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What are we doing for new leaders?

In my various work roles over the years I have met, taught and coached numerous people in first-level leadership positions. They came from all industries and sectors, and included retail and hospitality managers, head teachers, nurse unit managers, senior scientists, lawyers and accountants, and team leaders of various kinds.

When they start out, new leaders are almost always excited, enthusiastic and full of hope. They think they have made it. But within a few weeks, reality sets in. People don’t do what you want them to do just because you ask them. They don’t care about your great plans as much as you do. They aren’t at all interested in making things more efficient. Their message for the new leader? Things aren’t great but they’re good enough, so why change?

The new leader is perplexed and starts to question his or herself. Their confidence wanes and they lose a lot of sleep. They begin to feel like an imposter. They ask themselves some searching questions: ‘Am I cut out for this?’ ‘Is something wrong with my personality?’ ‘What else should I be doing?’

They wish they were back in their old job.

That first-level leader has been me on a few occasions and I am happy to admit that I have felt as clueless as everyone else. Like most new leaders I was tossed in at the deep end. It was sink or swim. I managed to keep my head above water, but only just. What would have helped me? An understanding boss? A mentor and some leadership training? Probably. But they were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t even occur to me to ask.

It shouldn’t be like this. Billions of dollars are spent world-wide on leadership development every year – the figures are a bit rubbery but a recent estimate from Forbes puts the figure at $50 billion for 2014. Guess who gets the lion’s share? Top managers and ‘high potentials’. It seems disproportionate to me. Numerically, most leaders are at the first level. They are the ones responsible for keeping the organisation productive and on track. If they are unable to deliver as leaders, the whole organisation suffers.

So why not do more to help new leaders get off to a good start? I think that the main impediment is the popular mythology that leadership comes naturally to the right people. You either have it or you don’t. It’s your personality, your look and your air of confidence that makes you suitable to lead. It boils down to this – if you are faltering in the role, it’s your fault. Perhaps you shouldn’t have stepped up in the first place.

I reject that mythology. I think most people can lead a team well if they know what to do, day by day, to build their credibility and skill. What I have discovered from my own experience, and from spending time with numerous managers including those in my MBA classes, is this – leading is about your behaviour, not your personality or what you look like. You can learn what to do.

And that’s why I wrote ‘You Can Lead’. In it I bundled up the best ideas and advice I could muster on how to succeed as a first-time leader. I wanted it to be down-to-earth, practical and accessible. It’s the book I wished I had had years ago when I managed a group of university academics. And before that when I worked at Sydney Water.

Of course new leaders need more than books. But I think this one goes as far as a book can go to help people become self-aware and confident about how to handle many of the challenges – building relationships, motivating people, talking to the difficult ones and not becoming a micromanager.

You can lead if you know how. So let’s do more to get new leaders off to a good start.