There are all sorts of things no one tells you about being a leader. It all sounds new and shiny. You’ll probably get a raise, more exciting work and decision-making power. You may be able to stop doing tasks that have become routine or boring to you.
And then reality sets in. Decision making prioritization, handling tricky situations with people – it can be overwhelming for someone just figuring it all out.
I was first thrust into a leadership role in my early twenties. I had no idea what I was doing. Some of the lessons I needed to learn came quickly. Others took more than a decade of leadership roles across various organizations to sink in (and others are yet to come, to be sure).
There are a lot of things I wish I’d known before I got started, but the most surprising things, the ones that sort of took me by storm, were the emotional facets of leadership.
Two things in particular – my initial desire to be liked as a leader and finding balance within that brave new world – were particularly consuming. Only with the hindsight of many years did I come to understand the first wave of things to hit me, the unprepared leader.
If you’re promoted from within an organization, you’re going to be faced with overseeing people who were once peers, and there’s a good chance that one or more of them will have become personal friends.
When the first issue arises where you have to deliver bad news or offer performance advice, it can be really tempting to soften or minimize your message. It’s a very natural reaction because we’re all human and we want to be liked.
I know I made this mistake multiple times. Initially I’d walk away saying, “Whew! Made it through that one and it wasn’t so bad!” But then soon after, a similar issue would crop up. Lesson learned. It’s far better to be clear and direct.
I eventually realized it is possible to separate the tough conversation from the friendship by focusing on the issue, not the person. Thinking through questions like: How is this issue affecting the work at hand? and Is my feedback addressing the work? helped me isolate the problem in a way that made the feedback giving feel less personal.
Sometimes issues flare up in the middle of a work day, and it doesn’t feel like you have time to thoughtful about your response. While I’ve found it pretty critical to acknowledge the issue right away, not all issues need an immediate resolution. It is often okay to say something like, “This has been a difficult experience that we need to talk about further. Let’s give ourselves time to think about it and check in this afternoon.”
The issue hasn’t been ignored, but it gives everyone a chance to reflect – which is especially helpful if the employee has had an emotional response to a tough situation and needs a chance to calm down.
Signs you might not be ready:
1. You have a hard time telling people they missed the mark.
2. You indulge in side-conversation and office gossip.
Things to keep in mind:
- Employees are not mind-readers. Setting and affirming clear expectations beforehand makes hard conversations easier to navigate later on.
- These conversations do get easier over time, but…
- (…as long as you’re human) it will never feel effortless. Things like giving a tough performance review or holding someone accountable to bad behavior takes courage and mental bandwidth.
Eventually, I realized leadership is about earning respect, not likes.
Often times people are promoted into a leadership position because they’ve gone above and beyond in their duties, and shown a willingness to put in extra hours to get stuff done. But the type of work that fills the day for a leader can be very different from the work you were doing before, and carries really different demands as well.
Until I was in the thick of a new leadership role, I had no idea just how much the draw on my mental capacity would be.
In the past, my work was largely deadline-oriented, comprised of projects with clear goals and finish lines. The weight of things like letting go of the work you had mastered (you know, the thing that earned you a promotion in the first place), of making decisions that will be unpopular, and resolving HR issues was a whole new ball game.
Suddenly I had a host of things on my mind all of the time – after hours, in the middle of dinner with friends, and very inconveniently, when trying to sleep.
For me, one of the hardest parts was balancing all of that while putting on a good face for the team. As a leader, it’s important to bring positive energy to the business. If you don’t, who will? What I eventually realized was that I needed to find outlets for all of those thoughts.
For me, taking up running ended up being the perfect medicine. All of the miles away from computer screens, emails, and other obligations gave me time to process and think through my day-to-day challenges. Running might not be for everyone – your thing might be meditation or simply carving out an hour once per week for reflection and planning.
Signs you might not be ready:
- You will miss the tactical work, or won’t trust others to take over parts of your current job.
- You already feel overwhelmed with your current responsibilities.
- You really want to keep work at work.
Things to keep in mind:
- Letting go of old tasks will help you create space for new things.
- You can’t solve all of the problems instantly. One of the best ways to stay out of fire mode is to carve out time for strategic thinking and reflection.
- Passing on your old beloved tasks gives someone else a chance to stretch and grow.
Finding balance in the beginning is just plain hard. But there can be some pretty great pay off.
Bonus round: Love
One of the bigger surprises for me was why I loved a leadership role. It had nothing to do with power plays or extra income.
In the end, it was two things. My first leadership love was learning to help others. There’s nothing quite like teaching someone how to do something new and seeing a colleague grow beyond even their own expectations.
Second, more than a decade in, I still learn new things every day. Just when I think, “Maybe I have this leadership thing figured out,” I find myself tested in a new way, uncovering another layer of understanding in how to lead. Leading has become this continual path of growth and discovery. What’s not to love about that?
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Sara McGuyer is chief culture officer at SmallBox, a creative agency focused on branding, marketing and culture consulting.
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