When asked if I enjoy being a senior leader in my organisation, my answer is always ‘Yes I do.’ Stepping into a leadership role is a fantastic experience as it gives you opportunities to shape an organisation and influence its future direction. Leadership is exciting and it is also hard. Given that people often have unrealistic expectations let's look at what you need to know before taking the plunge and becoming a leader:
You will be tested
We don’t come to leadership completely unprepared. We all have skills and knowledge to bring to the table – most of which will be useful in some way. For example, being good with numbers will help you make certain decisions; if you’re good with people, it will help in bonding with your peers and your team.
However, you may not have all the skills that your role as a leader requires. At some point you’ll need to step-up and embrace new tasks and develop new skills.
It’s also likely that, as part of your leadership journey you will have some personal insight – some gained the hard way. For me, the biggest discovery was that I wasn’t as organised or structured as I believed I was.
Your attitude will be hugely important
You might be great at communicating with others, generating new ideas, or developing detailed strategies by analysing information – but you’ll be judged more on your attitude towards your role than on your skills.
Most of us are juggling leadership roles with other areas of our life and time is often at a premium – we can feel we don’t have time to deal with certain queries, or perhaps we feel swamped by a ‘problem’ that has landed on our desk. Attitude is about the way you tackle these challenges and constraints; it’s about how you approach your role and take on its responsibilities.
For example, if you’re somebody that likes to take things easy and finds it hard to be very responsive when communicating, you’ll rapidly need to become more proactive in everything you do. The impact of not responding to a message, missing a deadline or delaying a decision can be huge. But worse than that, it can impact on people’s belief and trust in you as a leader. If your behaviour demonstrates a poor attitude towards your role, then disillusion and disengagement will follow. It’s surprising how quickly people notice that something hasn’t been done, when it should have been, or that a request went unanswered.
Jumping with both feet forward into a new role or situation will definitely help you, regardless of your abilities. Nowadays, mountains of information on any subject is readily available; use these resources to plug any knowledge gap and find out more about your role and your task. Waiting a few months and saying “I am just getting started” will not make a great impression and may impact the quality of your leadership. If you chose to lead, make some commitments to yourself and accept the weight of expectations placed upon you.
You’ll need to master the detail
The visible parts of leadership are the grand visions, the speeches, meetings with colleagues, inspiring and motivating your team, seeing your vision realised – but behind this lies hundreds, if not thousands, of hours work, often spent discussing tiny details that may not seem important to a casual observer.
In my corporate strategy days, I often spent a lot of time looking for first-hand sources of information and double checking it afterwards. What’s more, a colleague would check my own work once I was done and edits and reworks almost always followed. The process took time and wasn’t always rewarding. However, it was worth it as the result was the development of some fantastic documents that our senior leadership team used to drive the business forward.
Number-crunching and information gathering is a big part of strategic leadership. Small details, like how something is worded, can be of great importance when developing organisation-wide policy and protocols. But remember, there is a line between too much detail and not focusing on detail at all. And avoid reinventing the wheel; try to understand what was done before and why before you make wholesale changes.
There will be physical and emotional costs
One of the things I enjoy the most as a senior leader, is travelling to meet other people across the UK. These visits are a unique opportunity to soak up knowledge while inspiring others and passing on key messages. But the travelling, being away from home, constantly jumping from train to hotel to train again - and burning the midnight oil to prepare for the following day’s presentation - can be exhausting.
While the physical cost of leadership can be mitigated with strong personal discipline and good time management, the emotional costs are more difficult to predict. Unintended conflicts, being let down, having to take on extra work to support a colleague - these can all take their toll. Decision-making fatigue is another key problem - sometimes even having to decide what to have for dinner can seem like a decision too far! So, make a commitment to look after yourself - if you allow yourself to get burnt out, you won’t be much use as a leader.
Human relations can be the hardest part of leadership; from disappointing friends to giving difficult feedback. Strong people skills and high emotional intelligence will help, but even this can only do so much. So be prepared for the strains that leadership will inevitably bring.
Given all of this, there is a question to answer : is leadership for you? Only you can answer this question. Personally, I have no regrets. The journey has been an eventful one and doubtless will continue to be. The result has been that I’ve grown along the way and become a better person. Leadership can be highly rewarding in both expected and unexpected ways.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Florian Bay is District 91 Director of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.