By Florian Bay, Toastmasters International
As far as I am concerned, leadership is an amazing experience, because it gives you the opportunity to shape and influence an organisation and, perhaps more nobly, to turn a vision and a dream into reality.
However, leadership is hard, and people often harbour unrealistic expectations about what is involved. So here the four things you need to know about leadership – before becoming a leader:
Perhaps you are great at communicating with others, generating new ideas, or developing detailed strategies by analysing information – but you’ll actually be judged more on your attitude towards your role than on your skills.
Let’s face it, 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 instance, 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 both feet forward into a new role or situation will definitely help you, regardless of your abilities. Nowadays, mountains of information on any subject are 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.
We all bring some skills and knowledge to the table – most of which will be useful in some shape or form. For example, if you’re good with numbers, this will help you make certain decision; if you’re good with people, it will help bond with your peers and your team; if you’re good at communication, your ideas will gain traction faster than would otherwise be the case.
However, you may not have all the skills that your role requires. In some situations, you’ll have the opportunity to leverage your strengths into super strengths which, in turn, will mitigate your weaknesses. Despite this, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need to step-up and embrace new tasks and learn new skills.
It’s also likely that, as part of your leadership journey, you’ll learn a few home truths. For me, the biggest discovery was that I perhaps wasn’t as organised or structured as I thought I was. Structure and organisation matter a lot in leadership, especially when it comes to execution and I’ll touch upon this later in this article.
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 spend 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 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.
Something 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 follow 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.
Knowing the challenges that being a leader can bring, should you embark on the leadership journey? Only you know the answer to this question. Personally, I don’t regret the decision; the journey has been an eventful one and isn’t even over yet. I’ve grown along the way and become a better person, as a result. Being a leader can be highly rewarding and may even be the best thing you ever do in your professional life.
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. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org