When Our Leadership Isn't Enough_3x5 Leadership

By: Chad Plenge

I hope every leader out there wants to do their best and wants to help those around them become better. Developing others is so deeply ingrained in the role of a leader that it can easily become part of the leader’s identity. As any experienced leader can tell you, though, subordinates get a “vote” in the process, potentially making any sort of development impossible. Leaders may not always be able to impact everyone and the resources necessary (time, etc) to make the required impact may not be realistic or feasible. The old adage goes, “90% of your time is spent on 10% of your people.” If this is true, it can leave many around you under-developed. However, this article is not about your time allocation or even about the other 90%; it is about those 10%…the ones that presented you with a challenge and the ones that were failing. What happens if part of the problem is you? 

Early in my career, I was leading a 60-person platoon. One of my soldiers had a series of problems, including gambling and alcohol use. This soldier had been in trouble under the previous leadership and was an average performer on their very best day. I spent months trying to get this soldier to turn around, as did those around me. During my time with that organization, the soldier received non-judicial punishment for misconduct. As part of this process we moved the soldier to another platoon within our company, a standard practice in this situation. Shortly after this, I deployed to Afghanistan. A year later I ran into that Platoon Leader (PL) and asked how my former soldier was doing. I expected the PL to say he kicked the soldier out of the Army for misconduct or general failures. I was shocked when I heard the soldier was not only doing much better but was performing well and thriving!

Am I a failure as a leader? Was I not good enough? What did I do wrong? Those thoughts raced through my mind as I heard the news. Developing others was core to my identity and this perceived failure was like getting hit in the face. Then a second round of questions came flooding in, chief of which was “why was my initial reaction not happiness that my former soldier was now doing well?” How could that thought coexist with my deeply held desire to help and develop others — to be a servant leader? This is something I reflected on deeply. Throughout that process I learned three valuable lessons. Not only do these lessons apply to subordinates who are failing, but also to those who are doing well but could be doing even better under someone else.

Just because you are a good leader does not mean you are the best leader for everyone. Your style, background, experiences, and characteristics, among other factors, all influence how effective you are with each person. For example, you probably had a teacher in school that you learned more from than others. Likely, your entire class may not have felt the same as you. It is natural for people to gravitate towards individuals. Research shows we tend to prefer working around those who share characteristics with us. As leaders, we need to adapt our styles to meet the needs of those around us while still being authentic and true to ourselves. This can be a difficult balance to find and takes practice. Even then, we will never be the best leader for everyone. This makes us human, not a bad leader.

We need to acknowledge when others may be better suited to help someone. We wouldn’t expect a baseball coach to be a good football coach. Does that mean the baseball coach is a horrible coach? Absolutely not. Each person has a set of skills and talents, which is just as true for leaders. Leaders cannot be perfect at everything. However, effective leaders work with each other to leverage each person’s strengths to make the entire organization better. It may not be possible to switch the team someone is on, but there are many ways to get someone the development they need without a personnel change.

A mindset shift can be powerful. When I transferred my soldier to the new organization, I had the mentality of “this soldier is not cut out for the Army. We need to move them to a new leader before kicking them out.” Upon reflection I realized a better way to look at it is “I have done everything I can do for this soldier. Maybe you (new leader) are able to help them in a way I could not.” While the mindset shift may be subtle, it can make all the difference in the outcome.

I fully acknowledge that not every situation can or will end positively. The subordinate has a say in the process and the best efforts of any leader not be enough. Leaders must be careful of getting into an escalation of commitment, where they commit more resources to a failing course of action. At some point, for the good of everyone else and the organization, it may be best for a leader to say, “enough is enough” and let someone go. There is a clear distinction between giving up and making a conscious decision based on the situation, though.

These lessons boil down to a simple idea: another leader’s success in helping someone you were not able to does not equate to you failing as a leader. What is a failure, however, is when a leader refuses to believe anyone may be better suited to help a subordinate. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day, a leader’s job is to accomplish the organization’s mission and leave those around them better than they started. The first time you see a subordinate perform better under another leader, you may question whether you are an effective leader. That was certainly true for me. Rather than push those moments to the side, I encourage everyone to embrace them as an opportunity for growth. By doing that I was able to learn valuable lessons which have helped me become a better, more effective leader today.

Chad Plenge teaches leadership psychology at the United States Military Academy and develops high potential leaders with the US Army’s Center for Junior Officers.  He holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, a Master of Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy.  Chad is a certified Project Management Professional and an active duty officer in the US Army.  In his free time, he serves as the President of the board of directors as well as an Assistant Director for a non-profit organization. 

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1 Comment

  1. I like and appreciate your article and advice. You hit on some great points for leaders at all levels.

    Also…the soldier in this situation maybe realized what they had and what they were about to lose. It may have indeed had something to do with your leadership and holding them to the standard.

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