Leadership is a moment-by-moment undertaking
From the startup founder with a handful of employees to the team leader at a firm with a national footprint, developing leaders almost inevitably face a painful growth phase. Armed with expertise in a particular subject area and the competence to accomplish tasks with excellent results, these leaders are reluctant to delegate responsibility to less-experienced colleagues.
The outcome can be detrimental for the leader, the employee and the organization: burnout and frustration for the person trying to lead and resentment from subordinates who feel undervalued, underchallenged and disengaged. Ironically, the take-charge, get-it-done approach that once made the developing leader a tremendous asset now becomes a liability that prevents the team from flourishing.
The BB&T Leadership Institute refers to leaders at this transitional phase as a player-coaches.
“They have their own thing they have to do—such as a book of business—and they are also leading others,” says Sally C. Woods, EdD, a senior consultant and vice president at The Leadership Institute. “It can be stressful. It’s a stage where careers can get derailed.”
Early in their career, it's common for developing leaders to unwittingly sabotage themselves through self-limiting beliefs, automatic behaviors and blind spots. One of the stumbling blocks that prevents leaders from taking the next step in their development “is a lack of awareness about how they are coming across to others,” Woods says. “They may not be aware of the strengths they could leverage.”
The Leadership Institute’s Leadership Ladder model is based on an understanding of leadership as being on a continuum from tasks to relationships, with relationships becoming increasingly important as leaders progress up the ladder.
“When a person is early in a career or early in a role, they tend to emphasize the tasks end of the continuum,” Woods explains. “They’ve got to figure out how to get things done and meet expectations around goals. Of course, they have to get along with people, but the primary focus is on tasks. Then, they get very proficient at those tasks. They come to the attention of leadership. Their leader says, “You’re great at this. We want you to lead a team.” The person gets a promotion, and now they’re leading people. They can no longer get results solely by their own efforts.”
Woods continues, “There’s so much more emphasis on building and maintaining relationships to help others be productive. Yet, the new leader’s comfort zone often remains focused on tasks. Their leadership is suboptimized.”
One major challenge for leaders at this level, Woods says, is they are so used to being a subject-matter expert, they put the expectation on themselves to have all the answers and provide solutions to everyone who comes to them with a problem. The resulting self-induced stress can inhibit their leadership effectiveness. “They end up creating a situation where their team members are dependent on them to solve problems for them. The team members aren’t challenged to come up with their own answers, so their development is constrained. It turns out that leaders don’t need to have all the answers. Instead, they need to have solution-focused questions to help team members solve their own problems. That promotes expanded competence and confidence in team members and models effective leadership.”
The second challenge Woods cites as a potential derailer for developing leaders is difficulty transitioning from a tactical framework to a strategic framework.
“It has to do with having a mindset and framework of not focusing just a month or a year out, but several years out in an ever-changing world,” Woods says. “In early leadership, a person’s focus is mostly short range and narrow in scope, such as on their line of business. As they develop and progress in their leadership, they really must look at the broader enterprise and the future of that industry and market.”
Developing leaders to the next level often involves helping them become more self-aware. It may seem counterintuitive that acquiring the long-view perspective required for strategic leadership means slowing down. Leadership isn’t just about making the right decision in the moment. It’s also about the discipline to cultivate a consistent pattern of thoughts and behaviors likely to yield positive outcomes.
“Leadership is a moment-by-moment undertaking,” says Woods. “We often miss opportunities to be at our most effective because we are acting on autopilot. We proceed with these automatic thoughts and behaviors without considering what the best use of our time is now. That takes a little more time and effort. We’re not talking hours or even minutes. It just takes a few seconds to pause and respond purposefully. That’s conscious leadership.”
Four key takeaways for developing leaders
- Be aware of how you come across to others
- Build and maintain relationships with your team
- Empower employees to be more productive
- Focus less on tactics and more on strategy
By Jordan Green