In a recent speech for about sixty undergrad management students, I posed the question: “How many of you either already occupy, or aspire to a professional role as a leader?” Everyone in the room raised a hand. After acknowledging delight in seeing so much interest, I then remarked soberly, “some of you probably need to put your hands back down”, drawing scornful glances from two professors seated in the back row.
I didn’t say it to be mean or dispiriting, but realistic. Being a leader can be a joy, but it isn’t easy. On lots of days, it’s no bargain, and let’s just get this out of the way… As with any other occupation or profession, not everyone is cut out to do it. In fact, when you get right down to it, very few are – not because it requires an abundance of smarts or skill, but because it’s hard, especially on the first few rungs of the ladder, where you have pressure from above and below, the incoming never stops, and you don’t get to call a time-out. It’s a bit like fast-roping your way into an armed conflict without the benefit of training or ammunition.
Given the shrinking leadership bench that exists in so many organizations, (it’s truly one of the things that keeps CEO’s awake at night), the odds are good that, just like those college seniors, you’ll be asked someday to take on a leadership role at work, or elsewhere. Alternatively, if the entrepreneurial bug has bitten, you’ll be thrust into the role by virtue of pursuing that dream. You may aspire to it. I hope so. Either way, you would do well to give serious thought to the matter now, before the question is popped, and while you’re still thinking clearly.
Being a leader at any level means regularly doing things that are not especially pleasant, or in your immediate self-interest. It’s not fun to have to tell an old friend that they need to change or leave, to send three staffers home because you no longer have enough work for them, or because somebody over-estimated the quarterly earnings. Nor is it especially joyful to have to learn and master things that you have no interest in. And, fair or not, leaders get paid to occasionally take one for the team. That’s just the way it is.
If you’re still interested, good. We need you. Here are three things you’ll want to quickly be on top of by virtue of accepting the mantle of leadership:
Being a good leader takes a lot out of you. It’s important that you go into it with a good sense of why you’re doing it, how it fits your long-term goals, and what you hope to get from it. Otherwise, it will never make sense.
Become a great (read, quick) learner. Pay particular attention to:
- Becoming a master of your time and priorities. Learn to diplomatically say ‘no’ to things that don’t fit your priorities.
- Learning quickly to share power and responsibility.
Unlike politicians, leaders must have the courage to speak the truth and stand for something, while still playing nice in the sandbox. Any playground bully can say harsh things to or about people. A good leader needs to know how to continue working with people after delivering an unpopular message.
With a good dose of humility, realize that, no matter how high you ascend, leadership is not about you. Rather, it’s about the mission and the team.
Get serious about your professional development. Always have a few people nearby who care enough to tell you the unvarnished truth. Get a coach or mentor, even if you have to pay for it out of your own pocket.
If you want to be a good leader, learn to listen, really listen, both to what people are saying, and what they aren’t. Listening connotes respect, and you usually learn something. Nobody’s epitaph ever said, “He listened too much.” (Note to the guys: The “he” there was intentional.) Remember, two ears, one mouth.
Set a high bar, first for yourself, then others. You don’t become a leader of choice by tolerating ho-hum performance from people who are mailing it in.
Be quick to accept a little more than your rightful share of blame when things go wrong, and to give others credit for their contributions when things go well.
Be very candid in discussing issues with team-members, but never, ever climb on someone’s bumper in public.
Managing the System
Envision a hot iron gliding down the ironing board, silently removing wrinkles from an article of clothing. As leaders, it is our responsibility to ‘be that iron’ by identifying and removing impediments to our teammates’ best effort. Find the policies, procedures, methods, tools, etc. that are getting in the way, keeping people from doing their best work, and change or remove them. Making this a part of your daily regimen will earn a lot of discretionary effort from a grateful team.