STOP THE DRAMA: 7 questions that can help leaders disengage from the distracting drama that pulls them off their priorities

The top elected leaders of membership organizations often must contend with many unseen and unexpected challenges during their term in office.  From a leadership standpoint, there is one challenge that can consume a leader and force him/her away from goals and priorities. Drama.

Yep, drama. It can grab a chapter, council, or national president by the ear and spin him or her around.  Drama, if left unchecked, can define the tone and tenor of a leader’s term. It can spread like fire, especially since we, as leaders, tend to actively add accelerants.

What is drama?  Within the context of organizational leadership, drama can best be defined as a personal and emotionally-driven issue or agenda that one person desires to expand beyond him or herself.  And the elected leaders of the organization stand in position to be the perfect conduit by which to scale up the drama.

Practically, drama can appear in any of these ways:
  • Personal animosities, and trying to turn one side against the other.
  • Rumors, gossip, and hearsay.
  • Trying to give a personal opinion more weight than it deserves.
  • Complaints against other leaders or staff.

Now each of the above can appear in productive ways too.  For example, if a member has an opinion he wants to have heard, then speaking up at a chapter meeting or executive officer meeting is an effective way for it to be expressed.  There should also be structured ways to give more critical complaints.  These things become drama when an individual tries to use a personal relationship with a particular leader to advance his or her singular agenda.  The president gets pulled aside after a meeting, or gets stopped in the hallway, or is cornered at a convention.  It could also come via social media or email.

And it’s very difficult for the president to not want to listen, to help, and to support the person talking to them in that moment.

But there is a very important realization that mature leaders discover, and it stands opposite to what we have always understood elected leadership to mean: you are not the leader of the people.  It is not your job to hear and react to each and every individual need, and trying to do so most often leads to ineffective results for all parties.  Rather, the mature view on this is that elected leaders have a clearly defined role as stated in your governing documents, and “staying in your lane” is often the best service you can give to the organization and yourself.  If I read your bylaws, it probably says that you are responsible for the overall strategic direction of the organization, lead the officer team towards those ends, and represent the organization to the external public.  It likely doesn’t say that you should spend hours listening to a disgruntled senior complain about the location for this year’s formal.

Trying to be an individual champion to member needs can be noble, but can also be self-serving.  It may allow you appear to be egalitarian and responsive, but at the expense of effective and efficient results for those who need help.  It can distract you and take you away from your priorities.  And it only fuels the drama.

You weren’t elected or chosen so that you can devote your precious energy to small things or things that are others’ responsibilities. You were chosen to lead on the big things, to set direction, to devise strategies, to achieve vision. 

If you aren’t careful, you’ll be standing at the end of your term looking back at small and endless bouts with drama instead of the lofty organizational progress you desired.

Those leaders that draw drama tend to be those that (a) feel that as a leader they should be capable of solving all problems, (b) are self-centered in that they don't believe others can be more capable than them, (c) have an extraordinary desire to be liked, and (d) are drama producers and enthusiasts themselves.

So what do you do? Do you completely isolate yourself in fear of being absorbed with drama and individual needs?  That’s impossible.  Instead, you need to be discerning and thoughtful with how you respond.  Below is a checklist of questions to ask yourself to decide if a personal need is a legitimate use of your valuable and focused time as a leader, or is just drama waiting to be unleashed:

  1. Is this my concern and does it truly deserve my attention?  This is a fundamental question. Remember, stay in your lane.  Sub-questions would be (a) will solving this situation help me perform my role more effectively, (b) will it reduce (not increase) my workload, and (c) can be justified in terms of my vision, goals, and priorities?
  2. Can I see this issue being solved more quickly, easily, and effectively by someone else? For those alumni leaders reading this, often we want to solve problems for others instead of turn to our paid professional staff.  Yet, the staff can handle it and our interference will likely cause an unnecessary duplication of service.
  3. If I choose to intervene, could my involvement be disruptive or disrespectful to someone else? If you, as the top elected leader, involve yourself in a situation that really belongs to someone else, it can erode trust and the sense of teamwork among your leadership team.
  4. If I choose to intervene, would my involvement likely take my focus away from other things? Be realistic. There is only so much time and energy in a day, and in an officer term. What will you need to sacrifice in order to champion this more personal need?
  5. What is the most definitive response I can give at this moment?  One of the worst answers you can give is “I will look into it for you.” While it passes off the concern temporarily, it means you’ve taken it on as a project.  Try to be definitive and say things like “you need to contact [name]” or “I don’t have the bandwidth to take this on, but perhaps the next president can” or…get ready for it…”No, I’m sorry but I can’t make that a priority right now.” 
  6. If this is a complaint, am I being objective?  The drama-producer wants nothing more than you to validate their concern. Try to remain neutral so that you don’t inadvertently throw a fellow leader or staff member under the bus.
  7. If this is a new idea, am I being measured and not making promises? If someone is invested in an idea, and they hear from the top elected leader that it’s good, or will work, or can work, or any version of the same, he/she will latch on to that as a solid commitment. Some good responses include “I’ll take time to give that more consideration” or “I’ll give some thought to how that fits into our goals and priorities.” Of course, see number 6 above. If you don’t see the idea panning out, don’t lead the person on.
A quick caveat: a complaint or concern that levies a very serious charge or accusation against a person should be addressed.  For instance, if you hear gossip that someone is stealing from the organization, or abusing his/her position, or doing something else illegal, then it’s your obligation to investigate.  

But for most issues, you can actively steer away from the drama by asking good questions of yourself and being appropriately locked into your role and responsibilities.  Drama is an untamed beast, and the more you feed it, the more it will want to consume you. Stay above the drama and lead.