6 Things I’d tell Anyone New to Senior Leadership.
Life is a great teacher.
When I was pregnant with my first child I used to wonder what on earth people did all day when they were at home with a baby. “How hard could it be?” I reasoned. Sleep deprived and feeling victorious if I made it out to the letter box before 4 in the afternoon, I had a completely different understanding some weeks later! There were many pieces of advice people gave to me in those weeks, some of it helpful, some of it not, but the life journey itself taught me more than I could otherwise have known. As I draw to the close of my first term heading a school campus, while I feel a bit like the chipmunk in the picture, I am again reflecting on what I have learned from this particular life journey… things I couldn’t know outside the act of stepping into the role. These are the 6 things I’d tell anyone new to a senior leadership role.
Walk in the authority you have.
Your people want you to lead. Don’t let them down. This is not about lording it over them or behaving in an autocratic, non-consultative manner. It is about being secure in the job you’ve been asked to do – caring more about the people you lead and leading them in the right direction than you do about what people think of you. Have you game face on. Be strong and just do it.
Go down on the deck but remember you need to steer the ship.
Don’t be ‘Captain Fluffy’ (West Wing fans will understand this). While it is important to roll up your sleeves and get involved, to be a servant leader, it’s not the job of the ship’s captain to be scrubbing the decks. By all means, grab a brush and get in and help from time to time but if you stay there failing to set the direction and steer the course, you’ll either end up on the rocks or face a mutiny. You need to be where people expect to find you when they need you the most. Be there. It’s your job.
Speak truth into the negative thoughts that tell you you can’t.
Sometimes things can feel so overwhelming… or can BE so overwhelming… that self-doubt creeps in. Thoughts turn to the negative – “What were they thinking asking me to do this?” “I have got no idea what I am doing!” “Any minute now, someone is going to see what I’m really like and then everyone will know I’m a fraud.” “I can’t do this!” The truth is, you can and you must. Senior leadership is about doing the hard stuff. Negative self-talk is paralysing. Don’t indulge in it. Speak the truth over it, out loud if necessary – I am not a fraud. I have skills, talents and the passion to do this. I am learning to do the things I’ve never done before. I’ve been asked to do this. I can and I will.
Make decisions. Period.
Being indecisive is one of the cruellest things you can be with your team. It leaves everyone confused and everything undone. There is an extraordinary scene in the mini-series, Band of Brothers, in which a poorly appointed leader can’t decide what to do in the heat of battle. He vacillates and cowers in the face of making a hard decision and in the process gets himself and many of his men killed. In the end a decisive leader gives a command with such strength that those carrying it out do so without fear and with success. Sometimes, even a poor decision can be better than no decision, because after all, we learn from mistakes. We don’t learn anything from nothing.
Your leadership will rise or fall on two things: character and judgement
All leaders need a good moral compass. There is no place in senior leadership for cowardice, dishonesty, misplaced loyalty or insincerity. When you act on principle, speak with candour, deal honourably with others and determine to take the path of incorruptibility you win respect and earn trust. Seek wise counsel to help you make judgements based on what is just, with the big picture in mind and the best interests of all uppermost in your thoughts. This is rarely easy. It is often costly. It is essential.
Conflict in Inevitable
Conflict is confronting and uncomfortable. Sometimes you will need to do and say things people don’t like. Early on in my leadership, my husband gave me a mug. Emblazoned across the front are the words, “Put your big girl panties on and just do it!” Learning to take the hard road, the right road, the necessary road can be painful but the health of your community or company may depend on it. Sometimes it may only be your conscience that knows it was right and that needs to be enough. Know this and be prepared.