aspect captured 14.2% of all responses, and represented 31% more mentions than the second most common limitation (by a large margin, this was the largest gap between all of the answers ranked in the study).

Lack of leadership opportunities can be subdivided into the following:

  1. People need practice leading — opportunities to apply the things they’ve learned in various training programs, as well as the chance to learn from mistakes made. New people in leadership roles realize that time will help cure their inexperience as they face new challenges and unique situations which allow them to grow and prove themselves. True learning involves doing and allows for more accurate personal assessments. “We get a chance to practice everything else — musical instruments, dance, sports, but we lack experience dealing with work situations, because we’ve never been given the chance to practice.”

  2. Small teams stifle growth — small working groups, the lack of staff, and jobs which rely on a few individual contributors constrain the emergence of competent leaders because interactions with others are so limited. Lack of upward mobility in their present position, being pigeon-holed, or facing biases against promoting from within, impede advancement. On the flip-side, cross-functional teams and other diverse groups offer valuable insights and experiences. “I don’t think I’ve experienced a big decision-point, or crucible, that tested my leadership skills at work.”

  3. Bosses who give too much direction or hold people back suffocate employees — the lack of freedom to experiment and figure things out for oneself throttles their ability to think and act in new, more effective ways. Letting go, distributing authority, and delegating appropriately is hard for many of those in charge. “We should be leading people without having concerns about being undermined or directionally challenged by those in power above us.”

  4. New teachable-moments are needed for growth — many employees use their skills in a very narrow capacity, repeatedly performing a specific task(s) with little variety. Leadership growth necessitates opportunities and experiences allowing individuals to deal with larger organizational issues, widen their scope and be involved with new things beyond their own personal production. “I’ve been looking for an opportunity to engage in a formal leadership role at work, so that I could express the things I’ve learned, and brought to the job.”

The Second Limitation is Mentoring

  Next, the second most recognized limitation is the lack of mentoring available at work, with nearly 10% of those surveyed suggesting the absence of a mentor was holding them back from becoming a more capable leader, and productive employee.

Their hope is that their organization will formally endorse and structure these types of mentoring relationships and processes into the regular course of doing business. This would foster a culture of individual advancement and support; and give each employee another set of eyes, expanded perspectives, a valuable role model and example, as well as helpful feedback.

In contrast, it's suggested that mentorship is often discouraged by the reluctance of current leaders to make the changes or adaptations to the organization that would necessarily result from a more widely-engaged workforce. Additionally, current leaders may not be particularly good mentors, while supervisors may fail on two extremes — micromanaging and not standing with the employee, but standing over them – or being so content with an employee’s performance that he/she doesn’t feel the need to groom them.

Leaders are seen as overly focusing on themselves — failing to take an interest in other people and their careers. “Failure to make time results in mentoring focused more on negative experiences and task-related post analysis.”

The developmental desire uncovered in our survey is captured in this comment, “I want my leader to mentor and coach me on what she does; how she plans, organizes, assesses, implements, and evaluates the projects she has. I want to follow her to see things from her perspective. I want to learn how she prioritizes, problem-solves, delegates, and finally makes decisions strategically. I want to see the big picture of our organization through her eyes.”

Third — The Limitation of Time

  The third limitation is time. Research shows the third largest group of respondents indicate they believe they lack time, which causes a huge short-fall to leadership development on the job.

Time is seen as the enemy of growth, “We’re consumed with day-to-day duties, juggling multiple programs and assignments, endless meetings, distractions, too many projects, we can’t do everything, email is overwhelming, we need more time in the day.” All of these descriptions of time constraints paint a hopeless picture of frustration, stress, and lack of control over what employees do, and when and how they do it.

The root is that task accomplishment wins-out over a developmental desire/mindset, to the detriment of the organization and the individual.

“With more time I would be able to evaluate all possible solutions, come up with creative ideas, and be flexible to change when we find something better. I can give better service and support to my staff and put their problems, needs, and requests for help above my own. I can do the things I know I should be doing.”

The logical solution to this problem is to merge the two — development and task-accomplishment – by going about your daily work in a way that emphasizes personal growth. Seen in that light, work becomes a continual process of progress — by serving the person as opposed to serving things. Time can be either ally or enemy, depending on how it’s viewed and emphasized.

Overcoming These Limitations

  Statements like, “I retire in 20 months, who knows what I could have done if I had leadership training when I first came,” help us recognize employees may over-rely on their organizations to satisfy their developmental needs over the course of their careers. They, and their bosses, may have little energy left for developmental efforts after expending it all in satisfying the demands of their daily tasks and work assignments.

Our conclusion is that employees themselves must take a proactive role in their own growth and strive to meet their developmental aspirations by overcoming common limitations. The obstacles in this study are certainly not insurmountable, and fall into three common categories: experiential, intellectual, and attitudinal. Simple adjustments can be made to one’s regular activities which will address limitations in each area as workers succeed in small steps each day, week, and month.

And from the point-of-view of management, “Existing leaders must consciously, and regularly work in a holistic manner to expand the capacity of their workers, not just tend to the bottom-line.”

Here’s what to do:

    Employee: ‘Volunteer’ for new or extra assignments. Opportunities appear when you do. Understand what your boss would like to accomplish, and step forward to help him/her be successful.

  Boss: ‘Find Diversity' in work assignments that challenge your people in new ways.

    Employee: ‘Identify’ changes that positively affect the way work is produced and are strategically significant to the organization. Offer to lead the implementation and refine processes.

  Boss: ‘Be Receptive’ to ideas that are presented which stretch your group to perform in unique ways.

    Employee: ‘Go Big on Relationships.’ Get people together by connecting small teams with other groups to foster interactions and cooperative efforts which benefit the organization as a whole. Here’s where you can enlarge your influence, and demonstrate your capabilities.

  Boss: ‘Promote’ how these transformational inter-workings help everyone, and lead to healthy collaboration.

    Employee: ‘Build’ your track record. Trust and credibility grows from success in small things and leads to larger opportunities and greater freedom in determining how they’re done.

  Boss: ‘Value’ the energy and results that are produced when people are growing, engaged, and contributing.

  Managing your career, and assuring your growth as a leader, requires you to go above and beyond your organization’s developmental initiatives, by controlling your own efforts and challenging yourself to overcome real and perceived limitations.

The ‘Limiting Factors Leadership Study’ shows that meaningful progress at work is squarely in your own hands. Regularly address your shortfalls, because limitations can only get in your way if you fail to face them, and unconsciously place yourself on “the wait list.”


J e r r y   S t r o m   &   C o . ,   I n c .

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The 'Limiting Factors Leadership Study' was compiled from qualitative information collected by written surveys which were completed by 472 respondents over a period between March 2011 through August 2012. These senior leaders, managers, supervisors and key employees represented organizations spread across the continental U.S., and Hawaii. Participants were ethnically diverse; and varied widely in their levels of career experience, and job occupations.

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