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Get Real: The Key to Leadership

DSC00085 - Version 2Reality Testing—your capacity to see things the way they are rather than the way you wish them to be—is one of the top key components of emotional intelligence (EQ) for effective leadership. And if you still think that EQ is the touchy-feely, unimportant side of leadership, get this: It’s more predictive of leadership success than IQ or experience. It counts. And I seem to be seeing less and less savvy Reality Testing in leaders, especially in connection with regard to implementing “initiatives”—new strategies or programs designed to bring about change. Instead, I hear things like

“In this economy, they simply need to do more with less.”
“Every initiative is a priority. They need to figure out how to get it all done. Period.”
“ I have no say. These initiatives come from above and we have to carry them out.”

Sound familiar? As I worked with teams worldwide last year, “initiative fatigue” was what I heard, what I saw in people’s eyes. They’ve brought you in to get us to do even more, described the general mood. Douglas Reeves coined the term initiative fatigue in his book Transforming Professional Development into Student Results (2010):

When the number of initiatives increases while time, resources and emotional energy are constant, then each new initiative, no matter how well conceived or well intentioned—will receive fewer minutes, dollars, and ounces of emotional energy than its predecessors (p. 27).

Whether leaders like it or not, there are limits to what can be done. And, when employees know they can’t get it all done, they begin to lose their sense of efficacy. That cuts into effectiveness. That means that less gets done even as leaders push for more. Reread Reeves’ definition. Initiative fatigue is not a sign of employees who aren’t giving their all; it’s a sign of leadership that hasn’t set priorities.

Signs of Initiative Fatigue

Here are four signs of initiative fatigue:

  • Abbreviating. For example, one school district insisted that professional learning communities limit weekly meetings to 20 minutes, which is not enough time for the goal of deep conversations about student learning.
  • Assuming. Here, leadership might provide high-quality training, but fail to evaluate whether the ideas are being implemented or where additional support is needed.
  • Abandonment. Frequently, initiatives are barely underway before they are replaced by new ones.
  • Apathy. Employees are thinking, “Tomorrow, it’ll be something else. I’m ignoring this and doing what I know works.” This is often labeled resistance, but it’s actually WISDOM if they’ve experienced repeated abandonment!

What can you do? Get real. Forget about all the things you’d like to see done and focus on what can realistically be done. Yes, you can have huge “put a man on the moon within this decade” goals, but they still have to be realistic.

  • Focus. Sit down with your employees and map out how long each item will take. Then make a cut. Take off their plates what really can’t be done.
  • Listen. Some of your staff have an uncanny ability to identify what will fall off their plates if you insist on certain things being done. You usually call them resistors. Stop dismissing their comments and questions and instead use them as wisdom for planning.
  • Empathize. This is another key component of emotional intelligence for leadership. Rather than an “I feel your pain” skill, leadership empathy involves being able to articulate, without judgment, what others feel and why they feel that way. With initiative fatigue, practicing empathy can help leaders understand the futility of asking people to do more than can be done.

I used to ask, “What other initiatives are part of your current strategic plan” so that I could help teams make connections among their various efforts. Now I’m at least as interested in gauging how exhausted they are. It takes more courage for leaders to define limits than to keep repeating, “It’s all important.” Intentional leaders, though, know that by setting limits, they increase the chances that their vision can become reality.

How have you countered initiative fatigue?

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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