Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Shut Up and Listen (And Other Advice for First-Time Leaders)

Unless you’re a solo freelancer, chances are you will eventually be thrust into a leadership position. As creatives, we must embrace this challenge and not shy away from it, as a fear of being a leader can subconsciously hold us back from advancing in our career. 

Being entrusted with a leadership role in your workplace requires a shift in mindset. Leaders cannot afford to compartmentalize like the worker. 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) mindsets 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 develops the improv muscle. A good leader can find comfort and calm — the still point — in any situation, and this skill only comes from taking smart risks.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs: if you don’t have a burning desire to execute and idea or solve a problem, you’ll never stick it out.

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.

Counterintuitively to most new leaders, many times the most effective form of leadership is stepping aside and letting others take over. In nimble, creative organizations 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’s a necessary step in the evolution of a leader. The sooner you attempt to let others rule, the better off you’ll 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 people, what they’re passionate about (hint: it’s probably not money or status). Pay attention to ways you can create links to an employee’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. In stead 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 didn’t. 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 an employee’s interests.

How about you?

What is your advice for new leaders?

More insights on: Leadership

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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