Standing on the shoulder of Giants

A small habit that helps me get perspective

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When I took on my current leadership role a number of years ago, I had huge expectations and goals for myself. I was going to turn the organization around. And for the first couple years I did, almost single-handedly. But then, I started running into challenges that I was ill equipped to handle. I spent a couple years grappling with daunting problems that seemed to get worse the more I tried to fix them. I was overwhelmed, exhausted and fresh out of ideas. I needed to shift something.

I am a perfectionist at work, sometimes to the point that I have trouble accomplishing tasks because they are never quite right. I hesitate because I don’t feel I am an expert. I beat myself up when I make a mistake. The problems I was facing within my organization reflected my weaknesses. As I replayed them in my head, I could see that they were my mistakes, my failures. The leadership story I was telling myself was that I was somehow not good enough; an impostor.

A leadership coach encouraged me to journal as a way to process my feelings and experiences; to reflect, gain perspective and make meaning. Through this self-reflection, I started to embrace my failures as the learning opportunities that they were. Everyone makes mistakes. I will make many more mistakes before I am done. What matters is that I learn from those mistakes.

Getting on the Balcony

A small shift I made was that I started asking for help. I sought out colleagues in similar roles who could provide feedback and support. I enrolled in leadership training [Leadership Fellows led by Steve Patty was particularly useful].

This had the effect of helping me gain perspective on my work; to survey the landscape or get on the Balcony. I had been so engrossed in the work, that I hadn’t been taking the time to reflect, analyse, strategize. In my leadership role, I needed to be able to see the whole as well as the multiple moving parts. I started scheduling my work to carve out time for the “Balcony”.

At first it felt uncomfortable. I was purposefully leaving work undone so that I could think. It felt like slacking off. But over time, a couple shifts started to happen. First, my team started stepping up. I had unwittingly been doing their work as well as my own. Second, I started feeling less stressed as I started to get important work done before it became urgent. I tacked a reminder to prioritize important/urgent and important/not urgent work (an image of the 4 Quadrants from Stephen Covey). And I started delegating the rest.

Asking for help is risky. I was raised to think that in order to be successful, I had to do it all myself. But, in the words of author Dee Williams, “At some point when things are really dicey, your stubbornness gives way to a certain form of humility that, after you get over yourself, feels liberating.”

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton
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