So you want to be a great technical leader.
Or perhaps you just want to feel more on top of things at work.
If so, it is best to have strategies for dealing with overwhelm, pressure, stress about upcoming deadlines, imposter syndrome and fears around failure or your self-worth.
I have a game-changer to share with you: energy management, and it is the key to unlocking consistent, sustained performance over time for those in technical leadership.
I want to show you why high performance means more than just technical know-how, level of care, hours worked and effort. It's also about conquering the mental obstacles that can hijack your decision-making, hinder your progress, and stop you from consistently showing up at a level you can sustain.
Without this ability, things will become too much at a certain point in your career, and it will be downhill from there. Moving to a new company will only bring a temporary reprieve.
I hope this sounds interesting and relevant, as it has undoubtedly served me extremely well in my life and career to know how to combat these feelings, and it will also help you.
Mental Obstacles That Hijack Your Decision-Making
This section will give some examples of mental obstacles to be aware of. It's not meant to be exhaustive, and that's by design. Later in this article, the information there can help you with many mental obstacles in technical leadership, not just those listed here.
What I'm looking to do here is help you identify the common ones with some context so you can start to notice others applicable to your situation. Only some things in the short descriptions below may apply to your situation. Generally, you'll know when something is wrong. You'll feel stressed, worried or anxious, or the imposter syndrome will come on strong as some examples. These things drain your energy and can leave you feeling paralyzed to act or frustrated to the point you don't want to act, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
Here are some examples of mental obstacles:
The fear of failure. An overwhelming sense of apprehension and anxiety when faced with the possibility of falling short or experiencing negative outcomes. It immobilizes us, making it difficult to take action or make decisions. We become paralyzed by the fear of not meeting expectations or being seen as inadequate. We worry about what others will think about us if we do fail.
Imposter syndrome. A persistent belief that our achievements result from luck or deception rather than our actual abilities. We fear being "found out" or "exposed" as a fraud and downplay our accomplishments. Despite evidence of competence, We doubt our skills, abilities, and achievements.
Defending the past and neglecting the future. An inclination to cling to the comfort and familiarity of the past, resisting change and innovation. We become fixated on preserving existing systems, ideas, or decisions, often at the expense of progress and growth. We spend a lot of time defending past decisions or environments, especially ones we were involved in, rather than being open to new possibilities. Focus is placed on why we can't do something rather than why we can first.
Avoiding ownership and dodging accountability. The tendency to evade taking responsibility for things, our actions, decisions, or their consequences. We engage in behaviours such as shifting blame, making excuses, or minimizing our role in a situation. By avoiding ownership and accountability, we don't need to be the ones to answer for a situation and can point fingers at others instead.
Resistance to change. It manifests as a reluctance to embrace new ideas, processes, or perspectives, often stemming from fear, comfort zones, or the desire to maintain the status quo.
Energy Management: How It Helps
So now you know what to watch out for in your feelings, let's talk about energy management and how it can help in these situations. Later we'll talk about how to implement it. This section is just talking about the concept.
The simplest way I could explain energy management is knowing when to give yourself a pat on the back or a kick in the ass. Everyone needs to be able to apply a healthy level of self-care without bullshitting themselves. Some things need your attention, and others don't. Sometimes you've done an excellent job, and other times you need to kick it up a gear.
One's ability to self-regulate the balance of these extremes will determine the consistent level of performance one can maintain.
An energy management framework can help you identify situations and your next steps to address them, such as decisions, actions, deferral, or even just taking a break to clear your mind. Without immediately changing the situation, it does change your empowerment and your sense of control of the situation.
Within this framework, you can allow yourself bad days and frustrating weeks at work, and dislike your job for periods of time, knowing that's perfectly ok.
And when that happens, you'll be able to surface the challenges and root causes behind those feelings and begin to address them for what they are constructively rather than jump to conclusions. You'll never always love your job, and that's ok. You'll never be at your best week in and week out. I feel like this is a taboo topic for some, but it doesn't need to be. Often, you will find your greatest triumphs and growth come from overcoming the things that initially challenge you.
Sometimes the answer is you do need to dig in and deal with what's in front of you. The answer is to address our problems head-on. That's the "don't bullshit yourself" side of things — same problem and situation, but with a mindset shift to empowerment and control.
Other times, you need to walk away, maybe permanently, but at least you'll do that with a clear head rather than just reacting.
Consistency is what matters over time. You don't need to be at 100% every single week to achieve big milestones and grow. You do need to show up consistently at a high enough level, though.
How to Implement Energy Management
Let's now talk about how to get started with energy management.
Before discussing more context on why they work from a mindset perspective, I will share some prompting questions you can use to begin managing your energy and dealing with what's in front of you. Using these questions will help in most situations. For others, the concepts later in the article will help.
The key to using these questions effectively is to set aside time to think deeply about them and how they apply to your situation without interruptions. Write down your answers for added effect.
That's all there is to it. There is no magic trick, whole books have been written about the questions I'll share now, and to get the most out of them, you just need to be prepared to sit, think with focus and answer them thoughtfully. I have been amazed at how effective and valuable one quote or sentence from a book can be if you think about it deeply as it applies to your situation.
More than one of these questions will apply to most mental obstacles, looking at it from different angles.
Ask yourself — If I'd just been hired and today was my first day on the job, what would I think or do about this situation?
This question helps with mental obstacles such as bias on past decisions versus a desired future state and taking ownership of a situation. Often I see people unable to look at situations objectively or to separate themselves from past decisions they or the teams they manage have made. As a result, a lot of time is spent talking about why things are the way they are versus how they could be.
The benefit of a new, skilled hire coming in is the fresh perspective they bring without the baggage.
Suppose you envision yourself as a newcomer, untethered by the weight of past decisions and biases. In that case, you develop the ability to view the present situation objectively and clearly.
This mindset shift allows you to evaluate the present challenges based on their own merits and merits alone. You reinvent yourself and avoid becoming stale. You become the proactive agent of change without being influenced by past decisions that may no longer align with the desired future state.
Ask yourself — What am I worried about? What can I do about it? When am I going to start doing it?
This one helps deal with worry around failure, change and imposter syndrome, to name a few.
It's so powerful and also humbling, given these prompting questions come from a book written 75 years ago. It shows me that humans haven't changed much, and we all feel or have felt the same things at different times.
In asking yourself these three sentences, a few common scenarios play out.
- You identify an actionable next step to address your worry and commit to doing it. This is empowering as opposed to worry, which drains your energy. For example, you may make a case and escalate it to your manager.
- You realize you've already taken the steps you need to do to address your worry. This helps with imposter syndrome to reflect on actions taken and where to focus your time, which should be on things you can control. The situation may not be solved yet, but you've done what you needed to do at this stage. Some upcoming information in this article about accepting the possibility of failure will help if you still feel uncomfortable.
- You realize you can't do anything about what you're worrying about, or it's not worth the time. It's out of your control, and your focus is better spent elsewhere. This one can be hard to accept, especially if some ramifications may come back to you, which can happen sometimes. More advice will follow on this below.
Ask yourself — What is the one thing I could do that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Everyone has that next essential task they've been putting off that they just need to get started on. Most of us are master procrastinators.
That's the essence of what this prompting question is getting at. Whole books have been written on this concept, and you don't need to read them to get started. You just need to think about this question deeply.
I like to add another dimension here to ask yourself this question on a micro (small) and macro (large) scale. A small thing might be completing some requested feedback for a team that unblocks them and takes 30 minutes of my time versus a large multi-quarter initiative of high strategic importance. Both are important to consider.
Mindset Shifts For Energy Management
Now that we've covered some practical techniques, I wanted to give you further concepts and readings about some of the fundamentals behind them.
You must accept that failure is always a possibility, and luck and chance always play a role.
Prepare yourself to accept the worst possible outcome.
Once you accept this, you're free.
Yes, at some point in your career, despite your efforts, you may need to fall on the sword and answer for subpar results. You will be held accountable, maybe even for the results of others.
The kicker is, if you don't accept this now, you can't take the actions or make the decisions needed to have a chance at success. Failure can become self-fulfilling otherwise as our energy is drained focusing on other things.
Relentlessly shift your focus to what you can control and your next steps.
Energy management is a critical aspect of sustained high performance for technical leaders. By acknowledging and addressing mental challenges, accepting the possibility of failure, taking ownership, and carving out time for reflection, you can enhance your decision-making abilities and overcome obstacles with resilience. Embrace the understanding that success requires accountability and a willingness to adapt to ever-changing environments. By prioritizing energy management, you equip yourself with the tools necessary to excel as a leader, drive your team's success, and make a lasting impact.