In the same way people without children can’t really know what it’s like to have kids until they do, you can’t really know what it’s like to be a leader until you actually lead. Even in organizations that invest in leadership development struggle with helping new leaders fully comprehend what it means to lead. Leadership programs often emphasize the operational mechanics of leading—planning, organizing, budgeting, or content that leans more toward management, such as delegating, time management, and giving feedback. What most leadership programs neglect to cover, but that new leaders quickly discover, is that leadership is massively freakin’ hard. What is left out is how political, shifting, and unpredictable leadership is. Also absent is how much the emotional aspects of leading overshadow and often interfere with the mechanical ones. Consequently, the excitement of finally moving into a leadership role, sometimes after years of toiling among the rank and file, quickly gives way to intense feelings of pressure, anxiety, and inadequacy. After moving into their first leadership role, new leaders are often dumbstruck by how ill prepared they are for leading others. Here are just a few of the raw realities that quickly confront new leaders:
Adults are big babies. You lead people, and people are fi ckle, quirky, and often petty. On occasion, even experienced employees will act childish, like grown-up toddlers wearing bigger clothes and sporting larger and more fragile egos. Sure, they can be smart, passionate, and upstanding too. The problem is the unpredictability. On any given day in any given work situation, it is hard to predict which people are going to act like adults and which are going to act like whiney, sniveling, irritable babies.
Demands are relentless and unforgiving. You’re only deemed successful as a leader if you get results. The drive to produce results is incessant. No matter how well you do this quarter, or with this project, or with this customer, you’ll be expected to do more and better next time. Your reputation is always on the line. The pressure is multiplied by the fact that people are counting on you to not let them down. Your organization holds you to the same expectation.
Making people uncomfortable is your job. Leadership has everything to do with creating, managing, and effecting change, which, by definition, is uncomfortable. People are comfort-preferring creatures. That said, human beings (and organizations) don’t grow in a zone of comfort. We grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort. The harsh reality is that your job as a leader is to make people uncomfortable. Doing otherwise breeds complacency. Thus, you have to constantly be stretching people toward higher goals and standards. But guess what? People generally don’t appreciate you making them uncomfortable.
The cavalry isn’t coming. Self-reliance is a hallmark of strong leadership. You’ll sometimes feel under siege from the volume and intensity of the challenges you’re facing. Regardless, you’ll be expected to bring them to resolution— without the aid of a handbook. Leadership can be a lonely endeavor. With no cavalry to rescue you, you’re forced to grope your way through, often making things up as you go along.
The startling discovery that leading others is way harder than first imagined is often the moment that a leader actually starts to become a leader. But the discovery, which involves facing one’s leadership inadequacies, is often painful. In my new book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, I call these humbling events an “ass kick.”
Here are some tips new leaders can use to transition from rookie to leader:
Get over yourself. At this stage in your leadership career, you don’t have enough of a track record to be bragging. Stop trying to prove to everyone how smart, competent, or in command you are. Fixating on the rung above you— and the bigger salary you assume it comes with— just shows others that you’re self-centered. Try this instead: focus on helping your direct reports succeed. Leaders succeed when they make others successful.
Shut your piehole. Monitor your talking to listening ratio. Then listen a lot more than you talk. If you pay attention to how the most experienced leaders carry themselves, you’ll see that biting one’s tongue is a hallmark of seasoned judgment.
Don’t bellyache. It’s common for new leaders to be excessively hard on themselves, which makes them too negative. Practice gratitude. At the start of each day, list at least three things for which you are grateful. Tell people that you’re grateful for their contributions. The more thankful you are, the more positive you’ll be for others.
Don’t be sloppy. Nothing says “I’m a crappy leader” as much as being a disorganized mess. Stop building skyscrapers with stacks of paper on your desk. Show some self-respect and clean up your workspace. Take an interest in dressing better, eating better, and taking better care of yourself. Be better.
Stun your tech. Put down your stupid smartphone and actually talk to people. ’Nuff said. Just because you’re in a leadership role doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Becoming a good and effective leader takes hard work. Part of that work involves deciding who you want to be as a leader, and the contribution you hope to make through your leadership influence. The other part involves navigating through leadership’s harsh realities. The good news is, as hard as leadership is, it can also be fantastically rewarding. Your influence can help make a positive and lasting impact on people’s careers and lives. All it takes is making the most out of your leadership kick in the ass!
Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting. He is the author of the bestselling books Courage Goes To Work and Courageous Leadership. His newest book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, focuses on the crucial importance of leadership humility and is now available on Amazon. » Learn More.