I heard a phrase a while ago that stuck with me. It describes that familiar figure, the individual who stumbles into leadership–a stumble often caused because they are pushed. This person didn’t set out to lead, but because they were good at their functional specialty, they found themselves getting promoted, getting more responsibility, getting direct reports until suddenly…wow, they’re a manager who leads.
They’re accidental leaders. Given the responsibility but often not the support. Given the title but often not the training. And there are tens of thousands of them. They are really good at their functional expertise – they’re great architects or engineers or chemists or whatever they excel in – but they struggle with the demands of leadership.
So what should managers who lead do?
1. Understand the best way to get things done as close to plan as possible. Managers are tasked with converging together planning and execution. The best way to get things done is to manage the people who are responsible for doing those things. Now for Accidental Leaders, this is often the most difficult area: they may have little idea of the skills associated with successful people management, but to do their jobs they need to have these leadership skills.
2. Develop their skills to lead task focused teams which have to deliver against identified criteria in a timely way and within agreed parameters such as cost, consumed resource and so on. Managers live constantly in the here and now with short time horizons.
Leaders, on the other hand, are different. These folk don’t manage much. They aren’t responsible for here and now. Instead, they look into the future and try to decide where the company should go next. They get their positions because they’re good at forward thinking, not necessarily because they’re good at leading into the future. So just like managers, they may need some help around the leadership elements of the role.
Companies constantly need to change – change direction, change product mix, acquire, divest, expand, contract. Leaders decide what changes to make to keep the company growing, viable, vibrant. These leaders are divergent thinkers, seekers of new paths, creators of new shapes, who must persuade or inspire others that their vision is credible and achievable.
So what should leaders focus on?
1. Change is about difference–and people need to be inspired to be different, need the courage to be different, need the insight to be different. So leading change has to be inspirational, brave and insightful. You have to model the change!
2. Divergence is about possibilities, about seeing why something might work, not why it might not work. So optimism and a willingness to live with ambiguity and uncertainty are really helpful leader skills which teams will appreciate and to which they will respond.
So you see you can be an accidental leader whether you’re holding down a convergent or a divergent role. But the leadership skills you’ll require and the leader challenges you’ll face will be very different.
So here’s my thought: if you’re an accidental leader struggling with the challenges of the role into which you’ve been thrust, don’t just grab desperately at the first Leadership program or MBA that comes your way. Decide what sort of team you’re leading. Understand what sort of leadership you should be providing. Reflect on what skills you lack. Then find the right structured support to help you deliver those skills.
You might be an Accidental Leader, but you can find a purposeful solution.
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