“It Finally Hit Me — I Have to Learn All-New Skills” – Mark Leheney

It was a pleasant lunch. As usual in this business, the conversation was around leadership, organizations and culture.

The point was made for the umpteenth time in my life that the federal government often promotes people into supervisory positions who are very skilled technically, but not very good in managing people.

I invoked one of my favorite expressions from Dan Goleman, who quoted one person in such a position who said: “It finally hit me – I have to learn all-new skills.”

One of the diners said, “You know, in my life I’ve had to do that several times.”

It was a succinct, yet powerful statement. No one should overlook or underestimate its significance.

The power in this approach to work and life resides in the adaptability, resilience and change-readiness it is based on. It proves an openness, a yielding to the rhythms of life, and a proper location of subject and object. It is also a way to facilitate movement through the stages of adult development. (See Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner for an excellent treatment of this topic.)

It is a stance of behaviorally being able to let go of things that may have worked, even for decades. It means stepping into uncertainty, risk and even fear. What if it doesn’t work? What if you fail?

Yet the circumstances of our work and lives demand sometimes that we change, even when we may not want to, or like what the change represents. It is the difference between, as Viktor Frankl put it, asking what you want out of life versus asking what life wants from you.

There is no need to belabor the point on resistance to change. We see it frequently; much less often in ourselves, where it is so easy to get up each day and pretty much do what we did the day before – no matter that the context and demands of the environment have changed.

I offered that I have experienced more than a few leaders in workshops and coaching who have proclaimed as soon as we started: “I’ve been at this (insert number of) years, know what I’m doing and I’m not changing.” This is often accompanied by a folding of the arms. Resistance, even stubbornness, thinking that since you have a hammer, every problem must be a nail, rigidity – all these characterize the opposite.

Here are some examples of the kind of deep, personal change I’m talking about — which happen to be essential for leadership in most settings:

  • Micromanaging versus granting autonomy
  • Trusting versus not trusting (very hard if you’ve been burned)
  • Learning to look for strengths instead of weaknesses
  • Asking for feedback versus making it clear you are the only one who will give feedback to subordinates
  • Admitting mistakes and weaknesses (and what you learned from them) versus “the need to be right”
  • Thinking of the impact of your actions on others versus just executing tasks
  • Seeing others’ resistance as information versus something that is wrong and to be shut down

Erik Erikson said that during the bulk of our working years, human beings experience either generativity or stagnation. Generativity is creating, giving back, yielding, accepting and living. Stagnation is not knowing what to do when your moves no longer work, when your program is out of gas. It is the state of being stuck.

Are there any all-new skills you need to learn? Hint: Look at the your chronic, recurring, patterned problems. Start there

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Peter Sperry

Some times we may have to reverse some of these lessons. One of the most difficult adjustments I had to make as a National Guard NCO was taking over a platoon that required micromanagment. I had been used to working with soldiers and subordinate NCOs who could be led with a very light touch, often just a review of upcoming training schedules and objectives was enough to keep them on track. The new platoon had several members who couldn’t make it to weekend drill unless I called them at least twice during the month and they were some of the better soldiers. Every last item had to be inspected multiple times or it would be dirty, broken etc. Squad and team leaders viewed paperwork as a chore they couldn’t be bothered with. I started out thinking my job was to lead this platoon they way I always had, with a light advisory mannor. The company commander made clear that his expectation was for me to change this group. Becoming an authoritarian was not easy, I was never became expert at it; but we finally passed all required individual and small unit proficiency tests. Not a learning experience I want to repeat.

Wyatt Kash

Hi Jarar,

I liked your comments. Was wondering if you’d be willing to share them with the readers of AOL Government, which launches next month. Let me know. Best,

Patricia Paul

I had to learn to let go and trust others to work with me on a big project. At a company that I used to work for, we had won a very large IDIQ with the Army and RFQ’s were coming in quickly and needed responses. It was also just a few weeks from some much needed vacation and I was wondering how I was going to pull this off and make sure that the company did not miss out on responding to RFQ’s.

I was used to “doing it myself” and it had worked for a long time in my sales career. But as I went over options, the only viable ones included building a team to handle this large project on my plate. For me, that meant delegating and trusting. I had to step out of my comfort zone and learn the art of delegation. It was incredibly eye opening and successful right from the start. And I learned (though it wasn’t the easiest step to make) that you have to delegate, check in and trust the team (or determine other team members).

I learned this in that famous school of “OJT”.

Kitty Wooley

Jarar, I like everything about this post, and hope it will attract many more readers, including any federal leaders who think they have arrived and have no more need to learn.

If you have a Twitter account and would like to be added to a list I started at @kwooleyy/self-efficacy; please let me know.

If you or anyone else who commented here would be interested in submitting a guest post for my blog, please send me a direct message so we can discuss the parameters.

Paul Alberti

I attended the Treasury Executive Institutes seminar yesterday, the presenter was Rajeev Peshawaria, talking about his book “Too many Bosses, Too few Leaders”. An insightful session; his premise was we spend $60 -$90 billion a year on leadership courses, but still complain about the lack of leadership in corporations and government. I have not completed the book yet, but he proposes a set of six questions that we should be asking ourselves about what we really want to do and what our individual values are. If you have your own vision and really understand your values – leadership while not easy is more focused. His premise makes sense from what I have so far read. Maybe not everyone who is in leadership positions should be there; we probably do a poor job assessing the right person for leadership positions.
I would be interested to hear anyone’s response if they have read the book, or have any experience with Rajeev’s work.

Kitty Wooley

Paul, thanks for sharing that – I haven’t read the book and was wondering about it. Your take this subject makes sense to me.

Dale S. Brown

Thank you Patricia Paul and Peter Sperry for being so specific about your exprience. If I am a leader, I try to communicate the way my “followers” need to recieve. And to listen, watch, learn, and respond. I have had to learn to let go- and learn to give clear directions (which I thought of as micromanagement, but turned out to be needed and useful.)

Carol Davison

Fabulous article.

Paul I’ve heard it said that the Federal government (like all organizaitons?) is over managed and under led.

Paul Alberti

Carol, I would say like all large organizations, we have a tendency to over manage and under lead. I have had an intersting email dialouge with several friends over the last two weeks on leadership and what makes a good leader. It has been frustrating in part; what we have not resolved is how do we get more good leaders? I am not sure there is a single formula for success there, but we should be able to do a better job developing good leaders in any size organization.