Rising to Leadership
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”
― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act II Scene 5
If you are reading this, you probably want to be a better leader. You have probably looked around you at leaders, and wondered what they do that makes them successful. In some cases, you might wonder how they ever got to that position?
As the quote illustrates, there are different routes to leadership. I’ll come back to the joke behind the quote later.
The right leader, and the wrong leader
For many of us, promotion appears to come to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. Someone can be excellent at the job they do, and promoted out of it. I worked with a person who was highly skilled at the job that needed to be done, so skilled that she was given a team of 5 to manage. She continued to do the job, very well, but the 5 people kept asking her to give them tasks to keep them busy. By the time we parted ways, she had a team of 10 – basically she did the work, and the 5 new people came up with ways to keep the 5 old people busy. More often, the person promoted doesn’t have time to do the work, and is hopelessly ill-equipped to manage or delegate: they are promoted to their level of incompetence, to the detriment of the organisation.
Some people are excellent at leadership. It’s like it’s an innate skill. They might be brilliant organisers, or visionaries, or strategists, or tactitians, or communicatorts. They can get a team to deliver what’s needed, by being able to
- Understand what’s needed
- Communicate this to others
- Command the respect that the team they communicate to want to deliver the result
- Get the balance right between task and people, ensuring tasks are delivered and the wellbeing of employees is in the best place possible.
For most of us, we need training. There’s plenty of training available, and leadership needs to be appropriate to the circumstances in any case, so I won’t touch on that here. I am interested to track two of the underlying emotions that will accompany you on the journey.
Imposter syndrome and Hubris – two sides of the same coin
When you get promoted, or find yourself in a leadership role, it’s likely that you will experience one or other of these two emotions. You’ll either “fake it ‘till you make it”, feel hopelessly out of your depth and hope that nobody notices, or you’ll assume that you have a natural talent that others can obviously see.
For those of us with Imposter Syndrome, there’s another emotion that might sneak in and make a mess of things. This one runs just below the conscious level, so whereas you might recognise imposter syndrome, you probably won’t see this one coming. It’s self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage is when your subconscious mind believes that you don’t deserve whatever your situation (whether that’s a great time at work, great customers, promotion, or good friends and a lovely family), and then takes it further, and engineers situations so that you lose what you don’t think you deserve.
Self-sabotage manifests itself in all sorts of ways – you might oversleep and be late for an important meeting, or be rude to the boss for no reason, or procrastinate that call to your best customer even though there’s no reason to put it off. You might wear inappropriate clothing (decide to liven the office up with a Hawaiian shirt on the day that your American boss visits, when the dress code is blue suit/ blue tie and white shirt) or make a smutty joke to the HR Director. You might think that you are provoking a reaction and getting yourself noticed, but your rational mind is shouting at you trying to tell you that there are plenty of other ways to achieve the same result and not ruin your career in the meantime. Self-sabotage is like suicide – it’s usually pretty permanent from one single incident.
When you are managing people, watch out for self-sabotage amongst your people. It’s where you see destructive and out-of-character behaviours in someone who is generally doing well. Nobody admits to imposter syndrome unless you ask them directly. Nobody will ever recognise self-sabotage in themselves because it’s so irrational. So you’ll probably have to address it without naming it. Catch that out-of-character behaviour and pull the person aside. Talk to them about their successes, and their contribution to their success. Rehearse with them how they feel undeserving, and explain about potential. Build them up, but with solid foundations. If you think they can take it, talk about how self-sabotage affects some people, without necessarily pointing the finger. For me, my manager came straight out with it – told me I was self-sabotaging when things went well. I had to research it myself, and I had to change companies, before I understood it.
Hubris is much simpler.
A person suffering from hubris isn’t going to get any better without a sharp shock. These are the people who are perfectly nice up to the point they get the promotion, and then become autocratic and domineering. They might micromanage, they might suck up to the boss and treat the cleaner like dirt, they might expect everyone to laugh at their jokes. They think they are self-made and don’t see the gifts everyone has made to them, whether their mother supporting them through pregnancy and toddler years, their teachers, previous job mentors, and most likely they come from wealthy family with lots of connections, and ignore the kind words that have been spoken to get them into ideal opportunities that smoothed the path for their current accession.
You’ll see these people in your team – they are the ones that believe they could do your job better than you. You’ll see these people in the tiers above you – demanding the impossible and telling you that you aren’t trying hard enough. You’ll see yourself – if you allow any self-reflection – failing to thank people for their contribution (“it was their job to do that, why should I thank them?”), claiming that you did it your way, telling people that you work such long hours.
The joke behind Shakespeare’s quote
Shakespeare’s quote is often used in all seriousness. It’s been reframed as”Some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them. Which of these are you, or would you rather not bother?” by Sir Maurice Flanagan, author of “British Gangsters…”. But it wasn’t meant to be serious.
Malvolio (a household servant) believes that his mistress (Olivia) is falling in love with him. He receives a letter with this quote in it, supposedly written by Olivia. He reads it aloud, thinking that it means that his lowly birth isn’t important, that he’s about to have leadership thrust upon him, so he continues to do the things that he thinks will most delight her (wear yellow stockings, smile at everyone, refuse to explain anything).
What are you doing that you think will win you favour? Have you checked with some colleagues if it will work? Are you suffering from hubris? Or is your frustration about lack of career advancement due to self-sabotage?