Frustration as a Warning Sign for Leaders

It is important for servant leaders to recognize frustration as a warning sign of poor priorities. The next time you are frustrated with a situation, ask yourself "am I focused on serving this person, organization or situation?"

Frustration Should be a Warning Sign in Servant LeadershipYou know the feeling – that frustration when you can not convince a particular “blocker” to get on board. I’d been going back and forth in my head for weeks, trying to figure out how to get a message through to a particular blocker, so they would support the initiative. “Everyone else got it, why didn’t he?!” kept racing through my thoughts. Then it occurred to me: the problem was not his, it was mine. I had not been focused on serving them, but on my need to move the project forward.

The frustration was my big, red flag. I stopped to try and understand why I was frustrated. Was it really because they would not budge or was it because I was unable to move them? The latter was true. Was I frustrated because we could not meet the needs of the  broader organization or because he was blocking my ability to attain a personal goal? Again, the latter was true. As I dug through my frustration, it was clear I had not approached the problem from a perspective of serving.

To clarify, here are a couple definitions for frustration:

  • “the feeling that accompanies an experience of being thwarted in attaining your goals” (wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn; 2010.06.26, emphasis added)
  • “Frustration is a common emotional response to opposition. Related to anger and disappointment, it arises from the perceived resistance to the fulfillment of individual will. The greater the obstruction, and the greater the will, the more the frustration is likely to be. …” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frustration; 2010.06.26, emphasis added)

As the emphasis highlights, frustration is a sign that you may be focused on yourself and not the needs of others. Therefore, as a leader in you organization, frustration should be a warning sign to you as well. When you feel frustrated, remember your calling as a leader to serve those you lead, first.

After recognizing the source of my frustration, here’s how I altered my own approach and suggest those in similar circumstances consider:

1. Return to Listening: What is the source of the problem causing your frustration? In this case, I needed to meet with this person and commit myself to only listening to their concerns. I could not present any alternatives, contradictions or disagreements in this meeting – just listen. Your situation may be broader than a single individual, listen all the same.

2. Find the Gap: What was the gap you identified after listening, that created the frustration? In my case, the objector had a need that could not be met, immediately, by the proposed solution. In your case, there may be more than one gap, define them. I found actually writing out the gaps helped clarify the picture.

3. Meet the Need: In your role as a servant to those you lead, you must meet their needs. If you’ve listened effectively and identified the gap(s), you can meet the need. In my case, it was a simple matter of timing. Over time, we could meet the needs of the objector. Therefore, we made a plan that provided objective traceability on our progress to that need. Define your own way to meet the need of the gap(s).

Now, I am a realist and understand this will not resolve every source of your frustrations. These simple 3 steps will not create world peace or cure cancer. However, it is important for servant leaders to recognize frustration as a warning sign of poor priorities. The next time you are frustrated with a situation, ask yourself “am I focused on serving this person, organization or situation?”

Question: Is there something frustrating you now that you may need to change your priorities on?

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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

5 thoughts on “Frustration as a Warning Sign for Leaders”

  1. Good reminders. Also applicable to the relationship with a leader’s leader. Being a good follower can be frustrating sometimes, too, especially when a difference there can impact how you want to serve your team. These same three points can be used to work through that.

  2. Pingback: The Defeatist Attitude of the Domestic Violence Movement: The Need for Prevention « Lyn Twyman

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