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Shut Up and Listen!

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...and advice for other first-time leaders 

Being entrusted with a leadership role requires a shift in mind-set. Leaders cannot afford to compartmentalise. They must simultaneously juggle the long- and short-term while inspiring those around them to do great work.

But being a great leader is hard, and great leadership is hard to understand. “Leadership” is a term that’s been abused; everybody wants it, no one’s quite sure what it means. As a new leader, first try to adopt three specific (often counterintuitive) mind-sets of good leadership:

  1. You may think you have to have all the ideas yourself and a direction worked out before assuming a leadership role. Fear not, you just have to shepherd the ideas to life. Instead, you must be a steward of people and ideas. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to you.
  2. Some people think leadership is a matter of consenting, as in politics, of choosing the lesser of two evils. But leadership is not all tact. Instead, have a point of view (or better yet, a worldview) and don’t be afraid to say it aloud, repeatedly. Say what’s in your heart. People are attracted to this quality. To paraphrase Steve Jobs: if you don’t have a burning desire to execute an idea or solve a problem, you’ll never stick it out.
  3. To become a leader you don’t have to excel at just one thing. Instead, put yourself in uncomfortable situations as often as possible. Stretch your parameters. This ”. A good leader can find comfort and calm — the still point — in any situation and this skill only comes from taking smart risks.

New leaders typically were once solo players now thrust into the new and uncomfortable position of managing others. It can feel like being air-dropped into a foreign land with no food or water, left to your own devices. The first step is to accept the learning curve and take on the challenge. Then know that you’re not the only one to ever manage this transition.

Counter intuitively to most new leaders, many times the most effective form of leadership is stepping aside and letting others take over. In nimble, creative organisations work is completed on a project basis and led by whomever is most interested and skilled to suit a particular project regardless of age, experience or job title. To evolve as a leader is to concede ownership of a project, or at least share ownership. 

Ownership of the work is an incredible motivator and can lead to a flowering of talent where you least expect it. Furthermore, it encourages true collaboration and teamwork. The hard part is fully giving up control of a project. It takes trust and a reasonable allocation of risk and tolerance for failure. But it also can lead to great reward. At some point, it is a necessary step in the evolution of a leader. The sooner you attempt to let others rule, the better off you will be. 

Managing others can seem like a lot to handle. Thankfully, the tactics for the new leader add up to doing less while paying attention to more.

Ask questions and listen

Find out what really motivates your staff, what they are passionate about (and it is probably not money or status). Pay attention to ways you can create links to a teacher’s specific passions. Encourage conversation around inspiring topics and follow the energy by asking, “and what else?”

Check your impulse for telling and instead (again) ask more questions

A natural leader’s directorial nature, while it’s usually an efficient tool, sometimes can be a hindrance. It’s amazing what information develops out of not talking. Make an attempt to ask questions and allow your people to figure things out for themselves. Instead of saying things like “This is wrong because…” try asking “What do you think needs to be changed?” or “How do you think that went?” This is a much more powerful method of learning that can lead to new insight and more conviction in an individual’s own ability to lead.

Once you grant accountability, give it fully

Determine your role in a project up front. Are you to be consulted before a decision is made? Do you take some responsibility and over which parts? It’s really difficult not to take over if things go bumpy once you’ve granted accountability for a project to someone else. But do your best to offer yourself as a resource and step out of the way. And be sure to stick to your guns, having an inconsistent leader will drive most workers crazy.

Give and receive helpful feedback after every project

When a project is over, find out what worked and what did not. Post-mortem check-ins work great for this. Discover the gaps or fears inherent in your employee’s style and find ways to keep chipping away at them. Give new opportunities when they arise or develop “stretch projects” around a teacher’s interests.