Can we get it right before we get it wrong?
I may have mentioned in previous blogs that leadership is difficult, you are leading people who come with a whole set of variables which are constantly changing. If we were building a wall there would be a set of steps to take that we would follow to the letter, each and every time, based on scientific research. Providing those steps were followed to the letter we would always end up with the perfect wall. What if, however, we followed the steps to the letter and half way through the surface we were building our wall on changed from concrete to sand? We would have to make adjustments or start again. A very experienced bricklayer would undoubtedly be able to spot the problem early, make the necessary adjustments and save the wall, but how did the bricklayer become experienced enough to know this? My guess is that said bricklayer built many a wall and started over and over again many times before becoming the wall saver bricklayer.
Your new practitioners will maybe try things over and over again before reaching the stage of being able to spot the problem early, make the necessary adjustments and save the wall. My question today is does the same rule apply to leadership? As new leaders do we allow ourselves the same ‘mistake making’ time or are we expected and expecting to be the perfect leader the minute we hold the title?
The wrong shop rule applies to leadership as to every other profession only I think as leaders we should be making the judgement call that leadership is really not for me and I think I am in the wrong shop. Being an excellent practitioner does not make you an excellent leader, but deciding leadership is not for you does not take away your title as excellent practitioner.
The other rule which applies to all professions is conscious competence. As a new practitioner or brick layer you read the job description, you listen carefully at induction and maybe you read your staff handbook containing all of the policies and procedures. Would we then expect those people to never make a mistake or ask a question? Absolutely not, in fact the exact opposite, we patiently show them, we guide them, remind them and show them again. Because we recognise that they only know what they know and they may not know they are unconsciously incompetent (we may use softer language when pointing this out). Once they realise they are incompetent they become very conscious of it; would we bring out the stick to beat them? No, again the exact opposite ‘it’s ok, let me show you’ may be your response. Whilst they are gaining the confidence within that area they may make mistakes or feel awkward and clumsy but they are learning, and you accept that they are becoming consciously competent. As their confidence grows they begin building the wall without thinking about it, able to problem solve and without the need to process every element, hence they become unconsciously competent. This cycle of learning we accept in almost every industry except leadership.
My theory surrounding this is people, and people are not very forgiving generally. Once a person takes the title of leader the expectations of the people who yesterday were peers increase and so too do the expectations we have of ourselves. How can we allow ourselves to make a mistake, ask a question for clarification we are now a leader? Unfortunately, as with anything else, there is no magic plug in the wall you can attach yourself to and be filled with all of the answers, the knowledge and the skills, you have to learn.
I have known lots of people who had great leadership potential, moved into a leadership role but by the time they reached unconscious competence felt they needed to move to another setting because they had made mistakes and could not personally recover from it within the same team.
I want to suggest a few statements to see what you think:
- It is ok for a leader not to have all of the answers to all of the questions all of the time
- It is acceptable for a leader to make mistakes
- Asking for clarification, support and guidance as a leader is a sign of strength not weakness
- There are no scientifically proven steps to leadership which work in almost every situation
- We are not accountable to our team only our leaders, we are however accountable for them
- It is almost impossible to get it right before we get it wrong
My only words of warning with the above statements would be:
- There is no such thing as a silly question – but ask the right person (start asking your team and they lose confidence in you)
- You can legitimately ask your team for their input into a situation, but remember you are in charge
- If asked a question and you are not sure of the answer, simply say ‘I think I will just double check that first’ – however always remember to go back
- If you make a mistake – own it – it is how you present it that matters, ‘on reflection’, ‘after doing further research’, ‘I spoke with…’ If you start saying to your team ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I was wrong’, again the team will lose confidence in you
- Nobody knows what is going on inside your head, you may feel nervous or uncomfortable, but wear the mask and hold your head high
There is a great leader to be discovered, but they do not appear with the name badge, give yourself a break, trust me, 20 years as a leader and I still need to ask a question or two.