<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://px.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=590468&amp;fmt=gif">

Leadership. It’s harder than it looks.

Posted by Christine Mulcahy on February 20, 2024 6:42:20 AM PST
Christine Mulcahy

{Based on a true story.}

For the better part of the past decade, I’ve had the unique honor and privilege of leading a team of anywhere from 10-50 brilliant minds and diverse peoples through times of rapid growth, sustainable plateaus, and even swift downsizing. We’ve enjoyed jubilant celebrations, big wins, risks that were not always worth the rewards, global opportunities, harsh truths, and an unending list of key learnings. Not a single day in the past 3,200 (give or take) has been the same. Some days I wake up inspired to learn what creative genius might strike the team that day, and other days I wake up with a calendar full of legal or finance calls. Sometimes, the team is running like a well-oiled machine, clients are happy, and we’re cranking work out faster than we thought possible. Other times, we’re scratching our heads wondering where the projects have gone. And yet other times, we’re wondering when the world actually turned sideways and great existential crises struck everyone at once.

The tricky thing about leadership is that you don’t just have a product or service to produce or revenue goals to exceed. You also have clients to delight and team members to keep engaged. And once you introduce the human factor, all bets are off. Because you simply don’t know what happened in someone’s life that they are going to bring with them to the workplace the next day. But it’s your job to be sure that whatever it is it doesn’t impact projects, clients, or teammates. While also doing your own job and covering for anyone who is out on unlimited PTO. Meanwhile, everyone is looking at you to establish the culture of the entire organization. So, you better bring your A game … unless you’re here to be fully authentic and transparent, in which case, be careful with that because leaders have a significant impact on the mental health of their entire team. No pressure.


Nobody loves a cliché quite as much as this English major. I’ve got cliches for days. But one of my favorites is … “empowered people empower people.” It seems like such a feel-good statement. “Woooo! Empowerment for everyone! You get power and you get power and YOU get power.”

But the truth is, there are a lot of empowered people who are not necessarily looking out for the greater good, if you will. People are punitive and drama is abundant. People get competitive trying to throw others under the bus, so their work stands out and gets the attention they feel it deserves. And people set petty fires at random. Watching their leaders scramble to put them out. If you let them.

Early on, we recognized a very clear personality type that was going to be problematic on a small team, and as difficult as it was, we learned we had to redirect that behavior. Believe it or not, we learned loudly and clearly that the thing that makes people excellent at their jobs is not necessarily the same thing that could make them good team players or even leaders. And some of the most charismatic people are not, in fact, very good at their actual jobs. And, what’s more, some of the most qualified and capable team members who would be excellent at leadership simply don’t want the responsibility. Finding the unique balance between job skills and people skills is a magic equation that has eluded executives for centuries.

What I’m trying to say is … empower the people who are willing to wield that power graciously and humbly and in service of others. Empower people who have vision and drive and focus on ideas and concepts. Not the people who want to gossip about clients and teammates around the water cooler. Because, if you want to have a truly inspirational and innovative organization, it has to be a safe place for people to show up and do their best work. Individuals need to feel empowered to create and share and grow. And that comes from the culture you enable (and empower) in your organization.


One of the best ways to empower leaders is to model leader-like behavior. Mentorship is another one of those concepts that gets thrown around like a trendy buzzword but is actually much harder than it appears. It starts off so aspirational … an eager mentee looking to learn and grow. A seasoned mentor with experience to share. Strengths, goals, action plans. It seems so easy, right?

But the hard part about learning is that not every lesson is easy. And sometimes those lessons are a direct reflection of the behavior and character of a person that caused the lesson to need to be learned. And sometimes the mentee is doing the learning and sometimes the mentor is looking in the mirror and realizing they have a lot to learn too. In either case, the parties need to be open to learning. It has to be a give/give and a take/take relationship. It cannot be entirely give/take or it’s an imbalanced equation. We think it is the mentor doing the teaching and the mentee doing the learning. But sometimes the best lessons are not the ones we set out to learn.

Real mentorship requires time, energy, investment, and trust. There are hard truths to be shared – and accepted. Or rejected. Some people can’t handle the truth. Some take it and learn from it. And the best take it, learn from it, internalize it, and come back with value to add having learned from the lesson. Some leave and you never hear from them again. You never know what you’re going to get out of a mentorship. But it isn’t always roses. Sometimes it’s a big pot of fertilizer. Which will undoubtedly make the next roses grow even better.

If both parties are willing to be honest and vulnerable and open to learning from each other, magic can happen. Both for the individuals and for the organization, which is good for the culture as a whole. Choose your mentorships carefully. Sometimes the most brilliant diamonds are buried in the murkiest sediment. You have to be willing to mine those gems if you commit to a mentorship. Trust that brilliance will be revealed. But know that it’s a process. And processes take time.


One of the very hardest lessons to learn in leadership is that culture doesn’t just happen – it’s created. It’s best if it’s created intentionally. It’s true that the best cultures reflect a diverse team with different world views, perspectives, and experiences to share. It’s a beautiful thing when everyone is showing up in truth and transparency, being their authentic selves in a safe environment. But it does not take much to turn that culture upside down. It only takes a small bit of drama, a sideways glance, a bit of gossip to disrupt an otherwise cohesive culture.

Perception is nine tenths of reality. (Last cliché, promise.) Miscommunication, misperceptions, and misinformation are everywhere. Especially today. So, remember, as a leader, it is up to you to set the tone for your team and contribute to the culture of the organization. Because the behavior you enable will persist. But the behavior you redirect, coach, and mentor will evolve. Diamonds in the rough, remember? (It was a reference to an earlier cliché, not a new cliché.)

So, if you want to create a safe environment for team members, clients, and colleagues, you have to BE that safe environment. Integrity is a surprisingly rare trait. Like a moral compass, it means something a bit different to everyone. But if you have it, you recognize it when you see it. And you can’t unsee where it is lacking. Create your culture intentionally. With integrity.

Empowered leaders empower teams

I’m not going to lie. Leading through the past three years has been the most challenging effort of my career. From a Global Pandemic to civil unrest, political chaos, rapidly evolving technology, cyber threats, the existential threat of climate change and in turn greenhouse gas emissions audits, the tech industry crash, and now a nearly universal mental health crisis in the form of Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the challenges facing people – teammates, clients, families, and friends.

The good news is that nobody can shoulder that burden alone – even the most seasoned leaders. People need people – communities, teams, cohorts. Technology is enabling greater collaboration features than ever before. People are returning to in-person events, working from offices part time, and reconnecting again. And so, the need for leadership is greater than ever because people want to be seen and heard and have the opportunity to collaborate and contribute and earn recognition. Leaders have the incredible opportunity to support, inspire, and encourage team members as they seek to grow – to rise to their fullest potential. Recognize the privilege in the opportunity to help others evolve. You might just find that empowering others is … wait for it … empowering. In itself. Give it a whirl. It won’t always be easy. But it will always be worth it.

Topics: Leadership, Work Culture