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Let’s say you just got the call from your boss, superior, or higher-up. They see enough potential in you to take the next step and give you the reins to lead. The only problem? Those you are now expected to lead are those you’ve built relationships with—your friends, your confidants, and your equals. And the next time you step into the room as the leader of your peers is the defining moment that will determine the course of your leadership. That is what I call the “moment of conversion.”
The moment of conversion can be an awkward transition that often must take the form of what’s called an “incorporeal” transformation—the type of transformation where nothing about you changes physically, but everything must change about you mentally. In most cases in an organization, this process plays out over time. But in many cases, it can play out overnight. It’s in this moment as a new leader when your reputation is most critically at stake.
In The Art of Leading Laterally, we discussed the critical art of leading your peers. It is a remarkably difficult form of leadership in which you must walk the tightrope of careful relationship-building, ego-reduction, and tactfulness. Make one wrong move as a peer-leader, and everyone could turn on you. But if you play your cards right, your moment of conversion to “leader” should not be very difficult—your peers will already see you as leadership material. In their minds, your moment of conversion is inevitable. But the hardest work to be done is in convincing yourself that you are worthy of leading them.
On January 20th, when a U.S. Senator becomes Vice-President, she is instantly, literally overnight, elevated to the highest office in the land. In an instant, she has to undergo a transformation of both higher status in the public eyes, and higher accountability to her former colleagues. Nothing about her changes physically. She didn’t gain any type of superpower, or grow out of herself like a butterfly. The work to navigate such a challenging conversion is entirely within her own mind.
As a restaurant manager-in-training, I always knew the call was going to come one day. Everybody in the restaurant knew the call was going to come. And when it did, it was the most challenging moment of leadership that I experienced during my time there. In my short time of being a semi-coworker, I had built friendships and camaraderie with a lot of the employees. I hadn’t had to bear the burden of enforcing punishment or making critical decisions. I was just “one of them.” But when it came time for me to officially lead them, I was timid. I was afraid to step on their toes. My instinct was to treat them as organizational equals. I was too “buddy-buddy” with them, and if this dynamic were to play out over days and weeks, there would have been no way to earn back my authority or their respect. Fortunately, I was saved by a critical moment in my first weekend as manager, when I was forced to confront the biggest problem the restaurant had. By taking decisive action, I cemented my moment of conversion, and earned respect from my former peers as not only their peer, but now as their leader.
Not every new leader will have that type of critical moment that defines their leadership going forward. So, here are a few useful things I wish I knew, if I could go back and do it again:
- Accept that you are now the leader. Acceptance is always the first step, and in your mind, you must commit to holding yourself to a higher standard.
- Have a plan. Having a concrete course of action can serve to lesson the friction. It can cover up the awkwardness. Like a script, it will keep you from wavering.
- Be clear and concise in your direction. It’s not good enough to just have a plan. Being direct in what you expect will send a clear message to your former peers of confidence and competence. This draws a clear line in the sand.
- Be humble, be open to feedback, and listen. This is the easy part. As a peer, this was likely a big part of your relationships. Just because you’ve elevated to leader status doesn’t mean you should become arrogant and stop listening.
- Lead. Nothing creates more clarity than through action. The best way to navigate the moment of conversion in your head is to get out of your head.
Your moment of conversion is here. You haven’t changed, but you are a new person. There is no time to stumble out of the gates. Hit the ground running and take it in stride. Everyone is looking to you.
You are now the leader.
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