I have had uncanny success in my company. I am extremely competitive and incredibly focused, and I work really hard because I live in fear of disappointing my boss or my customers.
Now my boss wants to put me in charge of a whole region—to open an office with about 75 people reporting to me. I have never managed people before, and my boss is asking me to lead all of these people. I am paralyzed with terror. I don’t even know much about the job. I keep asking my boss for some direction and he seems to expect me to just do it.
What is leadership, really? I generally don’t take things on if I don’t see how I can win, but I either have to step up to this challenge or start looking for another job.
Generally, I think there are two kinds of people: people who work their way up to being leaders and people who unwittingly become leaders without thinking much of it. You, clearly, are neither. You are being thrown into the deep end with your eyes wide open. The good news is that you are smart enough to be scared, which is entirely appropriate.
Speaking from experience, I can attest that leading and managing people is thankless, impossible, exhausting, and the most worthwhile challenge there is. It is a little like being a parent in that there is no one who can tell you how to do it. You kind of have to figure it out as you go. Being great at it will depend on your leveraging your superpowers and your strengths and finding ways to manage your weaknesses and human frailties.
Your boss is making a commonplace assumption. He is assuming that because you are a rock star individual contributor, you will be a rock star manager and leader. That is almost never true—and is, frankly, why our company has a thriving business. Anything that isn’t going well in a company is because of leadership. That is one of the few things I know for sure.
Your biggest initial challenge, I suspect, will be shifting from being a star performer to creating, developing and supporting star performers. Until now, your work has been all about you: your drive to compete, ability to focus, and work ethic. You will have to withstand a fair amount of discomfort and practice as you shift to making your work all about others. Who am I kidding? It will be a lot of discomfort. Just getting your head wrapped around that shift will be monumental.
The most important thing you can do right now is, first, breathe and slow down. Then put on your beginner’s mind, adopt a growth mindset, and make a commitment to becoming a student of leadership. This will help you to be patient and kind with yourself and it will keep you engaged over the long haul. And it will be a long haul, my friend, because in rising to this challenge, you are signing up for a lifelong quest.
I looked on Amazon and there are 60,000 books available on leadership and 10,000 on management. My father-in-law, Ken Blanchard, coauthored 65 of them. So I can’t exactly recommend the #1 book you need, but here is what I can do: I can point you to some eBooks and book summaries to get you started.
- A book summary of Ken’s newest: The Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust
- A book summary of Leading at a Higher Level; Blanchard on Leadership and Creating High Performing Organizations
- An Ebook: Taking a Situational Approach to Management
- A white paper: The Leadership-Profit Chain
Once you get into our resources site, you will find a treasure trove of simple—but not simplistic— guidance.
One of the most valuable insights in the Leadership-Profit Chain white paper is the distinction between strategic leadership and operational leadership. This is critical because it gives you a way to think about this massive topic in small bites, so it doesn’t feel like a tidal wave coming at you. It also helps (me, at least) break down the differences between leadership and management; terms most people use interchangeably. Some definitions that might be helpful:
- Strategic Leadership defines the imperatives for everyone in the organization. It is the what that provides the key relationships and metrics needed to ensure all units follow the same strategy. Strategies must then identify the criteria that are the key determinants of behavior. Examples of strategic leadership include vision, culture, and the declaration of strategic imperatives.
- Operational Leadership practices provide the how in the organization. They enable departments and employees to understand how they specifically contribute to organizational success. They are the procedures and policies that clarify how each unit will achieve the overall strategy.
So the act of simply breaking down the job at hand to the what and the how is a good place to start.
People can be both great leaders and poor managers—I’m sure you have seen this. You might even see this in your own boss, who has given you the what with no how. Managers can be very good at creating processes and systems and tracking accountability and compliance without being great leaders. In the end, I think your goal must be to be decent at both leading and managing, because that is what will win you hearts and minds.
Ultimately, leaders are people whom others choose to follow. They are people whom others look to for setting the direction, the stage, and the tone, and for keeping the train on the track and running on time. They have a compelling vision for what is possible that inspires people. They are role models for the behaviors they are looking for in their people—“do as I do,” which is much more motivating than “do as I say.” This is what’s meant by building culture.
Managers make sure their people understand what is expected of them and also have what they need to do a good job: role clarity, time, equipment, access, and opportunity to use their strengths.
When an individual is competent at both leadership and management, it vastly increases the chances their people will have a positive experience at work and will bring their best selves to the task at hand.
Great leaders and managers understand that their job is getting things done with and through others. Consultant Stan Slap, who is brilliant and notoriously irreverent, once said “Most visionary leaders have no patience for bringing people alongside them. If they could get where they need to go by themselves, they absolutely would, and send post card saying, ‘wish you were here.’” It is true. It takes an astonishing amount of care, patience, generosity, and repetition to bring people along with you.
My recommendation is that you do some research and create a scorecard for yourself of all the things you think you can do now, leaving some space to add things as you go along. For someone who is competitive and has a strong drive to win, a scorecard can be comforting.
You may decide you hate leadership. But you may find you were born for it. Either way, you’ll never know until you try, right? And the good news for someone competitive is that there is always room for growth and improvement; always something to work on. I guarantee you will never be bored.
I am excited for you, and wish you well.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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