Unfortunately, I was one of those professionals.
Like many, I was promoted to a position of leadership without any formal training or development and it ended poorly. So bad in fact, a coworker I let go looked me right in the eyes and said: "John, I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, I didn't know where we were going, and I certainly didn't know how I was helping us get there."
I was living proof Jocko Willink's words "there aren't bad teams, just bad leaders" were true.
After looking at my own development 5 years after that event and getting the opportunity to help thousands of professional leaders not have the same experience as me, I have come to realize a leader develops in stages. Understanding what stage you are in can help provide insight on whether you're taking the right actions for your team at the right time. Here are the three basic stages that every leader passes through:
1. The ‘Getting to Know You’ Stage
Most people take their first position of leadership with a surge of energy and enthusiasm. While fear about the role definitely exists, it’s put aside to take on the new challenge.
In the ‘getting to know you’ stage, the prevailing attitude in the team is one of optimistic caution. Every move the leader makes is watched and scrutinized. Both parties are trying to figure out if this is a good fit and if they can thrive together. Typically some immediate connections are made with a few key people who help the leader navigate the waters early on.
Some team members will immediately buy-in based on these early days and others will almost immediately reject the change in leadership. Either way, it’s a critical stage because its where relationships are formed.
Without solid relationships, a leader cannot effectively lead.
You might have some turnover and rocky times, but it’s thrilling in a way you have never experienced.
2. The ‘Adversity’ Stage
Every leader experiences this phase differently but I haven’t found a leader who completely escapes it. The most common cause in my experience has been over-enthusiasm during the ‘getting to know you’ stage. In the delirious rush of building relationships and understanding the business, it's easy to miss subtle warning signs that things might not be as good as you thought.
Your team’s performance doesn’t meet expectations. You have people who you now consider friends that you have to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations with. You are constantly trying to keep up energy and momentum of the team up because regardless of your industry, growing is hard.Or conversely, your team took off like gangbusters soon after taking the reigns. You hit this stage much later during the first signs of adversity.
Either way, the adversity stage either makes or breaks a leader. It builds their knowledge and self-awareness that they have to do a better job as a leader or they decide being in a leadership position isn’t a good fit for them altogether. The leaders who make the choice to persevere and overcome the challenges of leading other people, are typically the ones who end up making the biggest impact on the lives of other people over the long-term.
3. The ‘Thriving’ Stage
The uncomfortable fact about the adversity phase is that it never really stops. There is never any permanent calm after the storm. What happens instead is that leaders learn how to overcome the challenges in front of them and handle each situation much better than they would have previously.
It's in the 'thriving' stage where you have figured out exactly the type of person who fits your culture and you get more hires right than wrong. Your core values and standards have taken hold and people are bought in. Their choices and behaviors reflect their commitment to the team and performing at the highest level becomes the norm. You deeply understand the business landscape you operate in and your ability to train and develop other people is where you thrive.
Yes, the adversity and daily challenges keep coming, but like a battleship in a storm, you know you are the type of leader who can withstand it and excel over the long term.
My challenge to you today is regardless of what stage of leadership you are in, don't give up and put in the work to become the very best leader you can be. I have never seen a time in my career where we need more great leaders in our organizations than today and I believe you can be great wherever you are getting the opportunity to lead.
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