What's The Leader's Toughest Challenge?

It's a question I'm asked all the time: What is the most difficult challenge a leader faces on a day-to-day basis?

As thorny as leadership is, there are many plausible answers to it. You could argue that continually finding top-grade talent is it. Or staying ahead of ever-aggressive competitors. Or innovating new products to satisfy an insatiably hungry marketplace. How about harnessing technology to your greatest advantage only to find it's been made obsolete by the next wave? One CEO told me she thought remaining profitable every year, without ever experiencing a dip, was impossible, and therefore the single greatest challenge.

Hard to dispute any of those. But I will.

In my view, the leader's most arduous daily task is realizing that, to be effective, he must constantly inflict pain and suffering on his own people. No, of course not the physical torture kind. Rather the mental and emotional kind. Let me explain.

Central to a competent leader's success is his willingness and ability to drive positive and productive change. The opposite is stagnation, which is the ultimate black hole for business.

Today, while you run your company successfully, someone somewhere is plotting to re-invent your entire industry, and will render the lazy players obsolete overnight. You must always be thinking "What's next?", even while you're still implementing your current next.

But driving change is no walk in the park. It's human nature to resist change, which means employees will fight it, sometimes get angry about it, and on occasion, silently sabotage it.

Clearly then, change is painful. Therefore, driving change means creating pain for others.

Many leaders won't do this, or will go no further than to tiptoe lightly down this path. It's outside their comfort zone to upset the applecart or anger others. Gives them a queasy feeling. Unsettling. Stressful. This is merely a rationalization--a masking of their discomfort for pushing people beyond their assumed limits. In so doing, they put their entire enterprise in jeopardy.

Let's be real about this. The fact is, if you press ahead, you will get push-back. Most definitely. Don't think for one minute that the business innovators whose companies capture the headlines for pioneering change in their industries aren't fighting internal resistance every day. They are.

Richard Branson and his Virgin brand of over 30 companies. Martha Stewart with her business and homemaking empire. Bill Gates of Microsoft. These are three such examples of massive change agents. They've re-written the rules of existing industries, and also written new rules by creating new industries--that others now follow.

But internally, rest assured, it's no cake walk. With each new change, with every impending innovation, some employees are rolling their eyes and lamenting, "Oh no, here we go again. We're still grappling with the last three. Can't we just take a breather for six months?"

Yes, they could. But that's just not Branson's, Stewart's or Gates's style. And you have to decide if it's yours. Remember, the goal is to thrive, not just survive.

Lessons and Actions for You:

Do you get butterflies when you look into the eyeballs of your people and tell them you're instituting a massive (or even minor) change to a process or procedure or product or service? To lead well, you better GET comfortable with it.

This doesn't apply just to entrepreneurs and CEOs at the top of the pyramid. It applies also to VPs, department heads, managers, and supervisors as well. You had better first get outside of your own comfort zone, and then expect others to get outside of theirs.

Don't ask. Require.

Don't beg. Expect.

It's a painful path. At first. But like everything, it gets easier the more you do it.

It is yet further proof that leadership is not for the squeamish or those with wobbly knees. You must stand tall, stand proud--and drive change. Anticipate resistance. Some of it is even healthy and worth hearing, because it's valid and can help polish the innovation to a greater shine. But do not let it derail you.

Perhaps the 16th century Italian statesman Niccolo Machiavelli said it best, in one of my all-time favorite quotes:

"There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, no more dangerous to conduct, no more doubtful of success, than to step up as a leader in the introduction of change. For he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm support from those who are better off under the new."

I keep that quote boldly displayed over my office desk--and have for more than 10 years--to remind me that resistance is no one-time surprise.

It's an all-the-time ordeal. And I must be prepared to fight the good fight.

One measure of your success as a leader is how willing you are to ignore the enemies and the lukewarm supporters Machiavelli describes, and machete your way through the jungle anyway. To eliminate the detractors if you must, and bring aboard new zealots. To realize you're on a mission--your mission--and some don't want to be on it with you. They'll smile and nod, but their heart and soul are headed in a different direction.

It's your decision. Are you going to be an unwilling passenger on their mission? Or will you find the people who are passionately on-board with yours?

If you choose the latter, then you must be an agent of change and master the skills to productively and positively wreak havoc in the lives of your employees, for the good of the greater cause. You'll find it will pay dividends handsomely.

One final point...
Colin Powell said, "Being responsible means you'll make other people angry."

He's right. It's unavoidable and comes with the territory of leadership. If you can't handle it, it doesn't make you a bad person. But it will definitely make you an ineffective leader. And a lousy change agent. Think about it.