One of my favorite scenes from "Saving Private Ryan" was a discussion that Tom Hanks was having with a couple of members from his unit. They were complaining about the mission and wanted his take on things. When challenged on it his response was classic - "I don't complain to you, I complain to my superior, he complains to his and so on. I don't complain to you, your a Ranger you should know that." It was a small part of the movie but it holds a truth that leaders would do well to consider.
We have talked before about the high failure rate of people being moved into leadership. Of those who fail, nine out of ten fail because they lacked those skills required for leadership. Wisdom is one of those skills. I say it is a skill because contrary to common belief it can be learned and mastered. One aspect of wisdom is found in Mr. Hanks explanation to his subordinates - leaders don't complain down, they complain up.
This is often the first trap that new leaders fall into. Having moved from being in the group into leading the group folks are often confronted with dealing with concerns or complaints about certain issues or initiatives as well as their own misgivings about those things. Our habits would have us join in on the venting and this would be a mistake. Whether we perceive or realize it or not a line has been crossed and we are no longer just one of the gang. We are now in leadership and regardless of the level of that leadership those that report to you now look to you for answers, guidance and direction. They take their cue from you. Your response and perspective will be instrumental in the formation of the dynamic of team.
If you join in and express misgivings or vent with the group you are undermining your leadership. You undermine your leadership because you have communicated in a subtle way that you can't do anything to impact change and you have undermined their confidence in the leadership in the company in general. This is not a recipe for effective engagement.
Lets go back to that scene with Tom Hanks. When his group pushes the issue and asks him what his response would be if he were one of them he replies: "Thank you sir, I see this as a very important mission and well worth the use of our fine resources (men) to find this Private Ryan and assuage the grief of his mother." One of the guys looks at the other and says "He good, very good!"
There are many lessons in that scene; he doesn't avoid the elephant in the room (why risk all of them for one man) but rather addresses it directly, and lets them discuss it as well. He provides a great example of how to deal with ambiguity of these types of issues and sets an example of what he expects of them and is actually leading that example. What he is very clear about and doesn't do is join in the griping. Is he part of the group? Absolutely after all he is out there with them. However, he makes a clear distinction between his role and his feelings. He knows his role is to provide reassurance and leadership, his feelings he will share only with those it is appropriate to share with.
Whether you realize it or not, with your group, all eyes are on you. What kind of leadership do you want them to see?