The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I was well on my way there. Hair on fire…burning, burning, burning as I tried to do the right thing.
Or at least what I thought was the right thing.
Last year at this time, my days were not my own. I was working until late each night, sacrificing sleep (and likely my health) to meet critical deadlines in September.
This year, I was determined to make it different. We have several leaders engaged – splitting the work among many of us.
We got started early – planning out our work and beginning to chip away at deliverables. I was feeling really good about how we had lined everything up.
Just when you think you’ve got your arms around what worries you…
I got word from my doctor that would change all our carefully designed plans. I’d be out on disability for 8 weeks…right in the middle of all the chaos.
I promptly put together a pages-long action plan. It included steps for my exit strategy and my re-entry. I pre-negotiated with my skeptical doctor, insisting my brain would be fine. Surely I could start emailing and working part-time after the first few weeks.
First, let me say that I would never allow someone on my team to pursue this nonsense. I’d say “We’ve got this. Focus on getting better.”
Yet I could not do that for myself. I could not leave everyone to pick up after me when I was ditching them during our craziest time.
I had the best intentions. I meant well. I was trying to have a good work ethic and be reliable.
I was being a short-sighted ass.
The more my friends, family and co-workers fought me, the more I trenched in. See, when we think we’re doing the right thing – even if we’re on the fast-track to hell – it’s hard to step back. The best intentions can lead to the poorest of decisions.
My manager was the one to pull me back. He read through my action plans. Listened to how I wanted to handle my re-entry.
If he had fought me directly, challenging my plans, I would have resisted. Instead, he challenged the one thing that was sure to make me listen.
“We have many rewards and recognition programs,” he said. “Let your team earn them.”
“You have managers you want to develop. They are not you. Yet they will never be you if you don’t get out of the way and let them try.”
“You have worked hard to create a great team. Let them show you how great they are. Let them shine.”
He had me.
Of course I would never intentionally prevent anyone on my team from earning recognition, or hold back a development opportunity.
Yet that’s exactly what I was doing.
My manager said to me all the things I would say to my people. Yet I was hell-bent on doing what I thought was right. What was all wrong.
Did I really want to model to my team that they should risk their health during recovery for something at work? No. Was that what I was about to do? Yes.
When I reached out to my peers to let them know what was happening, to a one they were only concerned about my health and well-being. They all said they’d take care of the work so I could focus on getting better.
Yet I offered to document everything I could and prep them as much as possible before I left.
One of them reminded me this is not his first rodeo and he is fully capable of providing the help I need.
I stepped in the poop again.
I’m trying to help, instead I’m insulting his ability. He laughed and said he knew it was me trying to be diligent. But it was another reminder.
As leaders, we need to have a solid work ethic. We need to carry our weight.
However, we need to be willing to ask for help. Not only because we need it. But because the others around us do as well.
I am the first to step in when my peers have conflicts or need support for health or family demands. By asking for help, I allow for a sense of reciprocity in our relationship.
It is not about “I did for you, so now you do for me.” No. It is about the connection we have developed. It is about allowing them the opportunity to do their part to keep the relationship healthy, instead of one-sided.
For our teams, leaders need to be able to ask for help and/or periodically step out of the way. I am not suggesting an 8-week medical absence by any means. However, a two-week unplugged vacation, or a stretch assignment requiring less time in the office, are great opportunities.
Our absence highlights who soars and who stumbles. Who is ready for that next step or assignment, and who needs more development.
Our presence influences the behaviors and performance of our team. By removing us – our support and advice – as a variable, different observations can be made. Different outcomes will be possible.
I don’t consider myself egocentric, but that’s exactly what my actions were. By focusing on the mess I was leaving behind, instead of having faith in my peers’ ability and realizing the opportunity I was giving my team, I was being self-centered.
I had to realize that asking for help is not selfish. Refusing to ask is.
Sometimes, we have to put our ego aside and realize we do not have to be present for things to get done. It doesn’t mean we are not needed and won’t be missed. It means life happens. And the best teams can weather even the most brutal storms.
And isn’t that what great leadership is? Building amazing teams that can weather those storms. Even if the storm is our absence.
Have you ever struggled with an extended absence? What advice would you offer? I’d love if you would share your thoughts in the comments.