My first leadership experience is one I often share with my executive coaching clients:
I was very young — working my way through college — when I was put into my first leadership role. I had been waiting tables at an upscale Chicago restaurant as a way to supplement my income.
The restaurant owner, my boss at the time, recognized the leadership potential in me before I recognized it myself. He promoted me to restaurant manager, responsible for 20 other servers, most of whom were my friends, but not necessarily my peers. All of them were older and far more experienced than I was.
These people were professional waiters, and here I was, thrust into a position to manage them. I felt flattered and panicked at the same time.
In the process of assuming the role of leader, I lost myself. I didn’t realize it until a co-worker called me out on it. “Where’s Jody?” he asked one day, about three weeks into my reign. “Uhhh, I’m right here,” I responded.
“No, you’re not the same person you used to be. I really liked you before you became manager. Now, I feel like running and hiding when you enter the kitchen.”
In my mind, I was being an effective leader! I ran a tight ship. I belted out orders. People followed them. But they didn’t like me anymore. And I was grateful to my friend for pointing it out to me so I could adjust my style.
My transformation — from Jody to near-tyrant — is not uncommon among first-time leaders.
Latching on to power can be a way to compensate for insecurity. When we feel like we may not be good enough, we overcorrect through behaviors, actions and even language that make us feel mightier than we do inside.
We try to regain the control we think we lack — in ways that actually work against us.
5 Strategies for Keeping Power in Perspective
Successful leadership involves collaborating and communicating with the people on our teams, as I learned early in my professional journey.
Power, when used incorrectly, can sabotage your leadership effectiveness. Handled with finesse, however, power can allow the “real” you to lead with great impact.
How can you use power in a way to enhance your leadership potential?
- Preserve your authenticity — You were hired or promoted into a leadership position because of your inherent strengths. Continue to grow as a professional, but don’t change into someone you think you’re supposed to be — or adopt a leadership style that isn’t “you.” When I became a manager, my role models had all been characters in movies or on TV who exhibited authoritarian leadership traits. Lacking experience, I tried to morph myself into this type of leader. It wasn’t me — and it didn’t work for me.
- Cultivate empathy — Power can diminish a leader’s empathy, as a study led by Adam Galinsky, a professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found. His research found that “high-power individuals anchor too heavily on their own perspectives and demonstrate a diminished ability to correctly perceive others’ perspectives.” Empathy, one of the components of emotional intelligence, is essential to impactful leadership. Understanding another person’s vantage point — and how it feels to walk in their shoes — provides a leadership advantage, allowing you to communicate in a more profound way.
- Prioritize accountability — Because accountability isn’t a very sexy subject, it is often overlooked by leaders. Yet accountability builds the foundation for productive, engaged and cooperative teams. Leaders who understand the importance of making effective requests and delivering on promises get results. And it doesn’t stop there. When accountability is instilled as a “must” for every employee, regardless of title or position, it generates mutual trust. It also creates space for freedom. Within that space, great ideas are born.
- Become comfortable with conflict — Many leaders shy away from confrontation, but in doing so, miss out on opportunities for growth, progress and deeper connection. More importantly, they allow problems to fester, and often have a snowball effect. From resentment to employees walking out the door, avoiding crucial conversations can have significant — and dangerous — ramifications. Conflict isn’t inherently negative and can, in fact, lead to great progress.
- Understand power — Dictators dictate; leaders lead. There’s a big difference between the two. There is certainly a time to be directive; when your team is in a crisis or a quick decision needs to be made, there isn’t time for consensus. But always taking an authoritarian stance is the least effective leadership style. As a leader, you have the ability to teach, inspire and engage people. And that’s a powerful gift.
Without a “real-life” role model/mentor or the knowledge that leadership books and training existed, I learned by trial and error. My first — and most valuable — teacher: empathy. I considered how I would like to be led, how I would like to be spoken to and what would inspire me. Once I implemented that approach, I observed the results and made course corrections along the way.
Failing miserably at the onset of my initial leadership experience turned into an opportunity. I quickly and quietly began to mature, becoming an effective leader in a way that aligned with my authentic self.