Ep 114: Introducing Leadership Sand Traps
One of the things you’ll notice as you deepen yourself as a leader is it becomes less and less about having a conversation about leadership, and more about being in a conversation with someone as a leader. In the first of a series on leadership sand traps, Adam Quiney explains what these sand traps are and touches on why they exist, how you have no hope of avoiding them, and consequently, what to do about them. He also touches on the impact of your strong suit on the way you relate to people, and how, while it will earn you results and promotions, it will simultaneously become a sore point for you.
Listen to the Episode Here:
Introducing Leadership Sand Traps
One of the things you’ll notice as you deepen yourself as a leader and as you take on more transformative work and to be clear, reading this is not an example of taking on transformative work. It’s a step along the way but transformative work happens when you take that scary step into hiring a coach and working with a leader who’s doing their own work. They’re a yes and you’re a yes to them, supporting you in developing your leadership, doing stuff like landmark, and doing courses like this that put us into a confrontation with ourselves. That’s the nature of taking on transformative work.
You’ll notice that as you deepen in that, it’s less and less about having a conversation about leadership, and more about being in a conversation with someone as a leader. When you be in a conversation with people as a leader that causes leadership. Enough of that preface. What we’re going to be talking about today is we’re introducing a series that we’ll be running through here at Get Lit and this is a series called Leadership Sandtraps. Leadership Sandtraps are basically patterns that people have created that are the thing that now stands in the way of whatever is next for their leadership.
What we’ll do in this episode is we’re going to explain about these sandtraps at a high level, touching on them conceptually, why they exist, and how you have no hope of avoiding them, and consequently, what to do about them. We’re not going to dive into any particular sandtrap, we’re going to talk about the concept of a sandtrap itself and break that down. Over the coming episodes, our episodes will be specifically focusing on particular sandtraps. If you have ever had that thought, “I’ve got this person and they keep doing this thing. It’s so challenging, tough and it’s frustrating for me. How do you deal with this?” It might be a sandtrap.
Our hope here is that we’re going to showcase these and give you some support in how to work with that, both with yourself and with the people in question that you’re working with. To start off, people think that leadership is often a conversation about getting people to do something but almost inevitably, the real work of a leader is to identify their own sandtraps ongoingly so they can then help distinguish those same sandtraps in other people. Also, invite them to step beyond that sandtrap and create what’s next.
I want to showcase that part and you’ve probably heard me say this a lot, “Leadership is on our side of the fence.” Leadership is rarely about forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do. Almost never. It might look like that, “There’s a thing that I need to enroll people in doing,” but the thing in the way is rarely that they don’t have someone forcing them to do it. It’s usually they’ve got some sandtrap that’s operating that keeps getting them out of having to do that both for better and for worse.
In order for you to be able to support that person over there, who you’re leading, to see their sandtrap move out of it, you’ve got to first see it in yourself. We’ll be explaining why this is the case and how these sandtraps are not something you can avoid having. That’s often what people want to do is, “Great. I know that’s there. How do I not have that happen?” That’s not the work. The work is to come to terms with the fact that you’re always going to have blind spots. Instead of trying to avoid stepping in them, your real work is to be as graceful as possible when you get the opportunity to see that you have blundered into one, so you can release the resistance to having had that happen.
Do you know that situation where you say to someone, “You seem angry?” They snap at you and say, “No, I’m not.” Because they are insistent that they’re not angry, it’s impossible to support them in alleviating their anger, because they’re so active in resistance to accepting the fact that they’re angry. This is the same way a sandtrap or a blind spot works. When someone’s going to reflect this to you. you’re going to either might do it reasonably, you might snap at them however you push it away and reject it. That’s what you’re inclined to do, “I don’t think this is an example of me and my sandtrap. Thank you though, Adam.” “No, I’m not. This isn’t what I’m doing however it sounds like.” What that does is it makes it harder and takes longer for you to be able to release the resistance and acknowledge, “That’s where I am.”
What Is A Sand Trap?
What exactly is a sandtrap? A leadership sandtrap tends to be a function of our strong suit or of our zone of excellence. In the brilliant book, Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss, I highly recommend that book. It’s dense but it’s a great book. She refers to her strong suit as our winning strategy and to be clear, we got a lot of strong suits. In the context of this conversation, we’re defining our strong suit as that which is comfortable for us and our strong suit often evolves out of a couple of things.
First, it’s a function of what is innate for us. If we all have a beautiful pure essence at our core, our strong suit is going to be a function of that essence. If part of what you bring into the world naturally is brilliance, your strong suit will be a function of your brilliance. If part of what you bring into the world naturally is generosity, your strong suit is going to be a function of your generosity. You’re not one or the other. Often, we tend to have multiple aspects to the essential nature of who we are so your strong suit may be a function of both your brilliance and your generosity.
Second, our strong suits are often created in response to the stresses or stressors around us. When we learn that something was bad growing up, our strong suit is used as a means to deal with or address whatever the thing that was bad is. For example, if not working hard is considered lazy and thus bad, our strong suit might include working busily. Perhaps working even harder than anyone else around you so that would be a strong suit, “You’re reliable to be working super hard.” If being selfish was considered a bad thing, part of our strong suit may include being incredibly generous, and ensuring that everyone else gets what they want, before we do. Also, ensuring that we’re never the one to take the last slice of pizza or whatever.
The Impact Of Our Strong Suit
Next, let’s talk about the impact of our strong suit. Our strong suit typically gets us something and costs us something. What it usually gets us is recognition, love, and the avoidance of that which we are unwilling or afraid to be with. That selfish thing gets us out of having to be selfish. Let’s avoid that and it often gets us recognition, value, love, “You’re a good person,” while we’re growing up. Over time, our strong suit also creates people relating to us a certain way based on how our strong suit has us inevitably show up.
The wording that I use there is specific. Our strong suit creates people relating to us a certain way. What I mean by that is, the way you show up in your strong suit is going to cause people to relate to you a certain way. If your strong suit is to be generous, whenever things are tough, or there’s a risk of someone feeling left out, or things are unfair, people are going to start to relate to you as the one that will always be willing to sacrifice themselves when someone needs to do that. When it’s time for sacrifice, who are they going to look to? They’re going to look to Bobbie Sue because Bobbie Sue is that one, we can rely on to be generous. We’ve seen her do it time and time again. We don’t think, “Because that’s her strong suit,” “Because she learned,” we noticed Bobbie Sue is always generous. She’s going to be the first to put her hand up when it comes time to sacrifice.
Finally, because of all of this, your strong suit will earn you results, promotions, or whatever else it is, but it will simultaneously become a sore point for you. It’s a bit of a paradox. You can’t see your strong suit. Instead, what you see is the way that people always relate to you and what you do not get as a result of the way you’re being related to. In this example with Bobbie Sue, over time, people are going to assume that she won’t want the last slice of pizza. They’ll eventually stop asking her if she wants it. When it comes time to make a sacrifice, you’re going to rely on Bobbie Sue to be the one to do it because they know that she’s the least likely to be upset about it. Frankly, it’s awkward, troublesome, hard, and annoying to ask other people to make a sacrifice so why not go the path of least resistance.
I don’t relish having to ask people to make a sacrifice strong and ask the person that’s going to kick up the least amount of fuss. Bobbie Sue’s strong suit creates me relating to her as the one always willing to do it and as a result of how I relate to her, then I’m more likely to keep asking her to do the thing that her strong suit is set up to do. You could think of it that Bobbie Sue has trained me from her strong suit to relate to her this way. Further, because she’s trained me and the rest of the world around her to relate to her that way when she finally does get upset about how things always seem to go. It’s going to be especially pronounced to me because it’s a marked difference from the way she normally is about this thing. It’s going to be especially explosive or poignant when she gets upset because she’s been holding it in for so long because this is her strong suit.
All that to say, your strong suit gives you the experience of life you find yourself stuck in and it leaves you blind to the fact that you are the one actively creating that experience. This is the point where we have to stop again and mention that you can avoid this happening. To see and to have eyes is to have a blind spot so people that think, “I’ll read a bunch of books, and I can get clear on this.” No, that’s not how your blind spot works because you’re going to read, interpret and filter everything you get from that book through your blind spot.
You can’t get past this. When people hear me describe this, they often want to immediately eradicate their blind spot. It’s like, “Help me not get caught in my blind spot. How do I take action without getting caught in my blind spot?” You can’t. What you can do is be open to the fact that you’ll have many of these strong suits and that you’re going to inevitably blunder into them, despite your best intentions. From that place, you can work with a coach, or a leader to help you see when you’re operating from this place. The only way to get better at not stumbling into these blind spots or these strong suits is to be willing to stumble into them so someone can then reflect it to you. You can muster whatever grace you can to let go of your resistance to that, acknowledge it, choose back out of it, and keep practicing.
How Sand Traps Snare You
This is the crux of developing someone’s leadership. It’s this work of helping them see the blind spot helping them see the sandtrap. Let’s shift into talking about that now. How do sandtraps snare you and your people in terms of what’s next for their leadership? This strong suit, over time, stops being something chosen, deliberate, intended and becomes an automatic always on behavior. That’s when it becomes a sandtrap for leadership. To be clear, what I mean is, I might, as a child, have chosen that I don’t mind being generous here. I don’t mind thinking this through. I analyze it and it’s fun. Over time, and years spent on repeat, that falls below the level of our consciousness. It serves us for this to happen because then we don’t have to manage so much with our conscious brain. We don’t have to focus so much. We can shift stuff into the unconscious so we can be more efficient.
This is the same reason you don’t have to think. We call it Procedural Memory. You don’t have to think about driving a car and good things too because otherwise, it’d be quite distracting. You wouldn’t be able to talk in conversation with someone or do this or that because you’d be concentrating so much. The way that this creates a problem with our sandtrap is first, your team members, whenever they’re presented with a new challenge, are going to reach for their strong suit. This is their default. Whenever a team member has been invited to step into something unknown, they will inevitably, and without even being aware, reach for what has worked in the past. If you think about it, this is both common sense and totally practical. If putting in more hours than anyone else has worked in your life up to this point, why wouldn’t you keep trying to do it?
This tendency is a little bit doubling down on what we know how to do even if it isn’t working. It tends to be invisible to us because we can’t see ourselves in our strong suit, you’d forward the meme that said, “Repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is the height of insanity or the definition of insanity.” We attribute that to Albert Einstein or whoever. It doesn’t matter. The point is, we can all forward that meme, but we can’t see it when we’re doing it which is why the meme exists. We forward it and be like, “Roger should read this meme,” but Roger’s thinking, “You forwarding your own meme. You should read that meme.”
In this manner, we bump up against our own diminishing returns. Doubling down on whatever your strong suit is unwittingly, you can squeeze a little more juice out of that lemon. There’s a point where some result you want to create is not going to get created by simply working harder or by simply being more generous, or by whatever your strong suit would have you do. In fact, working harder may be the thing that is going to prevent you from creating whatever the next breakthrough is for your leadership. That’s the first way that the sandtrap gets us stuck. It has us automatically go down a certain path.
Second, these sandtraps are also sandtraps for you as a leader trying to develop someone else’s leadership. They’re sandtraps because it is convenient and easier to leave people to do the thing that is already working. If you have a team that feels overloaded and it has a bunch of friction, the tendency of one person on that team to double down on their own generosity and obsequiousness is going to seem a godsend, “Thank God, they’re willing to be kind and generous, because frankly, they’re the only one on the team willing to do so.”
What this creates is a bit of a perverse balance. The team member overcompensates via their strong suit doubling down on the generosity and what that does is it has the rest of the team hanging on the opposite end of the spectrum, exacerbating it, keeping the cycle going. If one person is willing to bear all of the burden of selfishness on the team, it doesn’t create the breakdown that would have the team need to show up differently. Things keep going in this shitty cycle and the hardest part about this is that to be willing to break this up as a leader requires, one, the ability to distinguish this, which you can’t do until you’ve seen it on your own side, and two, a willingness to cause breakdowns.
Three, a commitment beyond having things be easier and simpler. A reminder here that forging leadership is rarely more efficient or easier in the short-term. In the long-term, it’s vastly more so but in the short-term, it’s going to occur like a burden, “Why do I have to do this? This is stupid. I shouldn’t have to do this.” It requires a commitment, more powerful, bigger, and deeper than having things go easy and simple. Otherwise, why would you ever create a breakdown? To be a dick.
The final part of the sandtrap comes in the form of the question, “Why don’t I point to this then?” You may go ahead and try but the real part of the sandtrap here is that it’s a result of the fact that you’re going to be unable to distinguish this in your team members until you have had it distinguished in yourself. Imagine, if you are operating with the same context for generosity, the same strong suit, the same necessity to you always be generous no matter what, in order to manage your own perception of being selfish or unfair. You’re not going to relate to the team members’ reliance on generosity as a barrier to their next level of leadership.
In fact, you’re going to relate to them as the one person on the team that’s doing their work and making a difference unlike the rest of these selfish jerks. Therein lies your sandtrap, or rather one of many of them but in this case, there’s your sandtrap because you can’t see how that generosity is problematic for the leadership of this person. To you, it looks like the right thing to do, and finally, when you reflect this to your team members, they’re inevitably going to defend their pattern of behavior the same way you would in the example I gave. You’re going to say, “I notice that you always reach for generosity, and rather than be a stand for the team itself to create something different, you keep sacrificing yourself.” They’re going to go, “I’m trying to make this team work. There’s so much friction. I’m trying to make it go easily. I’m trying to make things work.”
Until you’ve been supported to see this in yourself, that’s going to beat you. That response, argument, and defensiveness, you’re going to inevitably collude with it or try to avoid it rather than going through it Now what? This gives us a good overview of what a leadership sandtrap is, why it comes into existence, and how they can present challenges to developing leadership. We’ll finish here with a few caveats and from then onwards, over the next episodes, we’ll be exploring some specific sandtraps for leadership.
I’m going to say this at the end. If of any particular ways of being or ways people show up that stymies you where you’re like, “It’s so hard for me around people that do this X, Y, or Z, please send them to me so I can distinguish that over here and create a picture of the sandtrap at play for you.” The more feedback we get on that, the better. You can do that at PR@AdamQuiney.com. A few caveats to finish up. One of the most important caveats worth making is that trying to figure out why this particular sandtrap exists is often a waste of time. Exploring why is a fascinating endeavor. It’s interesting, but it won’t move people beyond where they are.
More information is rarely what causes a shift in the face of a sandtrap. Some altitude can certainly make a difference, which is to say that seeing the forest for the trees rather than simply taking the next step in the pattern unconsciously. Understanding why rarely gives you altitude. It simply leads you to the next why in the chain. If you’ve raised children, you understand how there’s always another why. It never ends. The truth is that people came by each of their particular sandtraps honestly, by which I mean they put this together because it provided them something important, provided them value, and because it does tend to generate a certain result.
If you, as a leader can simply trust that this came together for a valid reason, we can then let go of that question of why is this here and shift to supporting what is more important, which is having someone step beyond the sandtrap and into the next stage of their leadership. In a coaching conversation, I always get into this with clients, maybe not always because they’ll be like, “Why am I so afraid to do this thing?” We can look into that but inevitably we get there to this point where it’s like, “Do you want to know why you’re afraid to do the thing, or do you want to do the thing? Which is more important?” If you could make the thing happen in the face of your fear without needing to know why that would be your preference or would it be to have the knowledge of why?
My job is to let them have the choice. It’s okay if they want to go down the path of why but almost inevitably when you put that question in front of people what they want to do is the thing. They don’t want fear to stop them and they’re hoping that if they figure out why, one, their fear will go away, which it never does. Two, unconsciously by asking why they can hang out and the exploration of why rather than confronting their fear. What’s best done here is for us to let go of why did this come into being and instead, how do we move past them?
The second caveat is that these sandtraps are not bad and that’s an important one. Each of these tendencies we’ll be covering, including the examples we’ve talked about, serve some purpose and have helped people thrive and get where they are now. The problem is not that sandtraps, yours and the people you lead, it’s not that they exist, that is not the problem. It’s that they’re automatic and unconscious. When something is automatic and unconscious, there is no possibility of creating something new. Instead, as soon as someone is confronted with the unknown, they’re on rails like a train on a set of rails. They’re following the actions and decisions mandated by their strong suit without any real capacity to choose something different.
As leaders, we want to make sure that we’re not vilifying these tendencies. First of all, as soon as you point to these and invite people to choose something different, they’re going to be on the defense, they’re going to hold on to them because it’s their strong suit. It’s like you’re taking away the best tool. If they feel any vilification, any make wrong in your being about these tendencies, that’s going to give them, even more, to defend against, which is part of why you’ve got to do the work on your side first. One of the things I often see is people say, “Adam, I’ve worked through this and myself. I never do this.” What that tells you is that the person has concluded this thing is wrong, therefore, “I will never do it.”
They haven’t moved past it. They’ve tried to lobotomize it from themselves. They’ve tried to make it wrong, that they did this thing one time and now that it’s gone forever, they’re a better person and they’re going to bring that to their staff trying to make their staff never do this thing. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do here. We’re not trying to remove something that pushes it further into your unconscious that it suppresses them. We’re trying to have someone able to see this and get back to choice. Is this the thing to do here?
It’s important not to vilify this. Instead, we want to be able to acknowledge when it’s automatic and see that’s going to prevent us from the deepest expression of our leadership, which includes the ability and capacity to be and do whatever is required. Instead, the game has distinguished these as they’re happening and choose something different when that is what is called for. Having said all of that, it’s a lot of high-level conceptual stuff. That’s where we’re going to leave you in this episode. In the next one, we’re going to start in by talking about the Sandtrap of TIMWATDIZZCRY. That’s a silly acronym I’ve made and what it stands for is Tell Me What To Do So I Can Resist and Resent You.
If you have encountered anything that feels like a sandtrap to you, where you’re like, “I cannot for the life of me figure out how to deal with this personality, way of showing up or things that keep happening,” send an email to PR@AdamQuiney.com and let us know. You can put the subject line SANDTRAP. I’d love to hear from you and we’ll include that in our upcoming sandtraps. That’s everything that we’ve got for you in this episode.
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