In a recent Irish Times article, a senior faculty member at the Institute of Project Management, Professor Emeritus Sebastian Green, and his UCC colleague Dr Patrice Cooper discussed the challenges facing newly appointed leaders. Their central argument was this: a new leader who doesn’t dedicate time to reflection is doomed to fail.
Imagine you have landed a leadership position in an organisation, and the rubber has finally met the road. All that good management stuff you learned about taking control, being innovative, marshalling the troops, and inspiring people must now be actioned.
However, as an inexperienced leader, you can find yourself trapped in a paradox: how do you wield power while being a servant? How do you inspire with vision while soliciting participation, engagement and commitment?
Worse, once the glow of success has worn off, leaders often gravitate between feeling like imposters, frauds, or charlatans on the one hand, and omnipotent demigods on the other. Both are features of “narcissistic wounding”, and research suggests leaders are particularly prone to it.
Challenges of becoming a leader
The first challenge in becoming a leader is establishing an authentic sense of self that engenders legitimacy and credibility. You can’t be authentic trying to imitate someone else.
To achieve authenticity, a certain humility is required, along with a capacity to honour the past. There is indeed wisdom in the adage “bide your time, listen, and observe."
A newly-appointed leader who doesn’t give time to reflection is doomed to fail. To succeed, it is necessary to build support structures, listen to your predecessors, garner loyalty, and stay grounded. Be open to what others say. Build on the past while creating enthusiasm for the future.
While there is generally a honeymoon period where minor errors are excused, don’t be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes. There will always be envious individuals who delight in any perceived weakness. Learn from them and see what they might represent as symptoms of organisational malaise, but do not fixate on them.
When confronted with difficulties, avoid adopting one-size-fits-all or off-the-shelf solutions. Too often, we identify difficulties as problems and jump to “solution mode” without seeing the benefits of deeper reflection and understanding until we are confronted by the unintended consequences of our “solution”.
Many problems leaders face are complex, contradictory, and paradoxical. The best leaders can tolerate this ambiguity. Negative capability alongside positive capability is essential.
Leaders must be able to work at the edge of certainty and uncertainty in readiness for change. Leaders’ own views all too often compromise such a stance, believing themselves to be infallible. The risks of becoming arrogant and overly controlling are ignored. More seasoned leaders speak of a changed leadership perspective or mindset. They view their primary role as identifying problems, highlighting questions, and putting issues on the agenda, as opposed to any attempt to solve those issues. For them, their job is to harness the knowledge of others in the pursuit of goals, answers, and solutions.
This brings us to the third challenge. Despite leaders’ best efforts, many employees prefer to see them as “the enemy”. A battle with a controlling, self-centred leader is often preferable to dealing with the reality of external challenges. The cost of this collective defence mechanism is not just the loss of trust and loyalty but a shift in focus away from the organisation’s primary task.
One way of addressing this is for new leaders to recognise that a primary function of effective leadership is the development of future leaders throughout the organisation. This shifts the agenda from being all about me to being all about others.
In a world where doing, rather than being, is centre stage, it is understandable why leaders focus on action rather than reflection. This can be especially evident shortly after taking up a new role, as a rush to action is thought to indicate leadership capability. However, as our own research demonstrates, it is at this very juncture when leaders attempt to navigate through unfamiliar surroundings that gaps in knowledge can be fatal. Consequently, reflection and self-awareness must be the first actions undertaken by new leaders. Over the past 20 years, we have realised that avoiding the pitfalls of bad leadership is as important as embracing the wisdom of good leadership, and we have sought to find the best way to accomplish this.
As the title of a leading article in HBR, the bible for business leaders makes clear the need to be aware of why good leaders make bad decisions. Intriguingly, we have found that bad leaders sometimes make good decisions.
The trick is to steer a path through the traps of management arrogance, omnipotence, and vulnerability so that one does not loose sight of their true purpose. Leadership is a dangerous occupation, and survival is by no means assured. However, by taking the time required for self-reflection, you are much more likely to find success.
Sebastian Green is Professor Emeritus of Management at University College Cork. He works as a senior executive coach with leadership, strategy, culture change and group dynamics. Dr Patrice Cooper is a lecturer in management at University College Cork with a particular interest in leadership and transition.