22 years old and I was in charge of 40 people…what the hell do I do?
Even though I had been preparing for this moment for the past 4 years, I had so much to learn. I had taken leadership and ethics classes, read books about leaders past, attended lectures by well known industry pioneers…and I still had no clue what I was doing.
I know what you’re thinking. Big surprise. I was 22.
So you already know my first point…
1. You Can’t Teach Experience
All the training, books, or lectures in the world cannot substitute time spent circling the sun in a leadership role. As a leader there are lessons you learn that cannot be taught, growth you experience that cannot be absorbed from a book, and wisdom you gain that cannot be arrived at by the end of a 1 hour lecture. You have to make my own mistakes and hope that there are people around you that are experienced enough to give you room to err.
Fortunately, I had such people in the earliest parts of my career. Not to say that I was a bumbling idiot who relied 100 percent on his more experienced co-workers…I wasn’t that person…but I do count myself fortunate.
You’ve probably heard the stat that 9 out 10 small businesses fail. This is commonly exaggerated and actually closer to 50-70% depending on time measured. Per a Washington Post article:
“About half of all new establishments survive five years or more and about one-third survive 10 years or more. As one would expect, the probability of survival increases with a firm’s age. Survival rates have changed little over time.” – Small Business Administration
After about 6 years in the workforce, I made my first attempt at a career change. I was one of those entrepreneurs, that tried and failed to open my own business. Again…big surprise. A bank didn’t want to loan me $300k with only a few years of experience under my belt. No matter how many people I had led in the past.
2. “Self-awareness” is Not Common
The best leaders that I have worked for, had an uncanny ability to know when they lost their cool, pushed too far, supported a bad call, or just made a mistake that affected people. This self-awareness always manifested itself in an apology from my bosses to the leadership team or even, in rare cases, to every employee in our organization.
Apologizing is a skill not everyone learns well, regardless of age or experience.
There is something truly powerful that happens when your boss says, “I’m sorry. I messed up and I’ve learned a lesson. Let’s fix this together”. That admission of humanity, especially by very senior leaders, does a lot to bring people together to support not only the organization, but also to support the person that was willing to admit his or her faults in hopes of wanting to get it right, vice just wanting to be right.
(shout out to Colin Cowherd for that adage)
3. Balancing Emergence vs Effectiveness is Tough
Emergence vs Effectiveness is best explained by giving the extreme examples of each.
A purely emergent leader might be someone who is dynamic, knows everyone, stands out due to their personality, great persuader….”plays the politics” well. BUT may not know much of the true workings of the organization and, many might say, their skill level is low.
On the other end is the solely effective leader who is very knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the daily mechanics, works well with everyone, seen as a technical expert….can lead every small team in the organization. BUT may not “play the game” well or “doesn’t do” office politics.
Ring any bells?
I learned about these two extremes from the CEO of Hogan Assessments while at a conference and it struck a chord. How is a company supposed to develop leaders that have that balance? This is a huge topic being tackled in the human resources realm right now and it’s not an easy nut to crack.
If a company is hiring someone to a management/leadership position, one of the the unspoken questions that company is trying to answer is “Do we trust this person?”. Interviews and resume verification can help…no-one will hire a person who’s last boss said they were “sort-of a good worker”. While there are also very few job fields that come with an inherent sense of trust when seen on a resume. Law enforcement and military are among the rare professions that typically come with an inherent sense of social trust due the nature of the work.
I believe trust must be built through honesty, practicing what you preach, and learning how to be vulnerable – but that’s an entirely different topic to be tackled another time, and honestly cannot be determined in an interview or written on a resume. Therefore, unless one of those in your company’s applicant pool is an experienced veteran, a known internal hire, or vouched for by someone else you already trust, hiring a potential leader directly in to a position of responsibility is a complete gamble.
This list could (and should) be a lot longer than four reasons why good leaders are hard to find. I’m sure there’s 50 reasons. Yet, these four seem to be the things I have seen over and over in my 15 year career. I have led many people, and been led by many leaders, seen good versus bad, experience inspirational and cautionary.
If you can be humble enough to learn from those with experience while you gain your own, strive to be more self-aware today than you were yesterday, strike the balance of political maneuvering vs efficient work, and learn how build trust…then you’ll be one of the rare ones.
A Good (if not great) Leader.