Congratulations, new leader, you’ve joined the leadership ranks at an exceptionally complicated time. The world in which you will lead is fraught with touchy political divisions, economic disparities, generational tensions, and racial disharmonies. More leaders are having to lead remote teams across larger geographic distances, presenting unique challenges with onboarding new employees, giving performance feedback, building esprit de corps, and nurturing healthy relationships.
The traditional stability of consistently applied standard operating work protocols has also been upended. Now individual exceptions are common, tailored to accommodate each person’s extenuating life realities. You’ll struggle to treat everyone fairly, yet individually. Letting one person work from home three days a week to care for an immune-compromised parent may make sense to you, but it may not make sense to the healthy single person you require to be onsite every day. You’ll be seen as exceedingly fair or unfair, depending on who benefits from policy exceptions.
While the realities facing new leaders are unprecedentedly novel, challenging, and anxiety-provoking, the meager amount of support and training that has historically been provided to new leaders remains, sadly, unchanged.
Most new leaders are wholly unprepared for the unique challenges of transitioning into their first leadership role. Getting promoted into a leadership role is often the reward for delivering exceptional individual performance. High-potential people get noticed for working harder and producing more than their peers and get tapped to lead a team. But very few new leaders are equipped with the skills necessary for effectively leading others and strain to figure things out with minimal support. As many seasoned leaders can attest, when you move into your first leadership role, nobody hands you a playbook.
Leading others has always been terrifically hard. Unlike when you were an individual contributor, you’re now responsible for the output and performance of people, and people can be petty, selfish, unreliable, hypersensitive and whiny. Grown-ups can act like big babies when they don’t get their way.
Too often the biggest inhibitor of great results isn’t a lack of resources or a clear plan, it’s the idiosyncratic personalities of team members clashing with one another or pulling in different directions. Your leadership approach with one person may be met with openness and gratitude. The same approach with another may be met with crossed arms and burning resentment. All this becomes a diversion from the work at hand, and you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time nursing bruised egos and hurt feelings. Leaders lead people and people can be a pain in the rear end.
Complicating matters further, you’ll be under intense pressure from your bosses to increase results. Your knowledge needs to be more broad and deep than just what’s on your own to-do list. You have to know more about the business itself and all of its operational parts. You have to interact with other team leaders who might be competing with you for limited resources. Whatever work-life balance you once had is subsumed by the insane workload.
All of this is far more exhausting, frustrating, and just plain hard than when you were knocking out tasks on your to-do list. Yet, here you are, thrust into the most daunting job you’ve ever had with virtually no support.
At least initially, it’s common for new leaders to flounder as they face the job’s complexities and contend with complicated people. You may start to question yourself and find your confidence shrinking. The excitement you had about finally becoming a leader may give way to a sense that your work is becoming a joyless burden and you aren’t cut out to lead.
Despite this being a particularly challenging time to move into a role that has always been particularly challenging, new leaders should heed this simple advice: Hold on! Most of what you need to succeed as a new leader comes in the form of personal attention, strong advocacy, and sound guidance.
Over the course of the last 30 years, I’ve been privileged to work with thousands of leaders who successfully navigated through the new leader challenges you’re now facing. It’s one thing to become a leader, it’s an entirely different thing to successfully endure as a leader. Here are a few key lessons worth applying:
Lead yourself: Leadership starts with self-awareness and self-discipline. You’ve got to lead yourself really well. You’ve got to know what you’re good at, and what you’d be wise to hand off to others. You’ve got to have a deep value system that can help you weather tough people and situations. You’ve got to manage and prioritize your time. If you can’t lead yourself, what qualifies you to lead others? Leading yourself involves:
Model principles: Having deeply held values leads to inner strength and helps you withstand inevitable headwinds. Be clear about what you stand for — and against. List your most deeply held values. Which ones do you embody? Which ones do you need to improve on?
Practice humility: People want to be led by leaders who are confident and humble. Always remember that you’re not any better than the people you are privileged to lead. Never be arrogant. Practice humility by asking people for their input and then listening to, and heeding, their advice.
Nurture talent: Developing your people is a prime responsibility. Invest at least 15 minutes every two weeks with each person who reports to you. You go to them. Don’t focus on the status of projects and tasks. Instead, check in with them, asking how they’re doing, how things are on the home front, and what you can do for them. The 15 minutes will dramatically strengthen the relationship and build mutual respect and loyalty.
Create safety: Innovation is the lifeblood of business. People will extend themselves, experiment, and take risks if you make it safe to do so. Don’t bite people’s heads off when they make forward-falling mistakes. Don’t intimidate or stoke people’s fears. Psychological safety is just as important as physical safety.
Lead up: Support your bosses’ success. Earn their respect by being candid, keeping them updated, and giving them helpful feedback. Look out for anything they might be missing. When they give you an assignment, overdeliver. You don’t have to be a kiss-up or yes-person. You can be loyal to your boss and loyal to yourself at the same time.
Love business: Business can be intimidating. The more experience you gain, the more business-minded you’ll become. Talk to leaders you admire. Have them share about big decisions they faced and the factors they considered when facing them. Join a professional association and broaden your network. Keep a journal to document your leadership lessons.
Taking hold of your own leadership development and applying some of the road-tested advice above will empower you to navigate the new leader transition. You may not have been handed a leadership playbook, but you’re traveling along a path that many other leaders have traversed. Leadership has always been about facing challenges and rising to the occasion. Now it’s your turn to step up.
Bill Treasurer is a bestselling author, leadership coach, ex-high diver, and courage-building pioneer. His newest book is Leadership Two Words at a Time, which focuses on the essentials of enduring leadership. Learn more about Bill and his company at giantleapconsulting.com.