A learning curve is a natural part of just about everything we do. Learning to walk, children stumble and sometimes break things. Learning to play an instrument, we often miss a note. Learning to lead people has a learning curve too. It takes time, patience (from everyone involved), and practice. Lot’s of practice!
There is a distinct difference in my mind between leaders and managers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to the two together. The context I’m describing here includes the management of others – which ideally includes both management and leadership skills working together.
New leaders come from all backgrounds. Socio-economics, education, age, experience, technical proficiency, language, culture… Everyone starts from a unique place, but the journey of leadership has a number of universal constants.
First, no real person I’ve ever met or heard of starts off as an expert in leadership or management. Interacting with people is a full contact activity. Like all contact activities, we need contact to understand the full experience. No one learns to dance with a partner, play football, or wrestle by reading a book, looking in the mirror and pretending they’re getting the job done. Similarly, we can’t learn to be a leader by reading books or imagining what it is like to get the job done. Reading books helps for sure, but it’s no substitute for experience.
“Leadership is an emotional experience.”
Second, leadership is an emotional experience. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise hasn’t done it. Emotions can be one of our greatest tools. They give us the ability to feel empathy. Emotions can also be unpredictable and cause us grief. Understanding how we will react in various situations and learning to control our emotions is part of the leadership process.
Third, everyone on the leadership journey will confront incompetence, fear, and uncertainty in themselves. I personally think the journey of leadership, if taken on deliberately and with care, is the best self-help / maturation program available. When we lead, especially in government, we don’t get the choice to only lead the people we like. We get all kinds of people. This forces us to face our own weaknesses and adapt. Coaching and mentoring is a huge benefit to those who take on the leadership challenge.
In every case, emerging leaders will challenged by the people they lead and the organizations they operate in. Both the people we lead and organizations we are part of have different and often evolving expectations and needs. An effervescent leader may find themselves leading a technical whiz who needs help getting organized around solving technical problems. A technically dominant leader may find themselves leading someone who needs continual emotional support and encouragement. A young leader may find themselves leading people who are 2 or 3 times their age.
Once we start the leadership journey, it is normal to find ourselves starting over and over again. Each new assignment brings a new set of people, expectations, and a whole new set of skills and values we have to learn. Once we learn how to deal with one group or situation, something new comes up or the group changes. This cycle never stops.
It’s a fallacy to believe that new leader/managers are going to be good at what they are being asked to do right out of the gate. They will make mistakes. Those mistakes are both necessary and good. Mistakes are not something to be overly concerned about. How well the leader/manager and the organization responds to mistakes has a much more lasting effect on outcomes.
It makes good sense to give new leaders / managers some room to make necessary mistakes. They are learning. We should keep an eye on them, coach them, correct them, and hold them accountable, but recognize that true leadership is a process, not a title.