4 challenges leaders always face

October 7, 2019

By Mark Sanborn

If there weren’t challenges, we’d have little need for leaders.

For leaders everywhere, some challenges are unique and temporary, but many others are common and ongoing.

After 25 years of advising leaders, here are four challenges I’ve found that leaders always face, and what to do about them:

  1. To be respected and to be liked

Too many leaders use “being respected” as an excuse for not being liked. If you really had to choose one over the other, then respected is the better choice. But you don’t have to choose.

Being competent at what you do gains respect. Being nice to people gets people to like you. To do both takes only a little extra effort. You don’t have to be patronizing (that won’t get you liked anyhow), but you need to pay attention to how you treat the people you lead.

  1. Balancing the needs of the organization and the needs of people

Neither should this be an either/or choice, but many leaders are better at one than the other (or willing to sacrifice one for the other).

You can’t succeed for the long haul if you don’t pay attention to both. Both needs aren’t always perfectly balanced, but if people don’t feel cared for and supported with necessary resources, they won’t produce desired results. There are times when sacrifices will need to be made and most people understand that. But if you continually achieve results at the expense of your team, you’ll experience resentment and high turnover.


Of course if you can’t turn in results for your organization, you likely won’t get to stick around to take care of your team. Being liked but unable to deliver results is faux leadership.

  1. Staying motivated

The biggest mistake a leader can make is waiting for or hoping someone else will motivate him or her. Motivation is ultimately an inside job. An employer can provide a positive environment and aid in motivation, but staying motivated is something a responsible adult does for him or herself.

There are many ways to stay motivated, but knowing your purpose is a great beginning point. While Friedrich Nietzsche is over-quoted and not a philosopher I agree with completely, I do agree with his statement that he who has a reason why can bear almost any how. Low sense of purpose, low motivation. High sense of purpose, high motivation.

One of the biggest failure points of leadership is when “what” trumps “why.” Leaders rarely last when they don’t have a clear sense of the why, their purpose.

  1. Maintaining focus

There are many demands on a leader’s attention and too many leaders allow others to determine theirs. Effective focus comes from knowing what is most important and choosing to focus on that first. Not all distractions can be ignored, but most can be tabled until a better time to deal with them.

Not all tasks are equal, and just as a clear purpose helps in staying motivated, so does it help in staying focused. Never confuse activity with accomplishment. One is an input, the other an output.

At the beginning of each day, in addition to your to-do lists and other time management tools, ask yourself, “What is the most important thing we need to accomplish today?” Make sure your team knows the answer, too.

Learn to look at challenges as the real work of leadership.

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