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Yeah, I’ll confess: I’m an engineer.

So it’s fascinating to me that I’m much deeper now into the “people side” of business. I love that people are SO much more challenging to work with!

A never ending cascade of depth and complication. But my engineering side does come out, because I tend to see everything as a process which can be designed and improved.

If only people were that simple.

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Sometimes it’s your job to communicate the bad news. It might be one of the toughest things you have to do.

There are plenty of resources which give great advice for doing this in personal circumstances, like when you have to say that a loved one has died. But I’m surprised that there isn’t as much help for doing this in the work context.

Over the years I’ve had to both receive and give bad news on the job, sometimes on the same day. I thought I’d share some principles which have helped me.

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Your employees and partners are looking to you for direction. Perhaps you’re also looking for direction “upstairs”, whether that’s bosses, industry leaders, regulators, or whoever.

But there are many ways that top-down direction can fail:

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My article last week got me reflecting more about ambiguity in general. Because it’s not just about risk analysis, but dealing in an environment which is unpredictable. Where every action – or inaction – can lead to unexpected results.

It feels more important right now, because the whole world seems more unpredictable than before. But I would argue that it’s not substantially different than before, and in fact things are stabilizing after surviving the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic experience.

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By now you’ve probably heard the term “quiet quitting.” It describes an employee who’s just putting in the time and doing the bare minimum.

It’s not a new concept, though. I’ve known many disengaged employees (or volunteers or partners) over the course of my career. So I’m not sure if the number has increased.

Or maybe we just created a term for it.

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You’ve been working hard on this impending change. You worked out the kinks, and you figured out what order you need to talk to people. Managers first, then key employees, then key partners, then the broader population.

And you’ve been getting your mind around this for – what, three months now? Seems like it’s taken forever. But we’re almost ready to make the Big Announcement and move forward.

After screwing this up many times, I finally learned a lesson. And it’s very simple:

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Being a leader can be lonely. You feel like you are being watched all the time and you have to act like you have it all together.

I get that.

But here’s the challenge: to ask for help when you need it. Which takes a little vulnerability.

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It’s taken me many years to develop my ability to empathize with other people. I tend to think of myself as analytical and goal driven, and relating to people isn’t my natural strength.

Taking my first management job, and later increasing my scope, caused me to realize that results are achieved only through the team I lead. After my corporate job I focused on coaching, helping my clients to develop deeper skills of leadership, influence, and driving results.

I’ve learned that the core skill of leading people is simply empathy. It seems a bit weird because it’s not me driving someone else, the way we usually think about leadership.

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True leaders understand that their role is to serve others.

That sounds like a contradiction, right? When we think of the typical boss/employee model, it’s very clear which direction serving should go.

You’re the boss, and others aren’t. So they should serve you.

The reality is that this isn’t sustainable.

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We tend to think of leadership as something you achieve, then you get to keep it forever. Or at least a long time.

But I’m a member of an amazing service organization, Rotary International, which has the practice of changing leadership every year. I’m signed up to be the president of the club for the 2023-24 year, and I’m starting to get my mind wrapped around the implications of that. And trying not to get stressed out about it.

But I’m keenly aware that I’m just a temporary seatholder in a long string of leaders, going back to 1977 for our club. It’s a humbling realization.

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