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Owning Your Leadership Impact

“Of all deceivers fear most yourself!” – Søren Kierkegaard

As fictional leaders go, nobody beats Michael Scott for awkward. In the brilliant series, "The Office,” Scott's absolute lack of self-awareness regarding the impact he's having on the people around him—in scene, after scene, after scene—is so tortuously painful to watch, it’s funny. We can laugh because it’s happening to Jim and Pam, and not to us.

But if we’re honest, we also laugh because we've all been there. I bet you know at least one leader who is pretty clueless about the impact they have on the people they lead. If you do, then you know it’s not nearly so funny when it happens in real life. People get hurt. They get stressed out and exhausted from having to deal with their leader’s clueless behavior all the time. Many are so traumatized by it that they’re forced to quit.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about leaders who are willfully abusive to their team members. I’m talking about well-intentioned leaders who are oblivious to the damaging or hurtful effects their behavior is having on the people they lead.

You might think that only a small minority of leaders fall into this category. But in my experience coaching leaders for nearly 20 years, I’d say this issue is painfully common. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this blind spot is what holds most leaders back from being as effective as they could. They are simply not aware of the unintended impact they have on those they lead.

What is the lingering effect that you have on the people you interact with as a leader? When they walk away from a conversation with you, how do they typically feel about it? For example, do they feel heard? Respected? Overwhelmed? Challenged? Encouraged? Shut down? Condescended to? Loved? If a trusted friend were to ask them what it's like to be in relationship with you, what would they say?

Knowing your relational impact as a leader is a key aspect of self awareness, and without that understanding, your leadership will be weakened, or even crippled, in ways that may leave you feeling genuinely perplexed about it all.

One leader I know was perpetually troubled by what he perceived as a stubborn reluctance on the part of his team to communicate with him. They would regularly hold back vital information regarding projects they were responsible for until just a few days before the deadline, which often put him in the difficult position of having to make significant changes to projects at the last minute—a process that was as a costly as it was frustrating for everyone involved. What he didn't realize was that his intense, blunt communication style was having the unintended impact of intimidating just about everyone on his team. His people avoided talking to him because they found the interactions threatening in a way that shut down their own creativity and enjoyment. His unintended impact pushed them put off engaging with him until they absolutely had to.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to discover the impact you're having on those you lead. However, it requires both courage and authentic humility:

1. Make a list of five or six people in your relational world that you trust and believe will be honest with you. Some of these should be people you lead, but also include a few people who don't work with you directly—perhaps a friend or colleague, or even a spouse.

2. Meet with each person privately and let them know that you are genuinely interested in learning how to be a better leader, and to do that you need to ask them a few questions that you want them to answer as honestly as possible. Get their agreement on this before proceeding.

3. Ask them the following questions, being careful to avoid getting defensive or justifying yourself in any way. Just listen, take it in, and thank them for their honesty.

  • What's it really like to be in relationship with me?

  • What impact do you notice that I typically have on people that I lead?

  • What negative impact do I have on others that I am typically unaware of?

Remember, it takes humility to do this. Most people will be able to sense whether you authentically want to hear the truth. And often they will have much more to say about your positive impact on others than they will about the negative. Still, you must choose to be teachable. Whatever comes out of those conversations, take it seriously. Invite trusted team members to help you design a personal improvement plan that meaningfully addresses the behaviors people find difficult to navigate.

If you are concerned that your people won’t be honest with you in a face-to-face conversation, you can ask them to respond to these questions via an anonymous survey. But if you choose this route, be sure to share the results with the whole team, and to do so without defending yourself or making a case for why the feedback is wrong. Be humble, and grateful, and (as recommended above) invite one or two team members you trust to help you design an action plan for addressing the troubling behaviors people raised.

P.S. …

Even though I’m addressing leaders directly, this kind of blind spot certainly isn’t exclusive to people in leadership roles. We all need to own the relational impact we have on the people in our lives, and be willing to change our behavior when we realize that something we’re doing is causing harm to others.

Are you willing to take these three questions, and humbly invite those closest to you to answer them?

  • What's it really like to be in relationship with me?

  • What impact do you notice that I typically have on people that I lead?

  • What negative impact do I have on others that I am typically unaware of?

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