Some Advice for New Leaders in the New Year

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Some Advice for New Leaders in the New Year

This week I’m recording an interview with Kathy Tuberville, a University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business instructor who has elected to use our book, Rebooting Leadership in an upper level undergrad course on leadership. As a precursor to our discussion, she posed two questions for me to address in our interview. I did my best to answer them in a fashion that I thought would be most useful to her students, and have shared my thoughts below. To the degree that you have new or young leaders in your organization, or perhaps you are one yourself, you/they may find this of interest:

What are today’s biggest leadership challenges for emerging and newly appointed leaders? The greatest challenge perhaps is that the on-ramp to today’s leadership highway is short, steep, and unforgiving. Less than a decade ago it was still conventional for newly appointed leaders to experience the benefit of some pretty intensive leadership training in their first few months on the job (if not prior), and be on a relatively short leash with their reporting senior during that period. Within reason, mistakes were expected, and were considered part of the learning curve. Today, not so much. Most of the prep work is a DIY proposition, and mistakes are things that your boss may be less able or inclined to provide air cover on, so it’s probably best that they happen to other people.

Not unlike the world of professional football (the U.S. variety), where yesterday’s rookie players (quarterbacks in particular) could expect to ride the bench for a year or more before being inserted into the starting lineup, today’s players are paid (and expected) to be fully productive from day one. And sadly, once on the field, we tend to forget that they are still rookie players, and not fully developed.

I will submit that had a lot to do with the recent re-injury of Washington Redskins’ rookie phenom quarterback, Robert Griffin III during the team’s first (and only) game of the 2012-13 NFL playoffs. As a 22 year old man who, to my knowledge has not spent any time in med school, Mr. Griffin was allowed to be the sole decider as to whether or not his previously injured leg was ready for action. He guessed wrong. It wasn’t, and hopefully he will recover.

Perhaps the most challenging part of this for the rest of us has to do with the fact that today’s newly appointed leaders can’t always count on having a good example set for them. By virtue of having a sour economy for the past five years, it is entirely likely that their boss hasn’t had the benefit of any leadership training either, ergo it’s not unusual to have the blind leading the blind.

The good news (and it is good news) is that, due to the fact that most of today’s workers are more likely to engage with (and on behalf of) their leader rather than the broader organization, the efforts of each individual leader tend to matter quite a bit more. It’s truly motivating when you realize that what you pour yourself into every day is indeed mission critical.

What are your recommendations for students to achieve success as leaders? For better or worse, here’s what I said.

1.    For openers, be bone honest with yourself about whether or not you are up for this particular ride.

  • Do you have the courage to make tough, unpopular decisions, and to deliver bad news without blaming them on someone else? How about telling a friend that they either need to change or leave?
  • Do you have the resilience to take shots and beatings that are intended for other people (your team) without whining? You better be, because that’s part of the job.
  • Are you willing to subordinate personal interest for the good of the team?
  • Are you willing to liberally share credit with others, perhaps even more than what they deserve at times? If so, proceed. We need a lot more like you.

2.    Early on, it’s important that you become a real master of your time and priorities. On day one, and every day thereafter, you’re going to have a hundred fresh emails and other incoming items of varying importance before you even get to work, and a line out the door (oops, doors are a thing of the past) when you do. How you handle that stuff and keep it in proper context will materially impact your success as a leader, not to mention your sanity.
3.    Though you must be ever mindful of the fact that accepting the mantle of leadership means that you are held to a higher standard, you must at the same time, be authentic – be real. People who are not comfortable in their own skin have a habit of becoming petty tyrants.
4.    Be grateful, and show it, every day. Really. Leadership is not about you. It’s about the mission, and it’s about them.
5.    Become a good listener. It’s one of the quickest ways of gaining the respect and trust of others, not to mention being a great path to the answers you need.
6.    Lastly, unless you find that you’ve been blessed with having a really good boss who is both competent and willing to invest a lot of time in your development, get a coach or mentor that you can rely on – somebody who has been around the block a few times, who cares about you, and won’t blow smoke up your nose.

These are my thoughts. You are invited to join the discussion.

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