From Technocrat to Leader

February 16, 2021
by Daniela Kissova

If you have been launched into a leadership role in your organization without any preparation whatsoever this article is for you. Whether you are a sales person about to become a manager, a professor becoming a provost, or a lawyer moving to a partnership role, you may be asking yourself “have I got it to be in that role?”. As a high-achieving professional you may be tempted to think that:

What got you here will get you further. Not really.  

Many thriving professionals are in fact not promoted because they are too good at what they do. While this is a platitude widely known in large organizations, its ramifications are underestimated. When you are valued and recognized for what you are good at, you are less likely to spend time on new capabilities. Either you think you don’t have it in you, hence - why waste time trying to obtain it,or you might think you don’t need it, because it will dilute your professional profile. In any case, a typical organization generally incentivizes the dialing up of existing strengths, rather than dialing them down and incentivizing the buildup of new ones, through the untrodden path.

“Soft Skills”

People skills - the must of leadership –continue to be massively undervalued in corporations as something ‘not serious enough’. An inborn people-pleaser trait, perhaps, that has no tangible relationship to the bottom-line of the business goals. Therein lies the mistake.

When organizations promote people for technical skills, they reinforce their past. As a leader, your organizational value will come from building people for the long haul and not merely to manage deals.  

If we stopped calling “people skills” soft,we would allow for more appreciation of the effort that needs to go into building long-term capacity in organizations, sustained by human talent. As business is made of people, when those same individuals are not engaged and led well, there is no amount of skill-building that will do the trick and make your company successful.

Add the millennial employee factor that emphasizes on the appreciation of happiness and impact before pay, and you cannot stress enough the importance of “softness” in your organizational people leading arsenal. If you are a business owner who employs millennials, you know you cannot shame them for abusing work time or failing your expectations because their threshold of pain from criticism is nil. What that means is that you have to use sufficient and conscious amounts of patience, and charms before you start measuring achievement or success.  

The Inner Shift

While the ingredients of good leadership are hard to turn into a structured data sheet, there are two key traits that testify that a professional is ready to be a leader – TRUST and CONNECTION.

When a results-oriented professional can delegate and engage, rather than be obsessed with delivery, they are making the shift. How that shift is accomplished is not a trivial matter as it runs counter to all known rewards and hides many risks. Underneath the strivings of an upcoming leader who wants to move forward, there often lie many arguments for “why not”. While they are barely audible sometimes, their power to lead people astray cannot be underappreciated. They are vested in deep beliefs about one self and expose well masked limitations that may look like strong values, such as “perfection”, “excellence” at surface level. Such values create good behaviors,which are hard to supplant in favor of something murkier such as “creating good working environment”, “active listening”, attentiveness, or “communication skills”.

What makes that shift possible is one key attitude – reorientation from result to process.  In other words, one’s attention switches from being a shining star of achievement to leading through building others – their confidence, sense of presence and responsibility.

First Things First – the ‘Who’ of Leadership

To move from thinking and delivering as a manager to thinking and acting as a leader takes a deep attitude change. It starts with seeing yourself as a leader, hearing yourself as a leader and feeling as one in the gut.  

Easier said than done!

These three modalities of self-awareness can be activated by asking yourself the question:

“Who am I becoming through that role?”

Make no mistake – you were not chosen to rise in order to stay the same.  Addressing that question is usually a process and not a one-off answer. We are too tempted to think of leadership from the western, post-worldwar paradigm of “winning” to a zero-sum result. What that entails is privileged few and many listeners. That is also why the word “leader” is steeped in a taint of political blunder, materialism, avarice and plain human folly. Imagine figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Tony Hayward, Mark Zukerberg, Elon Musk, and Travis Kalanick. That probably brought up for you associations of technocratic genius, people and ideas blended together for glory and greatness, some hubris, and eventually blunders. These all evoke a formidable greatness in the foreground with a tenuous connection to their background.

The New Leader

While we are used to leadership of shock and awe that brings drama, clouded perception, and sometimes victimhood, the next leadership paradigm is around what we are, collectively. What can we create and where we can move together? Even COVID 19 aftermath is dissolving in that one question “what are we together and apart”? Because of the glorious undertones of the old paradigm, it is not yet completely clear that leaders should now really lead from behind, so they don’t create events, but participate in co-creation of new circumstances. Ultimately, it is about shaping a collective culture.

Two Key Behaviors: Trust and Connection

If you feel more comfortable in your new role with each passing day, you are probably doing two things each of those days – trusting and being trustworthy, and connecting. For your former colleagues to follow you – see you, hear you, and accept you, you cannot be towering above. You are not delivering solutions, but caring for and about your people. You are not evaluating staff, you are attending to connections. You are not showing your brains, but letting your heart beat to the rhythm of the whole.

Key behaviors here are 1) presence, 2) attention, and 3) patience.

Before you set a task for your people to deliver on, you need to have connected with them and tended the field for fertile communication. You must be somewhere in the middle, spending time linking people and ideas, enabling the communication space, fostering understanding, applying common language, and keeping a pulse on the collective space – i.e. ‘feeling’ those connections.

How a Leader Thinks: “My Team First”.

The shift from thinking of oneself as a unit for promotion to an ecologist of a complex ecosystem is not trivial. To see yourself as a part of a bigger whole takes courage, a strong self, and emotional intelligence. You cannot fear that you will lose yourself in it. On the contrary, you begin to recognize and see yourself as a reflection of the big system, appreciating everyone’s unique ability to make a contribution. You do not drive results, but capture value. One key quality you have at that place is discernment of everyone’s uniqueness, even if hidden, rather than focusing on your opportunity to shine as the gem that you are. When you see a part of you in everyone and allow for differentness, you know you have made the transition.

Be a Value Instigator rather than a Value Creator

At the next level of your career and in order to lead successfully, you will need to push boundaries, shake things up and not be afraid to differ orchange the status-quo.

You understand the mechanics of value creation and the prospects of disruption at every turn of the way. Taking into account that this disruption includes being able to disrupt yourself as well, you allow others tolead and initiate. What fuels value instigation is passion, courage and ability to step back and be wrong as the big answers that lead the way forward may becoming not from the obvious and big, but from the quiet and small; not from the head but from the gut; not from knowledge but from inspiration; not from the space of what’s possible, but from the far-flung areas of the impossible.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled,they will say: we did it ourselves”

– Lao Tzu

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