Episode #57: What If I Don't Want to Step Into Leadership?
So how do you know if you want to step into leadership? That's what we will talk about today in this episode of the Midlife Career Rebel.
I remember talking with a client before we started our work together, and she told me that she wanted to work with me to promote to a leadership position. When I asked her why, her reasoning was, "why not? Isn't that what's next?" There was also this idea that if she didn't pursue her obvious next step, that it meant she wasn’t on track or was throwing away her career.
Well, I think there’s an assumption that stepping into a leadership role is only pathway to career success. But honestly, that depends on how you define success for yourself. And listen, while there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a leadership role it’s not the only path way to success. I mean most people in professional positions like law, medicine, accounting, engineering, or IT don’t necessarily have to be the heads of something to be able to make an impact in their careers. This “climb the ladder” mentality is very much alive and present in most corporate, academic leadership, and administrative structures.
But instead of focusing on titles, I think it’s important to focus on individual goals and values. For some success is found through achieving a high level of expertise or mastery in their field, or defined by having a positive impact on their community or for some it’s the ability to do impactful work while still having the ability to pursue personal passions and interests.
Throughout my career I’ve always been pushed into leadership roles because, as I’ve been told, I exude leadership qualities; and I was also really good at whatever it was I was doing. It was complimentary, but never really something I’ve desired for myself. Now, we have a history of promoting the top performers into leadership roles without training or coaching them into being effective leaders, which is whole other road we can go down, but I want to stay on this topic here.
So, based on well meaning mentors I took on various leadership roles serving as a director for a few companies and even as an associate dean. And in both roles I was being groomed to step into VP levels roles and even becoming a provost, but the problem was I had a love/hate relationship with my leadership status. On the one hand, I do love to being control and make decisions that will have wide lasting impact. But on the other hand, I didn’t enjoy managing budgets, people, the constant meetings, and basically all of the administrative responsibilities that came with leadership. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, it just didn’t align with my values, interests or strengths.
The one thing I did enjoy about being an attorney is that in many ways we’re all leaders because we managed our cases and were fully responsible for all aspects of it and we had sufficient support with legal assistants and other support staff to be effective. The other role I really enjoyed was my time as an HR Director for a small transportation company. What I loved most about that role was that I created the department for them, which included creating the compensation plans, training and development programs, executive leadership program, on boarding and out-boarding policies, compliance systems, and more. I reported directly to the President and he valued my input and advice and would alway back my initiatives because he know whatever I suggested for the betterment of the company.
So why did I love that leadership position over the others? First and foremost, one my deepest and most important personal values is freedom. I thrive working independently with a focus and purpose. I don’t like red tape or bureaucracy, I don’t like making decisions by committee, and I don’t feeling restricted or constrained to do my work or what I think is best. Knowing that, it’s probably not shocking that I work for myself.
But the point I’m trying to make here is that if you’re wondering if leadership is for you, make sure you secure a leadership position that aligns with your values, interests, and strengths, don’t just focus on the title or succumb to the misguided notion that the right next move for you is a leadership position. Without this level of self-examination you’ll end up in a leadership role that you may struggle in because you’re out of alignment, or worse, you'll think something’s wrong with you or that you’re not an effective leader.
Ultimately, career success is about finding fulfillment and satisfaction in your work, and that can be achieved through a variety of different paths, and maybe even through leadership, if it’s the right type of leadership role for you.
So let’s start with the obvious first question, why do you want to be in a leadership role? Then ask yourself what kind of leader do you want to be? And finally, what do you want your leadership to look like?
These are three core questions you must deeply explore before you go after or even accept an offer of a leadership position. And listen, I know the title, money and benefits that come with moving up the ranks can be a big temptations, but find the title, money, and benefits that come with the right leadership role for you, like did when I was an HR Director. None of that will mean anything if you’re miserable.
So consider the other ways you show as a leader in your career without having a formal leadership title.
If you want to be in leadership because you want to be an example for the next generation and be in a position to guide their futures, you can be a mentor. Share your knowledge and expertise with other colleagues or the next generation, guiding them through difficult choices and situations, and helping them grow and develop in their lives and careers.
You can also share your insights and expertise in your field and industry through articles, blogs, podcasts, or social media posts as a thought leadership. Think about the guru’s you read, quote, and follow because of their knowledge and wisdom. You can be that for so many others worldwide. This will give you leverage and the ability to influence practices and policies within not just your organization but your entire industry.
Maybe you like having temporary ownership of project or initiative and for a prescribed amount of time you’re providing direction committee members, inspiring them to meet objectives and goals, and making sure you complete your task within or under budget. And then when the project, committee, or initiative is over, you can either go back to what you’re doing or can seek out another project or initiative to lead. For some people this type of situational leadership is the perfect type because it allows you to demonstrate your leadership skills and make a meaningful impact without the formal strings and long-term responsibilities of a full-time leadership position.
This is why knowing the answer to three questions I posed is so important because it will help to guide your decisions and lead you to the right place.
I had a client who was trying to promote into a director level position within her company, because she believed it was the right next step for her career, and was frustrated when she was passed over. But after she got crystal clear on her answer to those three key questions and thought about your deep non-negotiable values and the impact she wanted to make, she discovered a completely new career direction and became a Chief of Staff. Why? Because how she likes to lead and what was aligned to her values was found in that role and way of being a leader, then being a director over a division.
Maybe your leadership is demonstrated by fostering collaboration and teamwork and positively influencing others, building relationships, and encouraging cooperation. Maybe your style of leadership is leading from within a team or department. To be the one that creates a culture of mutual support and collectively winning.
Or maybe you’re an advocate for change and you don’t want to be shackled with the formalities of leadership because then you can’t be free to raise awareness, encourage action, and lead large scale initiatives for change; whether they’re inside our outside of your organization.
Now, if on the other hand you realize you want to promote into higher levels of leadership, then again I invite you to weigh the attributes of a good leader to your values, interest and zone of genius. Too often organizations promote the hard worker or the high producer without exploring whether or not they’re truly qualified to be an effective leader. But remember, people don’t leave organizations, they leave shitty managers, and when that happens, the company is left with a dilemma about what to do with a good work and high performer that’s driving people away.
So, if you’re thinking leadership is for me consider whether these key attributes are in your wheel house.
Do you have a clear and compelling vision for the future (not just for yourself but for the department you want to run and those working in it) and can you clearly communicate that vision in a way that inspires and motivates?
Do you have strong communication skills including active listening, giving feedback, clearly and concisely articulating ideas, and communicating your expectations effectively?
Are you empathetic? Meaning you can connect with other, understanding their needs and concerns and providing a space of trust. Empathy has become a must have critical leadership skill since the pandemic.
What’s your level of vulnerability and accountability? Do you take responsibilities for your mistakes? Are you willing to make mistakes and allow others to make mistakes too?
Adaptability and agility are must-have skills to lead in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment in which we currently find ourselves. The agility to pivot in a new direction once new information is received is essential.
Are you decisive or do you have a hard time making decisions? Are you willing to take risks to achieve successful outcomes?
Are you a critical and strategic thinker? Where there’s some level of charisma necessary to be a relatable leader, it’s not nearly as important as having the ability to think critically and strategically. In fact, CEO’s have collectively agreed that critical thinking skills are becoming very hard commodity to find in most employees and leaders.
Are you a team player, able to collaborate effectively with stakeholders, other departments, and even your own team? Can you easily build relationships, negotiating effectively, and collectively work toward a common goal?
How’s your resiliency? Can easily bounce back from setbacks and failures? Do you see setbacks and failures as learning opportunities or do you think it means you’re ineffective? Resiliency is key.
This is a good list to use to not only assess your own skill levels, but most importantly your values and interests levels. Because just because you can do something doesn’t mean you want to be in an environment or situation where you have to do it (or be challenged by it) all the time.
You can also ask for feedback from trusted colleagues and those who are familiar with how you work to help you clarify any blind spots you may not have noticed or seen in yourself. Did I mention self-awareness is another important leadership skills to have?
If you do decide leadership is for you, just be clear on the type of position that’s right for you, particularly before you go to your manager and express an interest in being promoted. If you’re not clear (a key leadership skill) you may end up in a leadership role, but in one that’s not quite the right fit for you.
The bottom line is, just be honest with yourself and confident in whatever decision you decide to make. Because it’s not about what other’s think or believe about where you need to be in your career or the positions they think are right for you….it’s about what YOU believe.
Deciding whether or not to pursue a leadership role is a personal decision that depends on your interests, goals, and values. While leadership can offer many opportunities for personal and professional growth, it is not the only path to career success.
You can exercise your leadership skills in many ways without being in a formal leadership role, so knowing yourself and what you want is really the bottom line. So choose wisely.
Our company does A LOT of leadership development and coaching for senior-level and executive women. Some are pursuing more significant leadership roles, and others are trying to answer these questions for themselves. It’s because we work on both ends of the spectrum, that makes us so good at supporting women achieve either endeavor.
Whether helping an organization construct a powerful talent optimization program that fosters the advancement of inclusive leadership or coaching women directly on their path, reach out and let us know which support you need.
That's it for this episode, Rebels. Until next time, have an amazingly rebellious week!! See you soon.