Great leadership is not something that just happens. People don’t just wake up one morning and go from not being a leader to being a great leader.
For most, leadership is a journey with clearly defined steps and stages, where you need to build knowledge, experience, and techniques to move to the next level and these take time and patience to develop.
Sadly just because you have mastered one level of leadership it doesn’t mean that you will succeed at the next as the skills required can be completely different to achieve success at the new level. There is a huge difference between leading a team of people and leading a team of leaders who are leading teams themselves.
In this article, I want to talk about the 5 different stages of leadership, the skills needed, and the challenges that they can pose.
The first thing to remember about leadership is that it is not about position or titles, it’s about action. This means that everyone and anyone can be a leader irrespective of your level within the organization, because of the actions that you take and the example that you make.
I worked for an organization in Scottdale, and we had a receptionist that declared herself the Chief of First Impressions for the company. She said it was her job to make everyone feel welcomed, to be greeted with a smile, and treated with respect. No one asked her to do that, it wasn’t in her job description it was her choice, something that she thought was the right thing to do and she set the tone for the organization.
This is leadership, being a role model for how you want others to behave, it doesn’t have to be grand actions it can be small actions. This is often where leadership starts for many, it’s what makes them stand out and become candidates for future leadership positions.
I can honestly say that of all the people who I have promoted into leadership positions, they were leading long before they got the title. I would also say that anyone who waited to lead until they got the title is probably still waiting.
Leadership is a choice, and if you want to start the leadership journey be a leader where you are right now. Irrespective of your current role, be the example you want to see, support people, show them respect and give them positive feedback.
For most, the first real leadership position is that of team leader, you’re involved in the day to day delivery, a front line contributor. Hands-on in the truest sense, you are an integral part of the team, not just an occasional pair of hands that helps out when the going gets tough. Here you’re modeling daily what you expect of others, supporting those in need, collaborating and contributing, doing what needs to be done to ensure the successful achievement, literally leading from the front.
Here it’s your ability to directly impact the outcome of the results with your own two hands that make you stand out from the crowd.
There is a lot of satisfaction in these roles, being the hero fills one of our most basic needs, that of being appreciated and it helps us to build great self-esteem.
One of the biggest challenges I see in organizations is who to choose for that next level of leadership, where you are now leading larger teams, and it’s less about your direct hands-on contribution.
Here many companies choose to promote functional experts, e.g. the Supply Chain expert gets to lead the Supply Chain team or teams, using their expertise to shape strategy, solve problems, and define solutions. Here the role is still small enough for it to be more about functional expertise than leadership expertise, but it does require you to learn and develop more leadership skills if you want to be truly successful and move to the next level.
I remember when I was promoted to my first project management positions, I was working for London Electricity, and I had been one of the key architects of the billing system. I’d taken on the role of test team leader and led the delivery of the system from the front. My personal contribution had been one of the key factors in ensuring successful delivery, and I was given the role of the PM because of that, and also because no one knew more about the system than I did. I was your typical expert leader.
One of the challenges here is that that expertise can often cover up some leadership deficiencies, and this is the level that many fail at because being a true leader is more than about functional or technical expertise.
I will never forget my first day as the project manager, I was leading several multidisciplinary teams, covering a range of functional and technical areas, I knew everything that was to be known about that system, I felt invincible. All that changed when my test manager came to see me, and she said she had an urgent problem that needed to be dealt with. No worries I thought, as my previous role had been the test managers, so I would be able to solve anything.
As I sat down with her, I noticed she had the starting of a tear in her eye, I asked her what was wrong, and I was stunned when she said to me “I have a lump in my breast and I am worried that it’s cancer”.
It was at this point that I released that being a leader was more than just about being a functional or technical expert and the emotional intelligence was going to be playing a big part in whether I succeeded in the role, and would be ready to move the next level.
Fortunately, the lump turned out to be ok, nothing too serious, definitely not cancerous, just a shock she had to deal with, but for me, it was a significant turning point in my understanding of what my role was going to be.
Now I knew the job was about leading people, dealing with them, and their issues, much more so than managing technical problems. Showing that you cared, giving them respect, making them feel valued and listened to, as well as setting them up for success.
In fact, I would say that 100% of the skills and expertise that got me the role, were used less than 5% of my time to help me be successful within that new role.
Their key benefit was actually in giving me the time and space I needed to develop the skills required to be successful.
At each stage of the leadership journey the requirements of the role change, often dramatically, that shift from the Hands on to Expert leader is probably one of the most difficult, because it requires you to become much more people than technically focused and that’s a shift that not many are comfortable with.
In this role, the change again is significant because now instead of leading people you are leading leaders, and you can often be two and even three levels above the front line work. Your influence is now indirect, rather than direct, but it is also significantly more important.
Here it becomes more about creating visions, engaging teams, putting them into positions where they can be successful, enabling them, and cheering and recognizing their successes.
More often than not you can be leading multiple teams where you have little to no technical expertise at all in the work that is being done. You have to be comfortable with that, and confident in your ability to help get the best out of the team.
I remember in one firm I was offered a leadership role in an area where I had practically zero hands-on experience at all. I had to trust my teams and their capability, and focus on defining and shaping the bigger picture and then creating the environment where they could successfully execute.
Did I feel vulnerable?
But if you want to progress then this is going to happen, you cannot know everything about everything, you have to rely on the expertise of others, and on your ability to lead them. It’s no longer about you being the hero it’s about creating and enabling the heroes in your department. If you cannot give up the desire of being the hero this is going to be a difficult level at which to succeed.
The last and highest level of leadership is the one where you have zero direct impact on anything, yet practically everything you do has an indirect impact. The higher you go the more people are watching you, checking for alignment between what you say and what you do. Leadership defines the culture, and it’s the culture that guides people when there is no one there to lead them.
Everything you do contributes to the culture. If you are kind to people it will be reflected in the culture, if you recognize people it will be reflected in the culture. If you show personal accountability then this will appear in the culture, or if you blame people then that’s what others will do.
For good or bad your people will model your behaviour.
But it’s not just about what you do, it can also be about what you don’t do. If you don’t speak out about sexism, racism or any form of discrimination this will be seen and be seized upon, it will be felt that you have condoned it by your silence.
Small things that you do, or don’t do can have a big impact, and you need to be conscious of your actions, inactions, and their implications.
One of the best examples of this I ever saw was Nelson Mandela. If you have never seen the movie Invictus I strongly recommend it. Whilst you might think it’s a story of South African winning their first rugby world cup, it’s also a great glimpse into the leadership of Mandela. You see how through his thoughts and his actions he created a culture that pulled people together, was inclusive and united people in making a better South Africa.
How he realized that his leadership, his influence was much bigger and more important than he was.
Leaders at this level focus on creating the cultures needed for the organizations to be successful, they understand what’s needed and ensure that they define it, communicate it, and live it clearly.
To succeed at this level you have to be clear consistent, authentic, and work to ensure that your entire organization, your culture, your vision, mission, and strategy are aligned with the goals that you are looking to achieve.
Everything is strategic and even the little things matter.
Small disconnects at the top create cracks that can become fault lines at the bottom that can derail an entire organization. This is as true for a CEO of a small company as it is for a President of a Nation.
One of the challenges at this level is that it takes time, which is something that is often at a premium with everyone looking for short term results, immediate returns, which can often lead to the wrong habits being created.
Patience is key, but it is usually in short supply with boards and shareholders, but for long-term benefits and for success to be sustainable within an organization it’s mandatory.
The leadership journey is long, challenging, and often requires different skills and qualities at each level.
To be successful as a leader you have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to throw away what worked at the previous level, give up the need to be a hero, and be willing to continually learn and develop new skills along the path.
If you’re too rigid and want to stick with what worked previously, it’s going to be a struggle and at some point, your journey will end someway short of the final stage.
Where are you in your journey?
What new skills and techniques do you need to develop to make the jump to that next level and then to succeed at it.
If you need assistance reach out to me to arrange a session on what I can do to help your commence, continue, or complete your journey.