A New Role for Emerging Leaders

by Dr. Chuck Stoner
Bradley University

Young leaders must learn to work through others to be successful in a team setting.

My new book is written for emerging leaders—young men and women, still in their twenties and thirties, who are experiencing their initial forays into the challenges of leading others. Emerging leaders may be asked to guide a project team, head a special assignment, coordinate a group of peers or take responsibility for a group of direct reports. In many cases, it is a mixed role. That is, emerging leaders are often called to lead others while maintaining responsibilities as individual performers.

Assuming the mantle of leadership, one is not graced with an immediate and profound transformation of insight, emerging full-blown and full-grown—a leader in every way. In fact, emerging leaders face a series of transitions as they step into new roles. Yet none are more critical or daunting than the transition from being an outstanding individual performer—the “doer”—to being an orchestrator and coordinator who can get things done through others.

The Splendid Splinter
Ted Williams may have been the most gifted pure hitter to ever play the game of baseball. Through raw talent, an incredible work ethic and plain old, dogged determination, Williams defined excellence. He finished his career with an unbelievable .344 lifetime batting average. He hit .316 or better for 19 of his 20 seasons, and was the last player to hit over .400 for a season. With definitive punctuation, he even hit a home run in his last career turn at bat. Soon after his retirement, Williams was asked to manage—to lead young players to the same lofty levels he had achieved.

By nearly all accounts, Williams struggled as a leader. With a bias toward understatement, let’s just say that the same intensity and single-minded focus that had led to personal success as a player did not quite connect with the less talented players who comprised his teams. He was impatient with their development, and had little understanding and even less respect for the idiosyncratic nature of pitchers—a breed of player he had hated as a hitter.

In many ways, the keys to successfully leading a baseball team—understanding unique personalities, developing players across a range of talents, making nuanced decisions based on the unique context of the game—were skills and qualities Williams had never really worried about and certainly had not honed. As an individual performer, Williams rightfully earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. As a leader, it was a new game.

A New Stage for Star Performers
Williams’ story is common. It’s the story of every outstanding individual performer who struggles to carry success to a broader team or unit. It’s also the story of a young man, Mark (not his real name). Armed with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Mark was a brilliant addition to the research arm of his company. With fierce determination and an analytic, problem-solving mind, Mark was lauded for his ability to bring creative, winning contributions to perplexing projects. Not surprisingly, Mark was only 29 when he was elevated to the position of team leader. Here, he was challenged to harness the talents of a five-person team to find solutions to a troubling product concern.

As I met Mark, he was reeling, stunned by devastating feedback from his peers and a biting performance appraisal from his boss. In short, all reviews portrayed Mark as arrogant, intimidating and dismissive, and the young superstar was now being eyed carefully as a flawed leader who was unable to deliver.

Interacting with Mark, one would quickly conclude that, indeed, he was arrogant, intimidating and dismissive. He was also thoroughly competent and quick, seeing design issues and problems earlier and more clearly than his peers. However, he had little patience in waiting for others to catch up. He showed his irritation through nonverbal displays that clearly projected his disgust with less adept colleagues. Even more damning, Mark projected a “winning-at-all costs” attitude. If pushing the best or “right” answer meant a pointed exchange with colleagues, he welcomed it. Through intellectual force, he could bully folks into submission, forcing his views to prevail. Interestingly, his views were usually correct.

For Mark, the qualities of intensity and fierce determination to succeed had been the foundations for his individual success. Yet, when played out within a team/leader context, he created frustration and resentment from those he needed to encourage to stretch in meeting challenging project demands.

Now here is the key: Mark had not changed. But he was now performing on a different stage, a stage upon which he had not previously walked. And when the curtain went up, he floundered. When stepping into the realm of leadership, the playing field had changed. It was more complex, more nuanced, and most critically, it was decidedly not self-centric.

Three Considerations for New Leaders
Harvard researcher Linda Hill argues that new leaders typically face a “profound psychologic al adjustment” as they must “unlearn deeply held attitudes and habits they had developed when they were responsible simply for their own performance.” This adjustment or transition demands at least three considerations.

First, personal and individualistic thinking must be buttressed by collective thinking. Rugged individualism has its place, but only if it is carefully coupled with a sound belief in the significance of others. Second, the capacity to understand and work through others to achieve outcomes must take center stage. Personal ego may need to be held in check. You may have to gear your pace to others and their capacity to assimilate information. Third, as a new leader, you must assume a new role and responsibility in the growth and development of your people. You must help them grow and reach their potential. You must be the one who aligns your people with projects and tasks that allow them to stretch without failing. You must be the “ear,” available to help allay stress. You must be the coach who points the way and encourages development. And you must grasp, intellectually and psychologically, that all of this is your new agenda. iBi

Dr. Chuck Stoner is professor of management and leadership at Bradley University. His ninth book, Building Leaders: Paving the Path for Emerging Leaders, co-authored by his son, Dr. Jason Stoner, was published in December 2012.


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