Leadership programs often emphasize the operational mechanics of leading—planning, organizing, budgeting and content that leans more toward management, such as delegating, time management and giving feedback. What most leadership programs neglect to cover, but that new leaders quickly confront, is how political, ever-changing and unpredictable leadership actually is.
In reality, the emotional aspects of leading often eclipse the mechanical ones. Consequently, the excitement of finally moving into a leadership role quickly gives way to intense feelings of pressure, anxiety and inadequacy. Once they’ve moved into their first leadership role, new leaders are often taken aback by how ill-prepared they are for leading others.
The startling discovery that leading others is much harder than first imagined is often the first setback, laying the groundwork for bigger setbacks and wake-up calls that are sure to come. Here are just a few of the raw realities that quickly confront new leaders.
1. Managing adults is a lot like babysitting. People are fickle, quirky and frequently petty. On occasion, even experienced employees will act childish, like grown-up toddlers with larger and more fragile egos. Sure, they can be smart, passionate, and upstanding. But the problem is their unpredictability. On any given day, in any given work situation, it’s hard to predict which people are going to act like adults and which are going to act like whiny, irritable children. Some people will respond to your feedback receptively; others will get defensive or stew with resentment. And some days you may be the biggest baby in the room—usually when you think everyone around you is acting infantile.
2. Facing demands remains relentless and unforgiving. You’re only deemed successful as a leader if you get results, and the pressure to produce those results is incessant. No matter how well you do this quarter or with this project or with that customer, you’ll be expected to do more and better next time. Your reputation is always on the line. The pressure is multiplied by the fact that people are counting on you to not let them down. And when the needs of your direct reports conflict with the needs of the company, you’ll be caught in the vise of competing demands.
3. Making people uncomfortable is your job. Leadership has everything to do with creating, managing and effecting change, which, by definition, is uncomfortable. People prefer comfort. That said, human beings (and organizations) don’t grow in a zone of comfort. We grow, progress and evolve in a zone of discomfort. The harsh reality is that your job as a leader is to make people uncomfortable. Doing otherwise breeds complacency. You have to constantly be stretching people toward higher goals and standards. But guess what? People generally don’t appreciate you making them uncomfortable.
4. Expecting the cavalry to come to your rescue is a fantasy. Self-reliance is a hallmark of strong leadership. You’ll sometimes feel under siege from the intensity of the challenges you’re facing. Regardless, you’ll be expected to bring them to resolution—without the aid of a handbook. Leadership can be a lonely endeavor. With no cavalry to rescue you, you’re forced to grope your way through, often making things up as you go along. As a result, you’ll often feel like a fake on the inside while straining to portray confidence on the outside.
5. Realizing the biggest problem is mostly you. Leaders aren’t like everybody else. The reason that people don’t put in the same obnoxious hours you do, don’t view all tasks as urgent, don’t click their heels and say “Yessir!” to every directive, and don’t deliver 24-carat quality is that they shouldn’t. Neither should you. But often you do, mostly to the detriment of their results and your health. Leaders often get in their own way by being overly judgmental, holding people to unrealistic standards, and caring more for results than people. You’ll be blind to all of this, of course. Your direct reports won’t have the courage to tell you about your contribution to the insanity.
You will never “graduate” as a leader. You’ll never be granted absolution from the obligation to improve. Your survival rests on continually refining, shaping, strengthening, developing, advancing and elevating your team—and yourself.