That doesn’t sound great, does it? Well, it doesn’t feel great when you do it, either, but it’s one of the most impactful qualities of a leader. I suppose a little explanation might be useful here.
The best managers and leaders care more about the long-term development of their employees than they do about protecting their own short-term reputations with those employees. That means they are willing to push those employees to do more than they think they can.
This, of course, requires a measure of patience and good judgment, but more than that, it requires a leader to endure the temporary disdain of direct reports who generally prefer to be comfortable more than to grow. In the end, those employees will pledge their gratitude for pushing them beyond their comfort zones.
I learned this for myself as a kid. The teachers and coaches I admired most were the ones who frustrated me a little by making me do what I didn’t think I could. I know they could see my frustration, but they didn’t back off, making me run an extra 400 interval on the track (Coach Mena) or shoot another 50 free throws (Coach Brown). They were more interested in making me a better athlete than in pleasing me on any given day, and the impact they had on my work ethic continues today.
My fourth-grade teacher was the best I ever had (Mrs. Sztorc), and she made me do multiplication and division and spelling and writing until I couldn’t stand her sometimes. But long before the year was over, even as a nine-year-old, I knew that she cared about me more than the teachers who let us take an extra recess and do little homework.
The best manager I had in my career (Sally) pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. She drove me crazy at times with her last minute requests and extra demands around details. But she wanted to make me a better professional and helped me learn how to have higher standards.
Having said all that, sometimes I still don’t like to push people who work for me. I empathize with their desire for comfort, and I don’t want them to be frustrated with me. But I’ve learned to sit comfortably while an employee or colleague is exasperated by my pushing, knowing that they will eventually be grateful. And I have to admit that there is something particularly gratifying about seeing people grow well beyond what they thought they could do. Who knows? Maybe they’ll hold me in the same esteem that I hold Coaches Mena and Brown, Mrs. Sztorc, and Sally. That would be worth a little discomfort, for sure.