Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 2

Failed or not failed - that's the question

Reading time 4 minutes read
footsteps Photo by Rosie Steggles on Unsplash
How in the beginning it's very hard to know how you're actually doing quality-wise and perfection is a perfect way to set you up for failure...

With this series based on complete honesty, I have to admit that I started out with a lie of omission in my introduction. Isn't it ironic ;)
There is actually a fourth reason that held me back from leading. I tried it out once and failed. Roughly 4 years ago, I had said yes to leading the strategy team because my colleague Annika went into maternity leave. As there wasn't really a better choice at hand and I didn't wanna cause any more change in the team, I agreed to give it a try and take over the lead of 12 people. But after a couple of months into it, I decided to quit - solely because I thought I was doing a horrible job.

Thinking back to this time, I still feel like a body ripped into different parts. And the realization that I wasn’t able to give anyone 100% or the full me. A feeling of constantly letting people down, not being able to give anyone full attention they needed, staving people off. Which is the first realization about myself. Having to juggle project work and being responsible for so many people at once, I felt completely torn between project work and people work and always prioritized project which made me feel like a traitor. I know that’s a strong word, but I really did. Because I had secretly decided to focus on the things I knew I could do well and pretended I didn’t have time for the rest. I thought I'd be managing a team, but somehow got caught up with all the individual stories of the members because I cared so much about them personally. I thought I had a healthy mix of new and experienced people but quickly saw that there were huge gaps in skills and knowledge I didn't know how to fill without hurting people's feelings. I was bombarded with questions I had no answer to, which made me feel stupid and inadequate for the job.
Whenever I delegated tasks, people didn't understand my briefing ending up doing things very differently to the way that I wanted to having them done, turning me into a human fire extinguisher on a marathon mission and constantly taking responsibility away from those that should carry it. At the same time I felt pressured and stressed because I also didn’t want to let my superiors down either, who had trusted me with this important task.
In short: I felt frustrated most of the time and lost all the joy in my work, longing for those good old times where I could just bury myself in strategy work. A l o n e.

So without talking to anybody about it, and deciding it would be the more graceful option, after only 9 months I decided to step down and call this experiment failed. When I announced that somebody else would take over, reactions were that of surprise. Some even seemed a bit disappointed, but I told myself they were just trying to be polite. Looking back at that period of my life, I see one thing most clearly. Obviously, I was overwhelmed with the task, yes, but the biggest problem, was that I set myself up for failure from the start.
I went into this role secretly thinking I wouldn't be able to do it and basically doing everything I could to prove me right. I went into this role with this ludicrous expectation of perfection that I could only miss. And I went into this role trying to fill someone else's shoes - those of Annika - that I knew I couldn't fill from the start. Also I see now that the only currency I could define success as is giving 100% - which is pretty much impossible for everything that needs to be done. In short: Wrong attitude, wrong KPI and wrong plan.
The sad part is that I just decided that I had failed without considering any other perspective on that matter. Which was probably the stupidest thing I ever did.

6 years later and when writing this text, I actually decided to close the matter for good and reached out to some of the people I was supposed to lead during that time. Asking for their honest perception of how it was for them, asking for what I did wrong, asked for their feedback. Most of them not being part of the team and having moved on into new roles, I thought it's a good chance that they would be candid enough. The result is makes me relieved, laugh really hard and also very thankful.

What I thought... How the others perceived it...
I didn't have enough time for anything You always took the time for the important things, but you always seemed in a hurry which gave us the feeling we were stealing your time
I prioritized projects over people letting everyone down... We liked that you still cared about the projects and showed that expertise and good results count most
I couldn't answer the questions and looked stupid. It was actually very comforting to see that you don't need to know everything. Whenever you said "I don't know", we trusted that you took our questions seriously enough to care about the answer.
I'm really bad at briefing. "I liked that you gave us so much freedom to try out by ourselves and I felt really trusted by you, but sometimes I felt a bit lost so more information would have been nice."
I was a bad replacement for Annika. Of course you were different than Annika and we missed her. But seeing a completely different leadership style is nice, because it shows that there are more than option."
I wasn't able to coach individually. It gave me the opportunity to step up as a senior
I'm way too impatient. You are very impatient.
I didn't feel myself You weren't yourself and we missed your vibe and energy.
I felt really weird and lost my positivity. Without your positive energy, your whole working style crumbles down. It just doesn’t work. :

What all of those people said unisono: You somehow lost your vibe during that time and we missed the real, vibrant you. You lost your mojo. Working with you is based on a feeling that suddenly went missing and everything became a bit duller afterwards. I forgot my personality and my way of doing things because I was so focused on being perfect.

I try not to regret stuff in my life because it’s just a waste of time but I really regret not having talked to them sooner. It would have not only made a difference in my interpretation of what had been going on, I would have also received all those feedback nuggets of gold much sooner.
My biggest mistake was not that I did extraordinarily bad things, or made erred decisions, it was that I just was so self-absorbed with my fear of disappointing myself that there was no room for my personality to do its thing. There was no room for me and what others enjoyed in being with me. And all of those things could have been changed quite quickly, if I had only asked.

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways

  • In leadership there's always a perception gap and how you think you're doing might be very different to how other people think you're doing. In both directions.
  • So the only way to find out for sure is to actually ask them.
  • Ask yourself: What are your expectations towards yourself and are they actually doable? Like realistically in the real world where every day shit happens that needs to be dealt with on top on what you planned ;)
  • Ask yourself: What are important traits of your personality that colleagues of yours cherish? What would be missing if you got got kicked out of the time?
  • Ask yourself: How can you build a new leadership practice around those things?