No-one’s told me I’m allowed to be a leader

In coaching clients on leadership we’ve noticed an early sticking point. Though people give different reasons, there’s a common theme: at this point, they are resisting ‘stepping up’ to leadership. Of course, they don’t accept that it’s resistance; from where they stand it seems ‘impossible’ to assume leadership, ‘…until…’

Here are some of their ‘untils’:

  • “until ‘they’ accept my role, and I am officially ‘anointed’ as leader”
  • “until I’ve got ‘all my ducks in a row’ – finished everything I have to do”
  • “until I’ve managed some tricky interpersonal issues”
  • “until I’ve got somebody in place to replace me doing all the tasks I’m currently spending all my time on”
  • “until I’ve got my MBA”

It’s as though they regard growing into leadership as an incremental process – a place you get to after completing all the prior steps. In fact we’ve occasionally met people who assume that because they have mastered a busy and complex managerial job, they are now qualified as a leader – as if it’s the next step on the career ladder!

A ‘state change’

But growing into leadership isn’t incremental – it’s a ‘state change’. It doesn’t take time; it takes a transformation – of outlook, courage and focus. And it doesn’t mean you can suddenly stop managing, either. Most of us still have to manage, even after assuming leadership – we don’t have the luxury of having staff to delegate to, nor time in the diary to ‘be a leader’. So you don’t stop managing when you become a leader: management is different from leadership, not better or worse, just a different state. And both states often have to reside in one person!

What’s needed for leadership is the kind of state change that happens (hopefully!) when you realise you’re the only person who’s noticed the house is on fire! You don’t wait for permission, or to have your position ratified, or for people to like and accept you – you take control. And having assumed leadership, you manage the situation and ensure that whatever needs to be done to put the fire out is done.

You’ll know it when you see it

You can see it and feel it. If you’ve ever been lucky enough be present when somebody ‘gets’ it, there’s a visible and palpable difference in the way they talk, move and hold themselves from the way they did before. What that difference is, will be different from person to person. Some get louder and more obviously forceful; others may remain quiet and unassuming – but you’ll still be able to see the difference.

When you’ve experienced this state change for yourself, you may finally realise that what you have been calling leadership is mostly actually ‘management’ – at a very senior level maybe, but management nevertheless. Just as great leaders aren’t always good managers, so good managers aren’t necessarily good leaders. Once you know they are different states, with distinct skill sets, and you have experienced the difference between them, then you will be well placed to assess your weaknesses and create a development programme to learn to be both – and to do the things that both states require.

The challenge of being a leader and a manager

The real challenge for most of us is to manage the transition from management to leadership, not on a one-time basis (for we don’t have that luxury), but from moment to moment, day to day, as the requirements change. We need to learn to be both. To be able to do that, we need to have experienced the difference, so we can feel what state we’re in, and check that’s it’s appropriate to the situation at hand.

So if you’re asking yourself “When will I be ready for leadership?”, our answer is “Right now – if your organisation needs it, and you are really willing to be!”