The (New) Leadership Trap and how to escape it

by | Nov 1, 2022 | Advice, Blog

This gap between perception and reality catches us off guard. It can make us do and say things we never thought we would. And it definitely affects our performance.

First things first. Let’s clarify the terms ‘Leadership’ and ‘Management’.

Management is about getting tasks and processes done.

Leadership is about inspiring the best in people.

I see anyone who has direct reports as Leaders, rather than Managers. This is because leadership has been around since humans lived in tribes, and so is very human. To perform well at leadership requires tapping into more of our ‘human-ness’.

The process side of the job is very important. But we find that by strengthening the human skills of leadership, the process part improves as well. (We also find that this is not true in reverse).

Leadership is abstract and intangible, and yet ever present. It has no immediate KPIs and so we are never quite sure if we’re doing it well or not. (It’s like parenting in that regard).

But at the same time, Leadership has a real world impact. We can feel the impact of good leadership, and bad leadership.

Good leadership inspires us to do great things and become more than we imagined we could be.

Bad leadership is so painful it can force us to take to the streets.

This particular article is for those who are embarking on their first role as a leader.

The Leadership role is one of those life experiences that you only think you’re ready for. (Again, like parenting).

We can be ready to become a leader, and we can understand the role and responsibilities. But as with most meaningful things in life, there is a vast difference between how we expect the experience to be, and the experience itself.

Perception and reality

This gap, and the effect it has on us, is a ‘mindset barrier’. At Next Level, we define mindset barriers as ‘how we get in our own way’. We all have mindset barriers. And when it comes to Leadership, working on our own mindset barriers makes all the difference.

What comes next is one of the more common mindset barriers we see amongst first-time leaders.

I call it ‘The Trap’.

The Trap

A person is often promoted to a leadership position because of how they performed as an Individual Contributor.

For example, let’s say a Customer Professional is made Team Leader because she was the best performing sales person in her team. This is quite understandable.

But now the trap is set.

So far in her career, this person’s professional performance (and image) have all been hers to influence. She has been able to control what gets done and how. She has been able to control whether she comes in early or stays late (or usually both). She can control what her clients are told in meetings. She controls the optics of how she comes across within the company (or so she thinks).

Also, there is always an element of competition between ICs in a team. Most roles are designed to highlight the high-performers and so there is an implicit and subtle ‘me versus them’ dynamic at play. (ICs often won’t admit this, but it’s there).

But now her professional performance (and image) rely on how other people do the job she used to do. The job she used to do better than them.

The trap is loaded…

Let’s say the company is having a bad quarter. Let’s say the team is really busy right now.

What will our new leader do? In our experience, she’ll do one of two things.

Option 1 – She goes it alone – She might think to herself something like this;

“We need to get these sales and everyone’s really busy. I can help them do it later but there’s no room for error right now. I’ll get these sales done myself and then I can work on helping the team later on”

So she does everything herself (or at least tries to). She’ll take all the biggest meetings, and do all the prep work.

Option 2 – She micro-manages – Or, she might think something like this;

“We need to get these sales and everyone’s really busy. I can help them do it later but there’s no room for error right now. I need to make sure that everyone is doing it the way things need to be done.”

So she inserts herself into every meeting. She has regular, frequent, “check in” meetings with each of her team members.

The trap snaps shut.

The Trap is that when we get into a leadership position, we think we are still a salesperson or Customer Success Manager.

We think our role is still to do the job.

But it isn’t.

Our role is now to help others to the job.

The lone conductor

I’m fond of the analogy of an orchestra conductor when talking about Leadership. Because it is a really visual way to explain the Trap.

The orchestra conductor cannot play every instrument by himself (go it alone). It will not sound good, and won’t last long. The orchestra conductor might have been the best violinist before, but he has a different job now. So if he spends all his time and energy telling the other violinists how to do their job, he will not be doing his. And everything will fall apart.

Whether they do everything themselves or micro-manage, the reason for a Leader to do this is the same. They act either out of a sense of insecurity and the need to ‘earn’ their title. Or they act out of a sense of ego that no-one else can do things they way they can.

Put another way, they either don’t trust themselves, or they don’t trust their team. Or both. So they seek to control things.

Neither approach is sustainable. The Leader will burn out, and the team’s output cannot not scale because now one person is trying to do the work of a team.

More dangerous than this is that the team will learn that their Leader does not trust them. So they withdraw. They learn helplessness. They get frustrated. They leave.

All this because we fell into the trap of thinking our job was still about the job.

Avoiding (or getting out of) the Trap

Avoiding the Trap is really hard to do. Maybe impossible. The pressure of expectation, deadlines and office culture, will all put us in the Trap.

So what can we do to escape the Trap?

The first step is to admit that we’re in it. A few Leaders reading this will have thought “This isn’t me”. If you thought this, you can stop reading now.

But most leaders will have felt a sense of unease. If you did, that’s good. Keep reading.

Which part made you uncomfortable? Was it the ‘does it all themselves’ part, or the ‘micro-management’ part?

The part about not trusting yourself, or the part about not trusting others?

Whichever made you feel most uncomfortable, that’s probably what you’re doing right now.

Accept it and own it. It means you’re human.

The second step is to (start to) let go of the need for control. How? It’s really simple, and really hard.

You. Just. Let. Go.

Start small at first. Let someone else make that low level decision.

Then, decline a meeting request that you know you don’t need to be in, but were invited to. (By the way, do not do this if your CEO invited you).

The annoying truth is that to let go, we have to trust ourselves and our team. And to do that we have to be comfortable with the discomfort of not being in control.

We have to be uncomfortable.

We have to be vulnerable.

Most people say that they’ll trust their team when their team earns their trust.

But this isn’t how trust works.

Trust works by giving others the opportunities to show us that we can trust them. It means risking failure or embarrassment or pain to give them the space to show us they have our backs.

It works by being uncomfortable. And the way to improve this skill is simply being uncomfortable.

Being a Leader is uncomfortable. The best Leaders I work with are in a state of perpetual discomfort. They are always questioning themselves and pushing their comfort zones.

Most people try to find ways of trusting others without feeling uncomfortable.

It can’t be done.

You have to pay the price. And the price is discomfort. But the rewards can be huge.

James Cook – Mindset Coach at Next Level Coaching & LinkedIn

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