Leader’s Dilemma

November 8, 2011

Filed under: General — Luis A. Martinez @

Book signong, WegmansRecently, during a conversation with a friend about her struggle to convincingly define her space and appropriate sphere of influence within a large not for profit organization, I reminisced about various milestones in my own ascent to management and leadership.

My friend, we’ll call her Katy, has been rising steadily in her organization over the last seven years. She is now in charge of the largest portion of budget and headcount in her area office. Katy has climbed steadily to that platform by dint of her extraordinary performance and reliable results. Yet, her senior leader seems bent on bestowing title and salary on one of Katy’s peers who functions largely by total delegation (“dumping”) and braggart persona while manifesting mediocre to poor results.

Katy and I met for coffee. After getting an update about her current condition, I remarked: “Katy, leadership is a lonely road.” I remember clearly when, just after grad school in my early 20’s, I was working as a guidance counselor in a downtown school district. One of the Union teachers approached me and advised me that I was earning an unsavory reputation – that of someone who worked past the official end of the school day, 3:15 PM. Her message? It was imprudent to be above average; I should not stray from the poor performance plantation. A few years later, while working in the federal government I was supervising 142 field employees over five states out of the Philadelphia regional office. At that time, it was my custom to bring the Wall Street Journal to work to read during lunch. One day, one of my coworkers, Jim, who had worked there all his life, saw my Journal tucked under my arm and remarked with a smirk, “Wow! Wall Street Journal! What the hell do you think you are, Luis, an executive?” I replied, “Yes, Jim.”

Those are minor skirmishes, to be sure, but such are the vicissitudes of aspiring to leadership. Leadership is often a lonely, rock strewn path. One way to overcome is to meet with and consult other leaders. That’s why I founded Getting There Executive Network. GTEN is a network of leaders and executives who gather weekly to exchange perspectives, strategies and tactics necessary for leadership. A great leadership coach, Lee Thayer, observes: “If you intend to pursue real achievement, you have to be crazy enough and committed enough to crash through all of that.” Dr. Thayer adds, “To your peers, you may be a fool for simply trying to do your job well, or to pretend to own your own destiny.”

Katy and I discussed how to make progress and maintain composure against a bulwark of protected mediocrity. She is thoughtfully considering how much longer she should stay in that environment. I admire Katy’s courage and perseverance under such perversity. It’s abundantly clear to me she has what it takes to go to the next level. Meantime, Katy is crashing through all of that, navigating the shoals of office politics by employing conflict resolution strategies like accommodation, compromise, collaboration, avoidance – and sometimes, just forcing.

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