Crossroads in leadership: Standing in the limelight

Tim Wenzel - Standing in the limelight

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This installment of our series with Tim Wenzel, CPP, Co-Founder and President of The Kindness Games, sees him discuss how leaders are defined by how they respond when in the limelight.

The public eye

There is a universal human fear – or at least anxiety – around public speaking. It’s kind of amusing if you think about it. Speaking is something we all do; going out in public and gathering with friends is something most of us love to do. 

However, something changes when you have a speech to give, even to a group of friends.  

What changes? We step into a spotlight. A small spotlight on a very private stage. This should be simple and safe to do in these settings, yet it’s difficult and we all admire others who seem to do it with ease.

When discussing leadership, we rarely talk about the importance of standing in the limelight. 

The limelight – a much brighter spotlight. It’s a larger spotlight in a more public venue where spectators of all kinds come to see you perform. 

You will have some friends in the crowd but also those who might want to see you fail, some who wish to watch you struggle… The limelight is where our reputations are formed, where our performance is scrutinized. 

The limelight starts in our workplace but quickly extends beyond.  

Where leaders establish their career arc and credibility

Leadership has a unique dynamic. Once you accept the role, you step into the limelight and you are never allowed to step out of it while you’re leading.

It follows you on every corner of your stage. If you manage people, they are always watching you, looking for guidance, approval, trying to gauge how things are going around them.

If you lead projects, all the stakeholders are watching you. If you are in a programmatic or governance role then legal, compliance and other entities are watching you, weighing your thought process.

If you have industry or social prominence, then more people are looking to you than you could ever know… Whichever capacity you lead, the bosses are watching you – you cannot escape the limelight.  

It’s why burnout and the lack of ability to disconnect from work or vacations is a plague among leaders.  It’s a plague which takes good leaders, with great philosophies and intentions and begins to erode and toxify them. The intensity of the limelight has the ability to transform and destroy.

We’ve discussed the foundation of our leadership philosophy – Me or we? I advocate for the we perspective because it solidifies relationships and enables our ability to rally others around a common good instead of what is just good for me.

We discussed that Change is always. Pressure is an invisible force which tells us something has changed. The only certainty is that things are changing and we must remain mentally agile, sensitive to the pressures around us and understanding what these pressures point to, so we can remain relevant. 

At the outset of this journey through the Crossroads in leadership, we discussed the insecurity in security… The limelight is the crossroad – the crosshairs on how you manage yourself, your emotions, your relationships and where the true nature of your leadership convictions are exposed for all to judge.

Many who choose the path of leadership have an affinity for the limelight… or at least the spotlight. We romanticize it. The intensity of the limelight extends beyond the people who look and rely upon you. 

When you became a leader, you’ve transitioned realms. You’ve left being responsible for making something happen and stepped into accountability for whatever happens.

While this allows you to bask in the limelight of glory, you can also be forced to stand in the limelight of scrutiny… where you can feel your reputation forming in real time…

The crossroad

Who will you become when you are forced to stand in the limelight?  

The intensity of these seasons in a career bring discomfort and embarrassment. Everything is at stake because when we are here, everyone we work with knows it.

When the outcomes we are accountable for are in question, the venue becomes quiet, the audience leans forwards to see what will happen.

Pressure mounts, the sympathetic glances from our allies don’t offer relief and the smugness of our haters feel like daggers. If we are not committed, if we don’t have a concrete understanding of who we are and why we’re present in this moment, we will bend to find relief.

In our discomfort, we compromise and become unreliable, a universal disappointment. The trust we’ve earned over years could evaporate in a moment.

There is no avoiding this situation for leaders. As you grow, as you rise, the stakes become higher so let’s prepare for the inevitable.

There is an exercise all my mentees go through. It is designed to formulate your brand, to set your personal and professional northstar. 

This allows you to stand firm in who you are when you’re faced with uncomfortable or even painful circumstances. You’ll know how to act and interact with others when you’re confused about how to move forward.

Write down two to three things you are personally intrigued by, which have enduring professional value.  These items should be unlikely to change in major ways. They should be constant, though they may evolve over time, they remain your northstars.

I have chosen risk management, leadership and kindness. These three items I love to discuss and understand on a deeper level. They are ingrained in the way I see the world, the way I interact with everyone and they are industry agnostic, yet vital in all. 

Risk management, leadership and kindness are at the core of my professional philosophy and they are the only things I will do or talk about no matter the role I am in, the project I lead or the conversations I need to have. 

In the limelight, whether I stand voluntarily or not, these are who I will be, what I will speak to. They are my constant, the expectation, they are a safe haven I’ve crafted for myself.

How will people experience me? This is the next concept to define for yourself and is the operational task of building who you are. 

These statements should evolve based on your career progression and maybe even role, but the themes of the experience others will have with you should not change. They will become your reputation and the expectation all will have.

“I build high performing, autonomous teams by creating joyful environments in which people create, experiment and thrive.”

“I have a passion to transform the existing paradigms of leadership and risk management while creating organizational value through well designed programs.”

“I educate executives and risk stakeholders across the business to understand the security risk to their organizations, enabling them to make informed, well-reasoned decisions.”  

The bold words are the key experiences I wanted people to have with me. What people will be attracted to. The sentence structures surrounding them morph over time and context.  

These statements find their way into my resume, LinkedIn profile, speaker’s bio and job interviews… especially when I believe they will be controversial or unpopular.  

I need people to understand who they are dealing with and how their experience with Tim Wenzel will feel.

Several years ago, I made the decision to quit trying to “fit in” everywhere. To quit trying to be liked by everyone. 

These are unhealthy and unattainable aspirations; they caused an endless stream of compromise and inconsistency. They caused anxiety and confusion for me and my stakeholders. “Who do I need to be to achieve…” 

After a while I realized that I was full of hypocrisy, I was bending to every wind and I was so much less effective than I should be.

When I first went through this exercise to create a personal vision statement, the framework of my brand, it felt great to write it down. 

It felt good to tell people who I was and how I always show up, but the pressure to bend is always there.  The glances of disapproval, the awkward laughs, the well meaning advice on “how to be” doesn’t feel good when it’s contrary to who you’d like to become.  

The fact of the matter is, most people are uncomfortable when anyone decides to be different, to set themselves apart, to stop trying to conform. 

When your mind is made up, when you are secure in who you will become, pressure will mount to cause you to bend, compromise, rethink your position… until you’ve become who you set out to be.  

It’s difficult to know when that transition will happen, but it most certainly begins to solidify after a crucible in the limelight; after you’ve endured pressure and scrutiny and you haven’t bent. You’ve absorbed the risk, absorbed the consequences and left your brand – and trust – intact.

An unfortunate but universal human truth is that we want to bend others to our will. ln the right circumstances, with the right pressures, your integrity will be challenged.

Not your honesty, but your wholeness, the essence of who you claim to be.  

This is the final internal obstacle to overcoming the insecurity within and becoming someone who seemingly always knows where they are going and what to do. This is requisite to becoming an inspirational leader. Someone in which people will consider placing their trust and loyalty.  

Without designing who you will become and how you will be experienced, it is difficult to weather the storms.

You will have difficulty being the calm and the pillar of strength during times of crisis. Most importantly, you will have difficulty inspiring the trust of others.  

This is the measure of how effective a leader is able to become. Who will you become in the limelight?

You can find Tim on LinkedIn here.

The next installment of Crossroads in leadership will be released on 5 September! To read the previous installment, click here.

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