Suck it up, Buttercup! or: How I learned to stop worrying and give up control
As business leaders, we spend a lot of time and energy concerning ourselves with control: leading the team, steering projects, improving work habits, inspiring discipline and productivity. Most leaders put a lot of stock in being able to exert our wills upon others and wrestling every situation from the grips of chaos. All of this comes down to control.
After all, the very word “leader” describes a person who others follow. In the Western world, the ideal leader has long been seen as a strong and severe figure who pushes and drives. The word itself casts a very heavy emphasis on imposing control over other the people we work with. It’s why a lot of aspiring “leaders” seem to cherish the fantasy of being the “Captain of the Ship,” barking out orders, shoving through their agendas, and meting out strict discipline among the “crew.”
Let me give you an example from a real “captain” — a client who came to me for advice about some workforce problems he was having. The Captain was a strong-willed, confident leader. The sort of boss who commanded respect from his very presence, with a deep voice and an iron will. And he was good at his job, having guided his team to success after success.
Now, meet the crew: smart, savvy sales professionals who worked hard and had deep respect for the Captain and his command. Upon interview, I learned that they all felt inspired by their boss, in general, and for the most part, felt motivated by his leadership.
But the Captain had concerns: “Take last week for example,” he said. “An entire team showed up over an hour late for work. The whole team. They didn’t even phone in, and they know that punctuality is a core value of this business. They know it’s important to me that employees show up on time and ready to work.”
I interviewed the employees about this particular situation and, of course, heard a very different story: “We all stayed three hours late the night holding an important sales event. The event was a huge success, we landed two new clients, and we decided to reward ourselves by allowing ourselves a bit of a late start the next day. The boss didn’t even care about our success — he just wanted to bawl us out about being late for work. It seemed unfair.”
I confronted the Captain with his crew’s version of events: “I’m glad they had a great event, but that’s just part of their job. It doesn’t excuse them from the rules of the business, and they know I don’t encourage resting on one’s laurels.”
As I continued digging, I found out that the majority of the other sales teams were on the side of the crew, not the Captain, and I could tell that a lot of work hours were spent stewing over what was perceived as unappreciative harshness on the part of the Captain. This was one isolated event, but it was part of a greater impasse within the company. The men and women loved their leader, but they thought he was kind of a tyrant sometimes.
I asked the Captain what his primary concern was in this situation. “It’s about the productivity, and about keeping things orderly.”
I couldn’t help but retort: “Well, you have probably lost a lot more hours of productivity to the gossip and the resentment you’ve caused by your harsh reaction to them.”
“Look,” he said, with finality. “They know their responsibilities and they know we are all expected to hold ourselves to the same standard.”
So, they were at an impasse. A stellar, high-performing business was teetering on the brink of becoming a toxic workplace.
It’s in situations like these that we need to start thinking about when it’s time to give up control. That’s right. I said it. Sometimes, to get what you really want….productivity, in our Captain’s situation, you need to Give. Up. Control.
My daddy, in his Alabama Southern wisdom, had a lot of expressions that he threw around when I was growing up and that I find myself echoing well into my adulthood, and into my coaching of leaders and leadees. A lot of them revolved around a stoic appreciation for the fact that life ain’t perfect:
“It’s not your job to make everyone else just like you.”
As leaders, we sometimes get trapped in the idea that our job is to make other people think and behave just like ourselves. If there’s anything the diversity in the workplace movement has taught us, it’s that having a team of people who all think and act alike is poison. As a leader, you need to recognize that not everyone takes the same path to success. It’s just as important to make allowances for individual personalities, methodologies, and philosophies as it is for you to inspire others with your own.
“Worse things have happened to better people.”
If someone you work with does something that doesn’t line up with your vision of Professional Perfection, it’s not the end of the world…and it’s not about YOU. Human emotions have a tendency to go overboard, and we sometimes get caught up in feedback loops where we get more and more upset over small, inconsequential things. If you find yourself battling to take control of a situation, ask yourself: is fighting this fight really the most productive use of my time? Would giving up control over this small thing allow me to put more of my passion and my time into tackling a bigger problem or making a much more significant improvement somewhere else?
“Suck it up, Buttercup.”
Sometimes the strongest person is the one who gives up first. Sometimes the best leader is the person who realizes it’s less important to make other people do what they want them to do, and more important to build a team that wants to move forward in the same direction — even if some members of that team take a different path towards the final destination. Are your problems with other people really about their faults, or is it more about your pride and inflexibility? Isn’t there a teeny tiny possibility that you might be wrong? Or maybe nobody’s wrong; you just have different and equally effective ideas? It might be time to lose the battle so you can win the war. I know that idea stings a little. You’ll live, I promise.
So, back to the embattled Captain and nigh-mutinous crew. What’s the proper resolution to their problems? It really comes down to each individual.
For the Captain, he needed to make a decision. Was the occasional late start something he could live with? Or was it quite simply a deal-breaker, no matter how much success the team might achieve? This isn’t a glib question. It’s really a decision he had to make.
If it’s something he can live with, I advised, he would need to learn to bite his tongue and accept that sometimes a team will go against his will and roll in a little late after a hard day’s night.
If it’s a deal-breaker, he needs to express this clearly to his crew. If he’s unsuccessful in his attempt to influence their behavior, the decision becomes to (1) show them the door if they can’t comply, and search for employees who share his passion for walking into work at 8 o’clock on the dot, or (2) accept it, but don’t waste any more energy on it.
And to be fair to their fellow workers and to their stalwart Captain, the crew members would need to make a similar decision! Their only other options are to show up when the boss says to show up or shut up and take it when he deals out a dressing-down. They know the boss, they know the way he likes things, and it’s not fair to anyone for them to poison the well by moaning and sowing discord in the break room. Otherwise, if being able to celebrate a late-night triumph by catching some extra Z’s is vitally important to their wellbeing, they should put out some resumes and find a boss that accepts such celebratory sleep-ins.
Start paying attention to the professional battles you fight. Every time you feel yourself getting worked up and in conflict, ask yourself. Is this really worth it? Or am I wasting my energy? Are there better ways to pass the day? If you can swallow your pride and start looking at situations from beyond your ego, you might just find that you waste less energy and get a lot more done….wasn’t that the goal to with. And your crew may go from plotting your downfall in the belowdecks to singing shanties in your honor.
Not to reinvent the wheel (or helm as it were), I’ll borrow from our Catholic friends:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Whatever you decide to do, keep your eye on the horizon and don’t sink the ship!
In closing, and without all the maritime metaphors, I’ll leave you this, regardless of your role (leader or leadee), you need to exert influence in certain situations, and in others you need to suck it up, Buttercup.